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Mixed messages from a polarized country

  • Published at 01:16 pm November 8th, 2018
Why couldn’t Democrats win both arms of Congress? Photo: REUTERS

The Senate win shows that support for Trump goes above and beyond his core base

The just-concluded mid-term elections in the US did not deliver the shock and awe that was expected by anti-Trumpistas. It upended the House of Representatives by transferring majority to the Democrats, but it buoyed the already Republican-controlled Senate by adding a few more seats to the party some claimed had been hijacked by Donald Trump. 

The Republican Party now is on the cusp of having a four-seat advantage in the Senate. So, the Democrats and others who have been praying for a Republican doom and Trump gloom will have to wait for other better days, probably 2020.

Expectations of a sea change in politics in the country polarized by Donald Trump’s election as president were hyped because of the way the new president conducted himself after his elections, which in itself was a major shock to all. 

People thought Trump would behave in a more civilized and presidential manner after he took office.

Instead, he doubled down on his rhetoric against immigrants, stoked racism with his remarks favouring white nationalists, and fuelled trade wars with reckless comments against traditional trading partners of the US. 

He went full force for banning immigrants from seven Muslim countries, his demand for a wall with Mexico, shredded parts of Obama-introduced health care reforms, walked out of an international agreement on trade and tariff for Pacific rim countries, scrapped the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among US, Canada, and Mexico that was a result of years of negotiation by his Republican and Democratic predecessors, and shredded the Iran nuclear deal.

He was so eager to push through his agenda that many of his actions were wrought through executive orders rather than through Congress.

But even as Trump railroaded his policies, he was aware that in a democratic set up such as the US has, he would have to face his electorate, if not for his own elections, but for Congress, sooner or later.

At the time of his election as president, both houses of the Congress (House of Representatives and Senate) had Republican majority. 

But to continue with his allies he would need a Republican-dominated Congress. Therefore, he started to drum up support for his party by attending rallies in support of the candidates in different states. In doing so, Trump fell back on the only strategy he knows, using vitriolic language and fear-mongering. 

In the rallies, Trump used the rhetoric he had used earlier for his own candidacy to rouse his base.

Again and again he harped on illegal migration and the need to build a wall, his promise to stop unfair tradewith other countries, punishing China and other partners with tariffs, and promises of greater tax breaks for people.

He would not dwell on the state of the economy and job growth (which are actually very good), because he thought arousing people’s angst about migration and job flight from “unfair” global trade (of which he is an opponent) would drive voters to his allies more than anything else. Trump rallies were, therefore, a replay of his rallies during his presidential campaign.

What Trump ignored, however, was the ability of his core supporters to rally behind the candidates his party had in the fields. Ironically, this is a party that Trump had never belonged to earlier.

His critics say (including some in the Republican Party itself) that Trump had hijacked the party after he won the presidential nomination with his rowdy supporters. 

But while this Trump support base is loyal to Trump, it is not uniformly distributed all over the country, or all states. Even in typically Republican-leaning states, the Trump base is not enough to influence elections to individual Congressional districts. 

And there are 435 congressional districts in the US, all of which are open to election every two years. Trump could not afford to have rallies in all of them.

The House was tightly under control of the Republicans when Trump became president. The party ceded control to the Democrats yielding more than 30 seats they held so long. 

Senate elections are different. Each state elects two senators for a six-year term. One third of the senate is re-elected every two-years on a rotational basis. This year, 33 senators sought re-election, of which 24 were Democrats, and nine Republicans. Trump held rallies for all Republican candidates including those who contested Democrat-held seats. All sitting Republican senators were returned plus a few more. 

While the House results have dismayed Republicans, Trump seemed to be unperturbed, taking things in his characteristically bombastic way.

He never for a moment thinks these are a referendum on his performance even though a Democratically-controlled House would be a boulder on his free-wheeling way. 

He thinks the Senate results are proof of his popularity, and that he could iron out a way to work with the House. In his press conference after the elections, he even sounded optimistic about working with Democrats. And here is the rub.

The success of the Democrats in the House was not because they liked Donald Trump and his policies; it was because they opposed him and his policies. Democrats have successfully exploited the anti-Trump sentiment that had been brewing since his candidature and turned into a campaign to end his presidency.

Unfortunately, this Democratic campaign came short of winning control of both arms of the legislature. They are keenly aware of this, and they need to work toward this goal.  

The failure to win Senate signifies to all anti-Trumpistas that support for Trump goes above and beyond his core base not necessarily confined to rural voters, former steel factory workers, and coal miners.

There is abundant enthusiasm about Trump and his policies among people who may not appear to be Trumpists. The Democrats have a lot more work ahead of them. 

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the USA.

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