The results are (mostly) in from last week’s mid-term election. The Democrats won back control of the House of Representatives with a net gain of somewhere between 30 and 39 seats (depending on final results in contests that were awaiting late mailed ballots and possible recounts), and the Republicans gained several Senate seats (one or two depending on the finalized re-counts in Florida). Democrats moods have ranged from relieved to disappointed; Republicans (led by President Trump) originally voiced a muted victory cheer, believing they survived what had been predicted to be a Blue Wave for months leading up to the election. As the dust settles, however, that cheer is only half-hearted, since the results now appear to look more Blue than Red by most counts.
But looking behind those hard data and the respective perspectives, what really happened and what does it really portend in terms of the now looming 2020 presidential election?
Let’s start with the obvious. By winning control of the House, the Democrats will now be able to stop legislative attempts to repeal Obamacare. They will also be able to thwart draconian immigration bills, inequitable tax reform, and any effort to build the wall. By adding to their majority in the Senate, the Republicans will be able to more easily affirm judicial nominees and cabinet appointments. They will also be able to defeat any bill initiated in the House that seeks to increase welfare benefits or that tries to reinvigorate environmental protections. Simply stated, the two legislative bodies will cancel each other out when partisan proposals gain initial approval in either house.
Objectively speaking, the results in that respect are a win for the Democrats because they are in a far better position than they were before the election, when they had essentially no power to start or stop any legislative initiative.
But if the Democrats won, it was hardly a 13-2 baseball blowout. And if you had bet on the pre-election odds that favored the Dems, your piggy bank probably a little less change in it now, which is why most Democrats are feeling something less than euphoric in the aftermath of the election.
The other reason for scaled down enthusiasm on the left is what the election results tell us about the viability of a Trump re-election in 2020. Yes, the Democrats showed some resilience in states critical to Trump’s 2016 victory. Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, the three states that most pundits agree put Trump over the top two years ago, now seem winnable again by a strong Democratic ticket. Of course, some would argue that they were winnable by a strong Democratic ticket in ’16, so maybe not all that much has even changed in those states. The more disheartening perspective for Democrats is that Trump remains exceedingly popular with his base, and that base appears to have grown, rather than shrunk as he has been the country’s fire-and-brimstone president. His approval ratings are now in the low 40s, which, while they aren’t the kind of ratings most incumbent presidents would take great joy in, are a few ticks better than the high 30s he was regularly pulling when he was first elected. And his support from that base is far from tepid.
As Rick Santorum noted as the Blue Wave dissipated on election night, “You can’t have a wave election when both sides are energized.” He’s right. And the same reasoning will apply in 2020 if Trump continues to have the solid support he currently has from his base. In other words, if nothing else changes the dynamics of the election in two years, Trump will be at least as unbeatable in the Electoral College (which, of course, is all that matters in the American democratic republic that our dear founders created) in 2020 as he was in 2016.
Many Democrats continue to be amazed that Trump has this amount of fervent loyalty. But they need to understand the reality of the American electorate. It is perhaps best summed up by Steve Schmidt, the ex-Republican insider. (Schmidt managed John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and has since renounced his party affiliation and become an MSNBC darling.) In the week preceding the election, as the news was all about the pipe bombs that had been sent to Trump critics by a Trump fanatic, Schmidt offered this perspective of the country: “We are in a Cold Civil War.”
The term is not all that far-fetched as a description of the divide in the country and the growing threat of violence that seems to be ever more possible as crowds at Trump rallies shout “Lock her up!” and cheer every anti-immigrant dog whistle Trump sounds. The anti-Semitic attack on the Pittsburgh temple last month may not have been Trump inspired, but his rhetoric is emboldening hate groups of all stripes. Even the more mainstream of his followers are becoming more outspoken and intolerant. I recently received a cartoon image of Dianne Feinstein made to appear like a wicked witch. The sender, an avid Trump supporter, referred to it as a Halloween message.
The left is not as venal in its expressions of intolerance, but it is just as distrustful and disrespectful from its perspective of those on the right. And so, even if Schmidt’s characterization of the state of the country is overly dramatic, it really isn’t all that far off base. We are a nation divided, as, perhaps, we have not been since the real Civil War.
How did we get to this point, with the alt right now the Trump base and the left now the former mainstream? (Think about it.) Trump has probably never read Kevin Phillips’ “American Theocracy,” but in his 2006 study of American politics in the post-9/11 country, Phillips foretells the rise of the political movement that Trump has captured. It is a coalition of evangelicals, free market extremists, and anti-government zealots. These are the “silent majority” that Richard Nixon envisioned in his “Southern strategy” that won him the presidency in 1968.
Trump has unwittingly expanded on that strategy by building his constituency around fear and insecurity. And for those who have always felt inferior in the fly-over states, those who have felt left out of the upward mobility that has always been the American dream, and those who have less regard for formal education and are more “raised by their own bootstraps,” Trump is a hero. They will never desert him, which is why he can, indeed, “shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue” and not lose any voters.
Meanwhile, those on the left (both of the country and the political divide) have complete disdain for the Trump mystique. They neither understand it nor respect it, and they would be just as virulent in their hatred were it not for their more pacifistic attitudes generally. Left-leaning Americans hold themselves to lofty ideals that reject pipe bombs and mass shootings. Instead they resort to rhetoric, which only pushes them farther from those in Trump’s world (who have minimal regard for intellectuals and even less for sanctimonious pseudo-intellectuals, which is how they regard most of the media and the “deep state,” even if they don’t really understand what the “deep state” is).
In terms of the real political divide in 2018 (and looking ahead to 2020), the Democrats strength is in the cities and the suburbs. The cities are dark blue; the suburbs are light blue. The Republicans strength is in the rural districts; those areas are bright red. States might be purple when the colors of the distinct areas within them are merged, but there are relatively few truly purple precincts in the country.
And so, we are a divided nation, ready to do battle against each other should either side feel any more fully abused. In that sense, it is, as Schmidt says, a “cold civil war.”
I don’t have a crystal ball for 2020, but I do think it will be a nasty election, and if the Democrats should somehow find a way to regain the Electoral College advantage (the odds of which I would put at slightly less than 50/50 as of today), Trump and his followers will not give up control willingly.