Most midterm elections turn out to be some sort of referendum on a sitting president, even though the man in the White House isn’t running. This year, it is obviously more than usually true. American politics has undergone a coarsening and a process of de-rationalisation since Donald Trump arrived on the political scene, the ultimate political gatecrasher. America is, as it has been for many years, almost precisely divided into two halves, with few swing voters and many who view the other side of the divide not so much as opponents as enemies, criminals even. There is domestic political violence and terror which, though sporadic, has not been seen since the 1970s.

These are dangerous times for the United States, and, probably for that instinctive reason alone, American voters seem set to inject a degree of moderation into their legislature, shift the congress a little to the left, and put some much needed braking power on the Trump juggernaut. A few months ago it seemed as though these elections would be a referendum on the Trump impeachment. That has subsided, not least through Mr Trump’s distracting “dead cat slapped on the table” tactics, sending troops to deal with a non-existent threat to US security at the Mexican border; and, of course, a series of foreign playground scraps with China, Iran and Venezuela. Still, this is the first nationwide test of Trumpism, and it seems he may not pass it: expect some tweets that defy reality.

The early indications are that turnout is high, and – though there are always surprises – the Democrats will enjoy a good time of it. If so, then it will be their first opportunity to uncork the cava since the presidential re-election of Barack Obama in 2012. They will make gains in the House of Representatives, where all of the seats are up for re-election, plus win a clutch of important gubernatorial contests and, as an outside chance, snatch a set or two in the Senate. There seems every chance that the state of Georgia will elect America’s first black female governor in Stacey Abrams (in a particularly bitter contest with a Trump ally); and more LGBT+ individuals will be elected to congress than ever before. 

As a result, the Democrats will be able to say three things. First, that their legislature is more like the people it seeks to represent than before – fewer straight, white men. Second, they will find it easier to frustrate some of the president’s more outré initiatives during the second half of his (possibly) initial term. It is too late to do anything about, for example, the flawed nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court – but it may be sufficient to, for example, stop bullying the federal reserve to cut interest rates, or tear up any more international treaties.

Third, the president’s opponents will be able to make the plausible claim that the American people are little tired of Mr Trump’s incessant childish behaviour, violent language and political extremism. They will say, correctly, that many Americans regret what has happened to their political debate, and to the nation itself. They would like the 45th president to go easy a little.

Even so, this is unlikely to be the kind of wipeout that some previous Republican presidents have faced, and that is due to the genuine popularity and enthusiasm for what the president has done on the economy – always, in the end, the key factor. With growth booming at 3.5 per cent a year (compare with the UK at around 1.5 per cent, Germany and Japan on about 2 per cent), and unemployment at a near half-century low, it would be surprising if the Republicans weren’t able to claim a little bit of the credit. Mr Obama asks aloud when the trend to faster growth started, but it seems that not many voters are prepared to acknowledge that his policies are now bearing fruit. In some places there are labour shortages. In the states where the president’s protectionist policies have started to have a beneficial effect – old steel towns, for example – the Republicans are able to say that the president has delivered (notwithstanding the wider damage those tariffs have done to the rest of American business and American consumers).

None of this necessarily tells us very much about the battle for the White House in 2020. Mr Trump will probably wish to carry on; his pride would not allow him to serve less than the two full terms enjoyed by Obama, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower, in the postwar era. Each of them suffered setbacks during midterms, and each survived them. Mr Trump seems game enough for another fight, as he always is, and there is no age limit on the US presidency. Moreover, there seems to be no Democrat “story” that can win back, on a permanent, national basis, the blue-collar vote that defected to Mr Trump in 2016 – especially as he will deliver for many of them higher living standards and more jobs, just as he promised, via protectionism, economic madness though it is.

If the Democrats could find a candidate who matched Mr Trump for “charisma” (the term is used loosely), could strike a slightly more conciliatory, if not conservative, social tone, and could make some sort of case for liberal economics they might have a chance. As things stand, the “blue surge”, such as it is, may end shortly.



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