Letter from Washington

The New American Civil War

James Astill is the Washington bureau chief and Lexington columnist for The Economist. He is a contributor to Open
Page 1 of 1

The president of polarisation and his opponents without a script

FOR RONALD REAGAN, Orange County was where conservatives “went home to die”. An area of affluent suburbs, south of Los Angeles, it was an incubator for the small-government conservative revolution of the 1960s. Under Barry Goldwater, it took over the Republican party. Under Reagan, his more polished acolyte, it took over America. Most of the county’s seven congressional districts have been Republican ever since.

Yet in the mid-term elections earlier this month all seven districts elected Democrats to the House of Representatives. And where Orange County went, America followed once again. Well- educated suburbanites across the country forsook President Donald Trump’s party for the Democrats. The opposition party swept the once-reliably conservative peripheries of big cities such as New York and Philadelphia. More astonishingly, they also won in the suburbs of smaller, traditionally Republican places like Dallas and Oklahoma City. The affluent and well-educated inhabitants of such suburbs were the main force behind the ‘blue wave’ that has swept the Democrats back to power in the House of Representatives. They will shortly bring an end to the unified Republican government that has defined Trump’s first 18 months in office.

That will not make much difference to Trump’s legislative agenda, because he doesn’t really have one. The only major law the president has signed into effect was a big tax cut last year. Heavily weighted in favour of corporations and the rich, it has proved so unpopular that few Republicans campaigned on it ahead of the mid-terms. Yet the Democrat resurgence is important nonetheless. It has buoyed the opposition party with a reasonable hope of denying Trump a second term in office at the general election due in 2020. It also means that once the new Congress forms in January, Trump and his scandal-tainted administration will for the first time be subject to congressional oversight.

This is a powerful legal instrument, which Republicans in Congress, intimidated by Trump’s bullying, have chosen not to wield against the president or his administration. Armed with the subpoena powers that come with controlling the House’s congressional committees—which are dedicated to national intelligence, legal affairs, and so forth—Democrats will shortly be able to hit the administration with a flurry of investigations and demands for documents and testimonies. For example, the incoming Democratic chair of the Ways and Means Committee, a watchdog on tax affairs, has already declared his intention to order up Trump’s tax returns, as he is legally entitled to do. Democrats believe the returns may provide an incriminating view of Trump’s murky business affairs. They would probably also show that he is substantially less rich than he claims to be.

The prospect of holding Trump to account should provide some reassurance for those who worry about the many ethical and other irregularities of the Trump administration. Eight cabinet secretaries have so far resigned over infighting or ethical scandals, most of which have not been seriously investigated. Several who are still in post face serious questions about their conduct—including Ryan Zinke, the interior secretary, who is under pressure over a land deal in Montana, and Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, whose investments are alleged to include serious conflicts of interest. The prospect of oversight will also intensify the mutual hostility between Republicans and Democrats, even as the prospect of Trump’s re-election campaign in 2020 looms into view. American politics, in short, is about to get even more bitter and rowdy.

The electoral verdict provided something for both parties to feel reassured by. Republicans did well enough in conservative states to suggest Trump retains a decent chance of re-election in 2020

The mid-terms also offered a powerful explanation of what underlies America’s fissure-like partisan division. The suburban revolt against Republicans represents a striking lurch away from the party of Reagan by well-educated Americans, a group that has recently been split between the two parties. Exit polls suggested almost 60 per cent voted for the Democrats. They also showed the party attracting exceptionally high numbers of non-White voters, with 90 per cent of Black Americans voting Democratic and almost 80 per cent of Asians.

That was a natural response to the White nationalist drift the Republicans have taken in recent years, which Trump has greatly exacerbated. The Republican mid-term campaign featured some of the most racially-divisive language heard in American politics since the 1970s and the messy aftershocks of the civil rights struggle. Ignoring their party’s record in government, Trump and other Republicans made the approach of a ‘caravan’ of impoverished central American asylum seekers, traipsing northwards through Mexico, their closing issue. “If you don’t want America to be overrun by illegal aliens and giant caravans, you better vote Republican!” Trump warned.

He claimed, falsely, that the migrant crowd was rife with Middle-Eastern terrorists. He suggested the Democrats and a prominent Jewish liberal financier, George Soros, had organised it. He deployed a small army to the southern border, at vast expense, to defend America against the migrants. He suggested the soldiers should shoot any who might throw a stone at them. It was nonsense, of course. America’s southern border has never been so heavily secured. And the migrants represented no sort of threat. Trump’s intention was simply to scare White Americans, especially his diehard working-class supporters, into turning out for the ruling party.

Amplified by the echo chamber of Fox News and other conservative outlets—which ran breathless round- the-clock updates on the supposed migrant horde—the president’s tactic was supremely destructive. It contributed to one of the ugliest and most febrile political contests in living memory. It was violent, too. The days before the election were marred by several mass shootings, including a slaughter of 11 in a synagogue in Pittsburgh by an anti-Semitic fanatic whose social media postings borrowed from the president’s anti-migrant language. A die-hard Trump fan in Florida sent crude pipe-bombs to Democratic politicians and other Trump opponents. They included CNN, which the president has labelled an ‘enemy of the people’. Mercifully, none of the bombs detonated.

The revolt of the suburbanites was a direct response to the president’s divisive tactics. Such voters tend to disapprove of Trump and, though his name was not on the ballot, a large majority said they were motivated to vote by their disdain for him. Yet, by the same token, the evangelical Christians and blue-collar Whites who were the engine of Trump’s stunning election in 2016 were stirred up by his scare-mongering once again. Republican candidates won across rural America, fuelled by rock-solid support by evangelicals and working-class Whites. That was a particular advantage in the Senate races being run this year.

Where Orange County went, America followed once again. Well-educated suburbanites across the country forsook President Trump’s party for the Democrats. The opposition party swept the once-reliably conservative peripheries of big cities such as New York and Philadelphia

Unlike the House of Representatives, which puts all of its seats up for re-election every two years, senators face re-election every six years, with a third of the preeminent congressional chamber’s 100 seats up for grabs every two years. This year’s Senate cycle happened to favour the Republicans, with the Democrats forced to defend 10 Senate seats in states that had voted for Trump in 2016, many of them by wide margins. In the event, they failed to hold on in four of those states, Florida, Indiana, North Dakota and Missouri. They meanwhile picked up two new seats in Arizona and Nevada, buoyed by strong support from the suburbs and the many Hispanic voters in those states. This left the Senate in Republican hands, with a slightly increased majority. The next Senate election cycle, which is expected to favour the Democrats, will be fraught.

In the end, the mid-terms verdict, including the divergent fortunes of the House and Senate, provided something for both parties to feel reassured by. The Democrats won vastly more votes—including 3.5 million in Senate races alone. Yet their great structural disadvantage—the fact that their supporters are inefficiently clustered in big coastal states, which have no more Senate representation than small conservative ones—mitigated the effect of their greater popularity. Meanwhile, Republicans did well enough in conservative states, including most of those Trump won in 2016, to suggest he retains a decent chance of re-election in 2020.

Most strikingly, Florida and Ohio, traditionally important swing states, went heavily for Republican candidates. And though Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the other key mid-western states that sent Trump to the White House, did not, the president will hope that that will change when his name is on the ballot. In fact, the mid-terms also underlined that he has no other choice but to rerun that rustbelt-focused 2016 strategy.

It helped Trump secure the presidency by the narrowest of margins. He won an election in which around 129 million votes were cast by a matter of 70,000 votes in three Midwestern states. That might seem to argue for trying to expand his support. His relentlessly divisive politics have instead been solely focused on rallying his core followers. This has made Trump an unpopular president. His approval rating has hovered between 37 per cent and 43 per cent for most of his presidency, and, given the vehemence of his critics, there seems little prospect of it rising much higher. Yet given the Republicans’ aforementioned structural advantages, he may nonetheless remain competitive if Pennsylvania et al return to the fold.

THE DEMOCRATS’ FAILURE to shake the faith of Trump’s working-class and evangelical supporters is by extension a serious worry for them. It will make it hard for them to recapture their lost Senate seats. And that might make it hard for them to regain a Senate majority. Rapidly diversifying southern states, such as Georgia and Texas, are trending Democratic, but not as quickly as the western and Midwestern Trump states have moved away from the centre-left party. And if the Democrats cannot recapture the Senate, they have a problem. The chamber is empowered to approve the president’s cabinet and judicial appointments, as well as instigate legislation. As the hapless experience of Barack Obama demonstrated, a president opposed by a hostile Senate is seriously enfeebled.

Even so, Democrats have more reason for optimism than Republicans. That is for the simple reason that, in the process of shrinking the Republican coalition, Trump has expanded theirs. The Democrats pick-up of around 37 House seats is the biggest by either party since the 1974 election following the Watergate scandal. Buoyed by their growing strength in the suburbs, the centre- left party looks well-placed to maintain its hold on the House. Its resurgence in Pennsylvania and other Midwestern states has also encouraged its hopes of denying Trump a second term.

The Democrats’ failure to shake the faith of Trump’s working-class and evangelical supporters is a serious worry for them. It will make it hard for them to recapture their lost Senate seats. And that might make it hard for them to regain a majority in this chamber

The mid-terms results may also have headed off a brewing Democratic civil war, between the left and centre-left, over the party’s next presidential primary contest. The starriest Democratic candidates in the mid-terms, including Beto O’Rourke, who ran for the Senate in Texas, and Andrew Gillum, who ran for governor in Florida, were of the left. Had they won, there would have been a great pressure to nominate a hard-left challenger to Trump, such as Senator Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, notwithstanding the fact that no such politician has come close to winning the presidency. Yet most of the Democrats’ vaunted leftists, including Mssrs O’Rourke and Gillum, lost. And the party’s victorious House candidates, especially in the most tightly contested races, were more moderate. This has left the centre-left with a decent chance of securing the next Democratic presidential ticket for one of its own. Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s deputy, looks like a decent bet for the nomination.

So much for the relentless tittle-tattle of electoral politics. The overarching message of the mid-terms was of a country whose socio-political rift grows ever deeper. Exit polls points to record- breaking levels of polarisation, between White and non-White, men and women, working-class and middle-class, rural and urban voters. In that context, the gravitation of the suburbs to the Democrats looks less like a temporary blip than part of a major realignment. The number of genuine swing voters—temporarily swayed by the arguments of one side or the other—was probably tiny. The mid-terms were rather an exercise in both parties mobilising their respective and contrasting demographic and geographic coalitions, as if mustering their forces for war.

Where will this end? As the second year of Trump’s presidency draws to a close, political commentary is increasingly focusing on comparisons with the most divisive times in American history—including the 1960s, when the country was torn over the civil rights struggle, and the 1850s, when rival arguments between southern slave-owners and northern abolitionists roiled the country.

On the face of it, this might seem overegged. Compared to the momentous arguments of the civil rights era, today’s rows over border walls and whatever foolish thing Trump last said, seem trivial. Unlike in the 1850s, America does not seem to be headed for an actual civil war. Yet the historical comparisons do capture the drama of this political moment.

Even as American policymakers struggle to maintain political focus on the rise of China, the threat of rogue states and the traumatic structural economic changes that globalisation has wrought, among other epic changes, the country is locked in a fruitless and enervating political war with itself. This will not end until one side suffers a resounding defeat, leading to the sort of realignment that following the civil war and civil rights era.

The revolt of the suburbs may turn to be an important first stage of that reshuffling. It clearly signals the Republicans’ transition from Reaganism, with its expansive, national appeal, to divisive and mean-spirited Trumpism. Yet the mid-terms also showed that what the president’s dwindling White base lacks in numbers, it makes up for with fervour. America’s warring parties will be deadlocked in conflict for a good while yet.