Fintan O’Toole: Trump brings the Republican Party down to his level
Success in the Senate race consolidates his control of conservative America
When a political result is ambiguous, the winner is whoever gets to shape the story. And that is the one thing Donald Trump is supremely good at. There are some respects in which Trump did indeed win - and more in which he did not. But we know that whatever had happened, he would have declared victory. He was out on Twitter by midnight US time, when most of the ballots had not yet been counted: “Tremendous success tonight. Thank you to all!” He retweeted sycophantic tributes to the wonder of his amazing self: “It’s all the Trump magic - Trump is the magic man.” He also endorsed a claim (on - where else? - Fox News) that the Republican candidates who had won their elections are his personal property: “’They owe him their political career.’ Thanks, I agree!”
Compare this to the 2010 mid-term elections, when Barack Obama was president and the Republicans won the House of Representatives. Trump did a brilliant job of discounting in advance the loss of the House to the Democrats, operating on the principle that if you lower expectations sufficiently, a big defeat is nothing to write home about. But the fact remains that the House races were the only national-scale election being contested. And in this national election, Trump lost, as he might say himself, bigly. Republicans carried the national House popular vote by one percentage point in 2016. Yesterday, they lost by something like 7.2 percentage points. This is the largest shift toward the Democrats since 1948. The eight-point swing is nearly as large as the nine-point move towards the Republicans that happened in 2010.
The difference, of course, is that in 2010 there was a president who told the truth. Barack Obama famously called that 2010 result a “shellacking” and “humbling”. He accepted personal responsibility: “The election ... underscores for me that I’ve got to do a better job.” But Trump could have lost by 20 points and he still would not have been humbled: after all, how could the best president in the history of the world possibly do “a better job”? He is the “magic man” and all magicians use distraction as a basic tool of the trade. Trump would, in any circumstances, find a way to distract from the most obvious truth: this was his second national poll (after the presidential race in 2016) and both times he has lost the popular vote by a good margin. If there is an “enemy of the people”, it’s him.
He lost this time, not because the Democratic Party leadership has done anything great, but because of a democratic revolt from the bottom up. Young people and people of colour are crucial to that uprising, but it is first and foremost a women’s crusade. There will be at least a hundred women in the new House and with rare exceptions like the Republican Young Kim who becomes the first Korean woman to serve in the House, the new faces are progressive women galvanised by the behaviour of an openly misogynistic president. They include the first Native American congresswomen and the first Muslim-American congresswomen. This is one achievement Trump should claim but will not: no one in US history has done more to get women elected to national and state office than he has. This is not the “tremendous success” he has in mind.
And yet this election is a kind of success for Trump nonetheless. We have to bear in mind the conventional wisdom of two years ago. It held that one of two things would happen: either Trump would moderate his language and demeanour or his chaotic offensiveness would make his presidency unviable. Neither of these things has come to pass. Trump did not moderate his tone - on the contrary, in the run-up to yesterday’s midterms he upped the ante on racism, thugishness and violence. He raised the pitch of his attacks on the media and the “enemies of the people”, even as one of his fans was sending pipe bombs to those on his hate-list. He characterised people walking towards the border to seek asylum as invaders, criminals and potential terrorists. He created a final campaign ad so openly and sickeningly racist that even his own propaganda channel, Fox, declined to run it.
This was a dry run for an even more vicious campaign in 2020. And in the test marketing that is Trump’s essential mode of operation, it all turned out to be fine. Not, of course, with those who already despise him, but with the only voters he cares about: his own fanbase. With a very few exceptions (Mormon Utah being one) it is clear that Republican voters are now cool with thuggery, graft and open racism.
Thus, Greg Gianforte, the Trump-lite Montana congressman who body-slammed a reporter the night before a 2017 special election, has won re-election with a reasonably comfortable 54 per cent. (Trump, on the campaign trail last month, openly endorsed Gianforte’s criminal assault.) In Iowa, Steve King held his congressional seat with just over half the vote. This is the Steve King who openly embraces white nationalist rhetoric about “our civilization” (which is to say white America) being replaced by “someone else’s babies” and who calls for electric fences on the border to deliver shocks because “we do that with livestock all the time.”
In Florida, Trump acolyte Ron DeSantis won after telling voters they shouldn’t “monkey this up” by choosing his African American opponent and after his supporters ran robocalls in which a Minstrel voice mock-mimicked that opponent: “I is the negro Andrew Gillum”. In California, Duncan Hunter, an early Trump supporter who has been indicted on criminal charges of stealing campaign funds (he blames his wife) has been re-elected.
These are, indeed, “tremendous successes” for Trump: he has decisively brought the Republican Party down to his own level. In a very short time, he has taken complete control of US conservatism and made it hospitable to open racism, neo-Nazi white nationalism, threats of violence against the press and financial sleaze. There is a majority of Americans repulsed by these things. But Trump’s base is now fully inured to them - they either think them a price worth paying or they are actively enthused by them. Trump’s instinct has always been that the path to victory in 2020 lies through this heavily manured field. He will now be even more certain that all he has to do is plough on through the dirt.