Henry McLeish: the most toxic, racist and fear-mongering US election campaign in recent memory
The politics of the United States is complex and often confusing with votes spread over the House and Senate seats and governor races in midterm elections.
Understandable, then, that from my vantage point in Tulsa, Oklahoma, there was much anxiety and apprehension as the results rippled through. The Democrats did not appear to be making the anticipated progress suggested in the polls. But a few hours later, the Democrats were the clear winners and Donald Trump was experiencing his first major setback since his election in 2016. More importantly, the Democratic party gained a huge number of new votes in all contests and, surprisingly, also in the Senate races where Republicans were winning seats!
This has been the most toxic, racist and fear-mongering election campaign in recent memory. The President unleashed, even by his own deplorable standards, a visceral assault on the qualities of respect, tolerance and civility that are necessary to support a reasonable level of political discourse, in any election. It is Brexit but much, much worse.
Trump was drawing on all of his worst traits: nationalism, authoritarianism and nativism and towards the end of the campaign he spread fear and hate in equal measure. Indeed, in the nearly forty years I have been visiting the US, I have never seen the country so bitterly divided, on every issue, but especially on immigration and the fear that the US would soon be a “non- white country”, with subtexts of white supremacy and white nationalism.
Trump, the true enemy of the US, is dangerously dividing the country, building a cheerleader base and abandoning any notion of one America. The President is unapologetic.
This is unnerving some Republican members of Congress and less fervent supporters who feel Trump may be taking them and their party over the edge. For others more hostile to Trump, his behaviour only confirms their worst fears that he is unhinged and risks serious unrest and violence by his incendiary remarks, lack of empathy and his embrace of white America.
The midterms were a referendum on Trump. This is why it was so important, not only to check his uncontrollable ego and narcissism but also to assess the public mood in the run-up to the next presidential election in 2020.
Winning the House of Representatives was vital. The Democrats are in a strong position to clip Trump’s wings and re-establish a powerful oversight role which will challenge the President at every turn. The Republican-controlled House had abandoned their oversight role and gave Trump an easy run.
Regaining control of the Senate was never a realistic objective because there were few Republican seats being contested and many of them were in areas which Trump had won convincingly in 2016. But there was another more significant reason for this. Built into the US Constitution by the founding fathers was the idea that each state of the union would have two senators, regardless of size or geography.
So, in this most recent midterm election, the Democrats won the popular vote for the Senate by a large majority but look like winning fewer seats. This is easily illustrated. Wyoming has 600,000 people and two senators compared with California with 40 million, also with two senators! The Senate is no longer representative of America. Historically, the House represents the people and the Senate represents the states.
Paul Krugman, in a recent article in the New York Times, ‘Real America versus Senate America’, argues that economic, educational and demographic trends interacted with political changes to turn the Senate into being deeply unrepresentative of America. ‘Real America’ is urban, suburban and racially and culturally diverse; ‘Senate America’ is white, rural and small-town America.
The rising Democrat vote is encouraging but, remember, that the same kind of founding fathers’ thinking – based on checks and balances – provides for a US Electoral College which saw Clinton win the popular vote by three million, but lose the presidency to Trump.
Turnout was also impressive, with young people and women sufficiently motivated to strike against Trump. Suburban America deserted the presidency. The Democrats also achieved record numbers of women becoming House members and state governors, including the first Muslim and Native American House members.
The importance of the Democrats winning key governorships shouldn’t be overlooked; governors play an important but often overlooked part in US administration. They will now be able to influence, to 2021, checking Republican attempts to gerrymander congressional boundaries and tackling the widespread voter suppression that is taking place, especially in the southern states – trying to stop people voting, overwhelmingly minorities, is a peculiarly American pastime.
The House of Representatives, in Democratic hands, is Trump’s worst nightmare. Very substantial powers of investigation, oversight and subpoena are available to the House; this is also the starting point for any impeachment process. The Democrats will now be able, from January next year, to instigate new probes into possible Russian involvement in the 2016 elections and provide support for Special Counsel Muller’s inquiry onto possible collusion with the Trump campaign. The President is terrified of Muller’s inquiry as the recent sacking of Attorney General Jeff Sessions confirms.
The midterms have given the Democrats hope. In sharp contrast, the President’s paranoia will have been deepened and his mood further darkened. This is a very unstable President. But the Democrats have to tread carefully. The condition of the electorate is fragile so nothing should be taken for granted.