Donald Trump won the 2016 elections with a last-minute escalation of the outrageous statements that had marked his campaign until then, finally knocking down the barriers, previously considered impregnable, set up not only by political correctness, but by decency itself.
Trump now believes that the incredible upset of two years ago can be repeated to win the midterm elections—using the same script, going on full offensive.
He is so convinced of this that he has focused the campaign entirely around him—a campaign that should have been first and foremost about his party, as the vote concerns hundreds of candidates for the House and Senate and thousands of candidates in state and local elections. But their identity and their platforms have been clearly set aside as secondary to the true protagonist, who, while his name is not on the ballot, has said that “in a certain way I am on the ballot,” since “the press is very much considering it a referendum on me.”
‘Referendum’ is the word most often used to describe these midterm elections, which have always been a crucial test for assessing a president at the midpoint of his term, despite the fact that what is actually in play is the balance of power between the two major parties in Congress. Not this time—this is much more than just an assessment, even an important one. The elections are inextricably tied to the figure of the president.
This is particularly true because the Republican Party no longer exists as such: the “Grand Old Party” of Reagan, Bush, McCain and Romney is no longer. What is left of it has no identity or direction of its own, except for those imposed on it by an outsider who has hijacked it and bent it to his will against the wishes of the old guard—and also of the new, like Ted Cruz, who had called him a “pathological liar,” and a “sniveling coward” in the primaries, but now is reduced to begging for his support to keep his Texas Senate seat in the face of challenger Beto O’Rourke, who was a little-known local politician until recently, but has now become a rising star among Democrats.
It is, indeed, a referendum: on Trumpism, and in particular on “whether Trumpism is a historic anomaly or a reflection of modern-day America,” as The Washington Post writes.
This is why the amount of energy and resources that has poured into today’s elections is off the charts. According to the projections by the Center for Responsive Politics, more than $5 billion will have been spent by the end of the campaign, making these the most costly Congressional elections in American history.
In the hope of repeating his November 2016 upset, Trump has followed the same playbook. Despite the growing economy—250,000 jobs added in October, unemployment at 3.7 percent—he almost hasn’t mentioned it at all in the campaign, in order to concentrate all his incendiary ammunition on stoking fear. Rather than looking for support among undecideds, he seemed interested only in galvanizing and mobilizing his base with massive doses of racism, lies, manipulation, conspiracy theories and paranoia, whose unifying subtext is an alleged connection between immigration (called an “invasion”) and Democrats that are said to foster it or even organize it (a baseless charge he has repeated obsessively about the caravan of Central Americans on their way to the US-Mexico border).
Trump’s plan is to get many of those who voted for him in 2016 to go to the polls, and he is hoping that many of them will work to convince other voters to join in their crusade. His rallies and his pronouncements have all had this as their main goal, knowing that turnout will be a decisive factor. Especially as the large numbers of voters identified as Democrats who have already voted in polling places where early voting was available indicate that a very high turnout is likely for these midterms, much higher than for the previous ones—and particularly among Democratic voters.
The situation is such that even Trump appeared at times resigned to a likely Democratic takeover of the House, which is what most polls are showing: “It could happen,” he said.
The distinct impression that we are dealing with a vote that will mark a historic watershed is also given by Obama’s direct involvement in the campaign—whom Trump has been calling Barack H. Obama at his rallies (the ‘H’ standing for his middle name, Hussein)—as well as the involvement of Joe Biden: an unprecedented involvement in the daily political struggle by a former president and a former vice-president.
In the case of the most likely outcome—the Democrats take the House, the Republicans keep the Senate—this “draw” would certainly be a victory for the Democratic side. It would be a clear and strong political blow against Trumpism, although not a fatal blow, at least not immediately. The country would be likely to see developments that will be even more unusual and unpredictable than during the past two years. It would be an America even more divided, paralyzed by a president who has been reduced to de facto lame duck status, but determined to survive at all costs. However, he would be facing rebellion from the party that was never truly his but which he took over by force (and, in the end, by the force of sheer convenience), which will blame him for their defeat. And he would also be facing a galvanized Democratic Party, eager to win the presidential rematch in 2020.
Never has a vote for US Congress garnered so much attention from around the globe. No Democrat or person holding progressive values, whether in America or abroad, wants to think about what would happen if Trump and the Republicans win again. It is likely that it would be an even more devastating defeat than in 2016, for the fate of American democracy and for democracies everywhere in the world.