Donald Trump is no longer president nor is he on the ballot in the upcoming mid-term elections this November. Yet he still dominates the American political landscape. He inspires a level of devotion and revulsion like no other politician. This election, like the last two, maybe another referendum on Trumpism. And that would be a good thing for Democrats.
Typically in mid-term elections — when the presidency is not at stake — the party that occupies the White House loses seats in Congress. Supporters of the president’s party grow complacent and some stay at home. Conversely, opponents enraged by the president’s policies turn out in greater numbers. In only seven of the last 26 mid-term elections has the president’s party gained seats in one of the two houses of Congress. In only two cases did it gain seats in both houses.
President Biden and the Democrats thus face an uphill battle to retain their slim majorities in the House and the Senate. Indeed, when 2020 began it looked likely that Democrats might face losses of historic proportions. But the tide has since turned. Democrats are now favoured to retain the Senate and perhaps even build their majority. It is even conceivable that they keep control of the House.
What happened? The economic situation in the US — strong growth, low unemployment and declining inflation — has certainly helped. But Democrats also helped themselves by resuscitating Biden’s legislative agenda. In August, they passed the misnamed Inflation Reduction Act which lowered prescription drug costs, invested in green energy and paid for its reforms by upping tax enforcement on the wealthy. Then, by executive order, Biden forgave up to $20,000 (€20,000) in student loan loans for 45 million Americans suffering under the crushing burden of debt taken on to further their educations.
Democrats have consciously sought to make this election about Trumpism
But the main reason Democrats are doing better is that many Americans find the alternative so unpalatable. This year might be that rare mid-term election that is a referendum on the opposition party. The closest historical precedent for this would be 1998 when a backlash against Republicans’ impeachment of president Bill Clinton enabled Democrats to pick up seats in the House.
Democrats have consciously sought to make this election about Trumpism. Biden kicked off his own campaigning by attacking the “semi-fascism” of “extreme” Republicans. This is a smart strategy for the Democrats as Trump, despite his devoted legions, remains an unpopular figure, even more unpopular than Biden whose performance as president more than half of Americans disapprove.
An attack on Trumpism also unites two key Democratic voting constituencies that otherwise have little in common. Affluent suburban moderates who might once have voted for George W Bush or Mitt Romney need to be reminded that today’s Republican Party belongs to Trump. Economically precarious young Americans who flocked to Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, need to be motivated to turn out to vote Democratic.
Republicans and Trump have invited backlash and hurt their own chances. The supreme court, its right-wing members bolstered by Trump appointments, injected the issue of abortion rights into the election with its unpopular June decision to overturn Roe v Wade. Most Americans favour abortion rights and are put off by the Christian Right.
Trump’s personal unsuitability as a leader has also remained in focus. The January 6th congressional hearings uncovered yet more shocking details of his complicity in the assault on the US Capitol. An FBI raid on Trump’s resort in Mar-a-Lago revealed that he took classified documents from the White House — including some related to nuclear weapons.
Trump also damaged his party’s cause by meddling in Republican primaries. Loyalty to Trump — not electability — is what won his coveted endorsement. As a result, Republicans have weak and inexperienced Senate candidates in three crucial battleground states: crackpot television doctor Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania; former football star Herschel Walker in Georgia; and JD Vance, best-selling author of Hillbilly Elegy, in Ohio.
Democrats need larger congressional majorities to level the playing field with Republicans
In fact, the mid-term elections should be a referendum on Trumpism. The Republican Party has grown more and more authoritarian and represents an existential threat to American democracy. The only way to defeat Trumpism is to repeatedly best it at the polls. Only then might Republican politicians change their tune.
But more importantly, Democrats need larger congressional majorities to level the playing field with Republicans who benefit from numerous structural advantages such as the electoral college. With control of the House and a few more Senators, Democrats could pass strong voting rights to thwart Republican efforts at the state level to suppress voter turnout. They could also make states out of Washington DC and Puerto Rico, thereby fully enfranchising the residents of these territories — and adding four Senators from heavily Democratic states. They could continue to legislate for a 21st-century New Deal to aid working Americans and avert further catastrophic climate change.
It is unlikely that Democrats will gain such majorities in 2022 and possible still that Republicans might come out big winners. But, because Senators serve for six years, any Democratic gains this year will lay the groundwork for potential future change. Even with Democratic success, Trumpism will remain a powerful force in American politics for years to come. Yet 2022 could demonstrate that its extremism might ultimately prove its undoing.
- Daniel Geary is the Mark Pigott assistant professor of US history at Trinity College Dublin