Usually, a US President who has just lost a party majority in the House of Representatives would cut himself a slice of humble pie. Not the defiant Donald Trump, who declared a victory as Republicans retook the Senate with a bigger majority.
The reactions to the November 6 midterm election results have been as divided as the US government itself, with Antony Zurcher from BBC writing that Democrats “have clawed their way back to a measure of power”. Bret Stephens and Nicholas Kristof, centrists from The New York Times, were less effusive, as they declared the so-called “blue wave” – i.e. a huge Democratic win – a mere ripple that should stand as a warning to the liberals.
So, do the Democrats have grounds for celebration? A little – but not too much. Democrats faced formidable structural barriers in turning votes into seats, as they had to compete in districts where the electoral boundaries were altered unfavourably by Republicans. Liberals tend to win by huge margins in urban areas like California and New York – but in a winner-takes-all electoral system, where 99 per cent of votes is no different to 51 per cent, such large margins fail to translate into electoral success, as Republicans control the smaller rural cities and towns.
With all this against them, the Democrats’ performance was still better than some have been willing to credit. Still, these geographic disadvantages existed in the 2016 presidential election and 2014 midterm elections, and the concept of gerrymandering – manipulating the boundaries of a constituency to favour one party – can be dated to 1812. For all their whining about politics being rigged, liberals have not managed to come up with a solution to fix it. This is the challenge facing incoming Democrat congressmen as they redraw district lines in 2021.
Secondly, will Trump now reign in his racist comments and harangues against traditional allies and China? The chances are slim. Edward Alden from Nikkei Asian Review suggested the midterm elections would be more likely to embolden – rather than weaken – him.
Trump waged a primarily fear-based, racially-charged campaign, based on the dangers of illegal immigration rather than boasting his economic record. His efforts – and refusal to follow expert advice – paid off as Republicans solidified their control of Senate and defended their seats in Ohio and Florida.
This could explain why Trump did not hesitate to pick a fight with CNN’s reporter Jim Acosta at last week’s news conference, or fire US Attorney General Jeff Sessions the day after the election. Trump seems to be more concerned with satisfying his loyal voter base than broadening his national appeal. Meanwhile, the trade war against China has received support from both parties.
The only thing that emerged unequivocally from this election is that America is divided along the lines of identity and politics. As The Economist ominously wrote, “this is a recipe for gridlock, poor governance, and disenchantment”.