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The Fateful Midterms

The Fateful Midterms
 Soli Özel
Senior Fellow - International Relations and Turkey

Today, Americans go to the polls to vote in midterm elections that many commentators have qualified as historical, if not fateful. The electorate will elect the full House of Representatives, a third of the Senate and the governors of 36 states, as well as 87 legislative chambers. The already record level of early voting suggests that voters, who are usually apathetic in midterms, are also taking this year’s election very seriously, and consider it a defining moment in the quest to shape America’s political identity.
The stakes are undoubtedly high in these elections. Currently, in addition to holding the presidency that Donald Trump won in 2016, the Republicans have the majority in both chambers of Congress. 33 states have Republican governors and 32 states have Republican majorities in their legislatures.
A continuation of Republican control of both chambers of Congress and of the presidency is likely to aggravate the authoritarian trends domestically and unilateralist impulses internationally. The final arbiter of the American constitutional order, the US Supreme Court, is now also dominated by a conservative majority. This might yet put to question America’s fabled system of separation of powers. Under such conditions, the deep social and cultural cleavages in the American society and the sharp political differences between the Democrats and the Republicans will be exacerbated.

Prone to mythmaking, Trump created his own truths, lied outright about many issues and denied facts.

The American electorate is not alone in taking the 2018 midterms seriously. The entire world, with its political classes as well as concerned democratic publics, is invested in the American elections and its results. The stakes are high for the future of liberal principles and institutions, as well as for the secularism principle that undergirds these in advanced democracies

Given the symbolic and actual weight of the United States in world affairs, democrats and electoral authoritarians, as well as assorted caudillos, will watch the results of the American elections with great attention.

The President of the United States with his style in politics and the substance of his domestic and foreign policy choices is what makes these midterm elections so critical, and almost politically existential. When Donald Trump first won the candidacy of the Republican Party and then went on to win the presidency, he sent shock waves throughout the American political establishment. As an outlier, he challenged the complacency of the entrenched elites, both in his party and in the Democratic camp, questioned their assumptions about America’s role in the world and propagated a message of anti-elite rage, fueled by a heavy dose of subliminal or open racism, among the aggrieved and neglected segments of the American electorate.
Once in power, neither Trump’s behavior nor his irreverence towards the rules and institutions of American democracy changed. Prone to mythmaking, Trump created his own truths, lied outright about many issues and denied facts. He acted ruthlessly against those who crossed him or did not tow his line. Underestimated by elites of both parties, partially due to the chaotic state of the scandal-ridden White House administrative apparatus, and his own disinterest in learning or studying any matter in depth, Trump succeeded in dominating the agenda. In time, he managed to fully control the Republican Party.

The Party grandees had to bow to Trump’s power since he managed to establish an unshakable bond with the most activist and ideologically mobilized Republicans. The divisiveness of his presidency was reflected in Trump’s approval ratings. These remained at around 40% despite healthy growth figures and rising wages that accompanied ever dropping unemployment levels. But he retained the unwavering support of 80% of registered Republicans, and used his popularity to subordinate the Republican majority to his own will. In return, he gave the Party the possibly ruinous (in the long run) tax bill, yet failed in his own and the Party’s efforts to rescind the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.

Undoubtedly, what seemed like personal whims and crassness of the American President, who did not feel bound by any norms, served him politically.

Domestically, Trump did not waver from his message regarding immigration, white nationalism, the battering of the elites - particularly the media - and the delegitimization of the liberal establishment. Thus, he exploited the real economic and cultural grievances of the American heartland and working-class whites, along with mostly male suburban middle classes, and he tapped incessantly on what historian Richard Hofstadter called "the paranoid style in American politics". His consistent and relentless attacks on the media worked well with his base. Undoubtedly, what seemed like personal whims and crassness of the American President, who did not feel bound by any norms, served him politically. When asked by TV journalist Lesley Stahl why he was vilifying mainstream media, Trump’s answer was: "You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you".  
These midterms are as important as they are unusual. Such contested midterm elections in the middle of an economic boom is a function of the deep fissures that now exist in the American political body, and in Trump’s deliberately polarizing discourse and behavior. Trump turned the midterms and gubernatorial races that are usually reflective of local and statewide issues into a contest centered around his own person.
In order to bolster the chances of Republican candidates, he turned to his favorite topic - that of "immigrants"- and presented it as an exaggerated national security issue, despite the fact that65% of Americans agree that immigrants strengthen the country. He ordered 5,200 troops to the border, promising to raise the number up to 15,000, in order to stop a caravan of ragtag Hondurans who are fleeing their country and seeking to reach the Mexican border. In line with his earlier policy of separating deportable parents from their children, he proposed to change, by executive order, the 14th amendment of the American Constitution passed after the Civil War that gives all children born in the United States the right to citizenship.

The key to Democrats’ victories at all levels is the turnout of the youth, Hispanic and Black voters.

Finally, an aura of permissiveness for hate speech, bigotry, violence and antisemitism in guise of anti-globalization now hangs over the United States. When addressing a group of evangelicals, the President reportedly said that "there would be violence if the Republicans lost the midterms." He was rather nonchalant about the mail bombs that were sent to officials, celebrities and CNN, to whom he refused to make a courtesy call. Later, his response to the murderous attack against a synagogue in Pittsburgh that claimed 11 lives was found wanting.

Trump’s personality, along with the Republicans’ policy choices, also sparked a strong reaction among the opposite camp. Despite attempts led by Republican governors, notorious for their gerrymandering and efforts to curtail minorities’ right to vote, the Democratic Party’s candidates successfully mobilized constituencies. Women in particular, whether appalled by or scared of Trump’s discourse and policies, presented themselves in record numbers to contest elections at both state and federal levels. 75% of the women candidates running for Congress are Democrats. Many college-educated white suburban women, who traditionally vote Republican, are expected to switch sides and support Democratic candidates. The Party itself is divided between its more radical and moderate wings. Yet the desire to turn the political tide, to regain some of the Midwestern Democrat voters who defected to Trump, and to counterbalance the country’s decisively illiberal course, unified the Party for a common purpose. Most importantly, rather than running their campaigns on "cultural identity" issues that reportedly annoy many voters, Democrats chose to focus on their success in passing the once vilified Obamacare, on protecting the economically vulnerable and on representing the good and decent side of American identity.
As a result of these dynamics and of Donald Trump’s galvanizing personality, these midterms are likely to register a high turnout. The key to Democrats’ victories at all levels is the turnout of the youth, Hispanic and Black voters. Most polls, albeit with great caution, project a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, with a few critical states shifting towards the Democratic Party in Gubernatorial elections, and the Senate remaining under Republican control.
Tomorrow, once the results are known, and many of the tight contests could potentially go to recount, the race for the 2020 presidential election will start. And, no matter the midterms’ results, Donald Trump will be the central character of these elections as well.

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