By David Remnick – The New Yorker
Donald Trump’s name was nowhere to be found on the ballots of the 2018 midterm elections, but the vote, as he put it at one rally, “is a referendum about me.” In recent weeks, as he appeared at one rally after another, the President became himself, only more so, slamming the press, sliming opponents, and waging the most bigoted national political campaign in this country since the days of George Wallace.
The Democratic Party failed to achieve a “blue wave,” an overwhelming victory that would have represented a nationwide repudiation of the 2016 election. Our divisions have only deepened. But Trump lost in some consequential ways. In a high-turnout election, the G.O.P. yielded control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats for the first time in eight years—a crucial check on Presidential power. A record number of women were elected to Congress—a reflection, in part, of a #MeToo movement that the President has disdained. At least four of them were young women of color, including Rashida Tlaib, in Michigan; Ilhan Omar, in Minnesota; Lauren Underwood, in Illinois; and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in New York. Democrats also improved, since 2016, among Midwestern and suburban voters. And, for the second time in two years, Trump and his allies lost the popular vote.
The midterm results, however, will provide Trump adequate reason to claim victory and, despite his low approval ratings, feel confident that he can win a reëlection campaign that leans heavily on rural voters. Republicans continue to dominate beyond the cities and suburbs, and they widened their margin in the Senate, which is a far less representative body than the House. They also held off statewide Democratic challenges in Florida and Texas, though the narrow margins of victory in those red states should give the G.O.P. leadership pause. Beto O’Rourke, who narrowly lost in the Texas Senate race to the incumbent, Ted Cruz, ran an especially compelling race.
Trump will doubtless take no blame for his party’s loss of the House. He never takes blame for anything. In the last days of the campaign, he made sure to inoculate his political ego against criticism by saying that there just wasn’t enough of him to go around: he could not campaign for many House candidates—there were so many. He could even blame “illegal voters” for his shortfall in the popular vote, as he did in 2016.
A Democratic majority in the House will not only make it harder for Trump to achieve his legislative ambitions; it could also intensify the state of crisis and siege in Washington. The loss in the House of Representatives means that an array of committees—Judiciary, Intelligence, Ways and Means, Foreign Affairs, and others—will now be chaired by Democrats who can initiate, or accelerate, investigations into Trump’s past, his Presidency, and his associates. They replace Republican chairmen like Devin Nunes, who, as the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, often seemed to act less as a detached lawmaker and more like the President’s personal attorney.
The Republican leadership in the House has been dreading this prospect for months. Late last summer, Axios reported that the G.O.P. had compiled a spreadsheet of the many areas in which Trump was vulnerable to investigation. The spreadsheet includes, Axios reported, “more than one hundred formal requests from House Democrats [in] this Congress, spanning nearly every committee.” Democratic-led committees could issue subpoenas to investigate the President on a range of subjects. The Ways and Means Committee can request his tax returns. Other committees can launch more aggressive inquiries into his communications and business relations with Russia; his family businesses; possible money-laundering schemes; his payment to Stormy Daniels; the firing of the former F.B.I. director James Comey and various U.S. attorneys; the Muslim travel ban; the family-separation policy on the southern border; the response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico; Jared Kushner’s compliance with ethics laws; election security; Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s business dealings; and more.
Whether the House leadership pursues impeachment remains a vexed strategic question. The Republicans hold a decisive majority in the Senate, making a conviction nearly impossible. What’s more, Democratic lawmakers are wary of a precipitous move toward impeachment; they recall how the Bill Clinton impeachment was, in the end, a political debacle for the G.O.P. They also know that Trump has proved repeatedly that he is an impulsive and vengeful politician on an ordinary day; when he is cornered, when he feels under attack from the press and his opponents, there is little he will not do or say.
The last weeks of the campaign were full proof of that. Though Presidents, even seemingly popular Presidents, frequently lose ground in midterm elections—under Barack Obama, the Democrats lost sixty-three House seats in 2010—Trump made his historical mark in these midterms by running a campaign distinguished by its naked appeals to racism, xenophobia, and paranoia. These were not inadvertent gestures. They were not gaffes. He did this deliberately and incessantly. His calculation, as it had been in 2016, was that his supporters’ deepest anxieties are connected to the country’s changing demographics. He showed little interest in running on matters of policy. Health care, it turned out, was a losing issue for him. Instead, without restraint or shame, he whipped one crowd after another into a frenzy by waving the banner of fear, resentment, and white nationalism.
Trump is hardly the first Republican to use race to define a national election. Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush each used racial dog whistles or campaign commercials and surrogates to exploit the racial currents that persist in American life. Trump, however, made no effort to conceal his intent, no effort to employ a Lee Atwater to do his dirty work.
He warned that criminal gangs from Central America and the “Middle Eastern” terrorists in their midst—“the worst scum in the world”—were heading north toward Texas and carrying out a full-scale “invasion of our country.” At a rally in Florida, Trump said, “A Democrat victory on Election Day would be a bright, flashing invitation to traffickers, smugglers, drug dealers, and gang members all over the world. Republicans believe our country should be a sanctuary for law-abiding Americans, not criminal aliens.”
Trump felt no compunction about using the U.S. military as a political prop for his midterms fear campaign. He ordered thousands of active-duty troops to the border to ward off a caravan that was, in fact, many hundreds of miles away. Fox News amplified the sense of encroachment and insecurity by suggesting that the destitute men, women, and children in the caravan were being underwritten by the financier and philanthropist George Soros—a blatant anti-Semitic trope—and might even spread deadly diseases throughout America, after leaping Trump’s “beautiful” barbed wire.
Trump did not stop there. He called for the support of whom he portrayed as the nation’s beleaguered defenders: “Where are the Bikers for Trump? Where are the police? Where are the military? Where’s ICE? Where’s the Border Patrol? No, we’ve taken a lot.”
Calling on powers that he does not have, Trump said that he would override the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution and ban “birthright citizenship” by executive order. He was undeterred by any criticism, and spoke in larger truths. As he told supporters in Montana, “I’m the only one that tells you the facts.”
During the campaign, Trump seemed to eclipse George Wallace in his willingness to send blunt racial signals to his base voters. In 1963, Wallace, in his inaugural speech as the governor of Alabama, did not conceal his racism, saying that he was devoted to a policy of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” and would go to any lengths to protect what he called “the great Anglo-Saxon Southland.” But, in 1972 and 1976, during Wallace’s later runs for President, his language was somewhat more guarded. Evidently, Trump saw no reason for such restraint or euphemism.
The signal from the President to his party and its candidates was clear: do what is necessary. Often enough, they did. The ugliness reached its nadir on the eve of Election Day, when anti-Semites put out robocalls smearing Oprah Winfrey, who had campaigned in Georgia for the Democratic candidate for governor, Stacey Abrams. “This is the magical Negro Oprah Winfrey asking you to make my fellow Negress Stacey Abrams the governor of Georgia,” the voice on the calls said. “Years ago, the Jews who own the American media saw something in me—the ability to trick dumb white women into thinking I was like them and to do, read, and think what I told them to. I see that same potential in Stacey Abrams.”
There were some who called out Trump effectively, if not decisively. Last week, just days before the midterm elections, the Reverend Dr. William Barber, the pastor of the Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and one of this country’s most powerful moral voices, went to a pulpit in Greensboro carrying a shofar, the ram’s horn that is sounded in synagogues on the High Holy Days. Barber, a hulking man who suffers from a painful affliction of the spine and joints, winced as he rose from his chair and then blew the shofar, summoning the crowd from song to contemplation of the historical moment.
“There are seasons when we are made to be still,” he said gravely. “And we need the kind of singing you just experienced, so that we can handle the nightmares.” But now there would be no more singing.
For weeks, Barber had been speaking at demonstrations and marches throughout the South, insisting that the states protect voting rights, particularly for people of color. He denounced the rhetoric of bigotry, misogyny, and conspiracy that has emanated from the White House for the past two years. But now, he said, he was at a loss. In late October, the United States had approached what Barber called “the precipice”—a moment of multiple pipe bombs and mass murder.
“Only the inability to detonate kept us from seeing possibly two former Presidents and their First Ladies, Attorney General, a [former] Vice-President . . . two sitting African-American senators, two philanthropic entrepreneurs, and an entire newsroom from being killed in one swift fell swoop,” Barber said.
Barber insisted that the pipe bombs mailed around the country represented a far greater peril than a pile of duds mailed by a maniac. “Do we realize,” he said, “what that could have done to the stability of the world?”
And then Barber spoke of the incident in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, in which Gregory Bush, an armed white man in his early fifties, banged furiously on the door of a predominantly black Baptist church; had the door not been locked, he might have repeated the kind of mass killing carried out in 2015, by a young white supremacist named Dylann Roof, at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, in Charleston, South Carolina. Bush, who had a record of mental illness and domestic abuse, got in his car and headed to a nearby Kroger supermarket, where he shot and killed two African-Americans, Vickie Lee Jones and Maurice Stallard.
Finally, the Reverend Barber came to the next horror, the slaughter in Pittsburgh. “Has it caused you to almost lose your mind to think that they were shot in a synagogue named Tree of Life?” he asked. The murders of eleven Jews at prayer, he said, represented a “lynching” by assault weapon. “I don’t know where this nation’s mind is,” Barber said. “It is not just a President. What is wrong with the crowds that cheer and cheer? What’s wrong with the politicians that turn the other way?”
For voters still traumatized by the shock of Trump’s ascent to the Presidency, Election Day was a source of anxiety. Two years ago, I was interviewing Obama in the Oval Office, just a few days after the 2016 elections. Trump had just visited Obama at the White House. The atmosphere throughout the building was funereal. Obama and his aides were stunned by Trump’s wandering attention span, his disinterest in the details of foreign and domestic policy. I had asked Obama about Election Day, what it was like when he was running for state senator, U.S. senator, and President, and, finally, as a surrogate for the person he hoped to be his Democratic successor. Even in his exhaustion and bewilderment, Obama painted a picture of voting that was half hopeful.
“I love the stillness and the mystery of the day or two before elections, because in a lot of ways everything goes radio-silent,” he said. “Nobody at that point is really listening to an argument. The infrastructure is set. And now it’s this weird alchemy that’s taking place in the country, and you just have to kind of wait and see how it works. But there’s always this mystery to it, this possibility.”
“Which, in some ways, is powerful and affirming of the humanity of democracy, right?” he continued. “It’s not mechanical. It’s not a formula. It’s not set. It’s not fixed. There is always the possibility of surprise. And in that sense it’s a little bit like sports. It doesn’t matter what the odds are. Weird stuff happens. And that makes it scary if you’re rooting for one team or the other, but that’s the drama of it.”
Obama had originally hoped, of course, to be succeeded by Hillary Clinton. Then he hoped that Trump, once he took office, would become less mercurial, less theatrical, less mendacious, as he came to recognize the seriousness of his office. That, of course, never happened. It’s long been clear that Trump was never a mystery. He is not enigmatic. He is exactly who he seems to be. He ran as a nationalist, as a bigot, as an enemy of constitutional and global norms, and, from his first days in office, that is how he has governed.
Trump has become the putative leader of an international movement toward illiberalism, nationalism, protectionism, and xenophobia. He has proved an ally and an inspiration to autocrats from Brazil to the Philippines, supplying them with a vocabulary (“fake news”); a blunt, bullying style; and a sense of license. Those autocrats, who once might have regarded an American President with anxiety, as a brake on their most heedless impulses, are emboldened by Trump’s successes.
In domestic politics, Trump has transformed the Republican Party in his image. The G.O.P. leadership, which had once dismissed him as a buffoonish con and then as a danger, has capitulated to him almost entirely. The few Party leaders who have not become champions of the President have either retired or have taken extreme care to avoid criticism or confrontation.
And so the Trump emergency has hardly subsided. The powers of the Presidency are undiminished, and the Senate remains in Republican hands. His capacity to wreak havoc on constitutional and international norms persists. His capacity to pump toxic racism into the national atmosphere persists. His capacity to undermine truth itself persists.
The midterm elections have ended in a mixed result. The vote certainly was not a decisive repudiation of Trump, nor was it anything like the resounding endorsement he craved.
The enormous role played by women, both as candidates and as voters, is historic and promises more. Some of the losing statewide candidates—O’Rourke, in Texas, Andrew Gillum, in Florida—will surely be heard from again. Obama finally seems to have entered the fray without restraint. And the Democratic House, combined with whatever is to come from the Robert Mueller investigation, will put a keener focus on any crimes and misdemeanors. But in order to defeat him, defeat him decisively, the leadership of the Democratic Party will have to get better, become more focussed—and not merely on the travesty of its outrageous and dangerous opponent.
- David Remnick has been editor of The New Yorker since 1998 and a staff writer since 1992. He is the author of “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.”