“A new day in America”—this might well sound like a rhetorical cliché, especially in the mouth of an old school politician like Nancy Pelosi, but it is a fitting summary of what happened Tuesday in the midterm elections. America is turning the page. Trump wanted a referendum on himself—and he lost it.
The popular vote paints an even starker picture: the Democrats won by at least 7 percent, a much more decisive win than the number of seats gained in the House would indicate, given that the latter are the result of an electoral system set up to penalize the Democratic electorate.
In these new conditions, it will be much harder for The Donald to “be Trump.” Such a character as the current president of the United States has been able to constantly step over the limits placed on his role because he could rely on a subservient Congress, controlled by a party without any identity except for whatever was dictated to them by the Evangelical right and Trump’s rural electorate. But what will happen now?
The lesson to be drawn from the midterms would be that Trump needs a change in pace and style—but is the man even capable of adapting to the new circumstances and the new balance of power?
So far, it doesn’t look like he’ll even try—at least judging from his first tweet after the results, in which he threatened the new Democratic majority with retaliation in case they pursue any House investigations of him, following in the footsteps of the Special Counsel investigation led by Robert Mueller. Trump even threatened to use the Senators loyal to him to go after Democratic Representatives in response.
Thus, the other chamber of Congress might be forced into the conflict between the House and the White House, in an unprecedented scenario of all-out institutional war.
At the same time, Trump made an amateurish attempt to sow discord among the ranks of the new Democratic House, promising he would deliver Republican votes in favor of electing Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker, counting on the fact that the left, as well as many of the newly elected Democratic Representatives, would like to see a change in House leadership instead.
This is another sign that Trump’s behavior will depend to a great extent on what the Democratic Party will do, and on how it will be able to reap the fruits of this decisive victory—a success that can be seen as an even greater achievement if we think of the deep crisis the party went through after the defeat in 2016, when it seemed for a while that it wasn’t able to find the strength to get up again.
Yet, after two years of an uphill climb, they have now won a majority in the House, and also got some notable results in the Senate races, where they faced a truly impossible challenge to take back the Senate majority (and where Republicans predictably managed to pick up a few seats).
There were also a number of other very important successes for the Democrats, beside their main goal of taking the House—such as, for instance, Gavin Newsom’s victory in the race for California governor. This was a clear confirmation that the Golden State will continue on its progressive course, an example of the very antithesis of Trumpism.
Also important was the election of Jared Polis as governor of Colorado, the first openly gay governor in United States history. As a bonus, two prominent Republican figures, Kris Kobach and Scott Walker, lost their races for governor in Kansas and Wisconsin. These results further buttress the party’s position, together with its new House majority.
The Democratic Party owes its strength to a grassroots mobilization that in many local districts has led to primary defeats for prominent Democratic politicians that had managed to weather every storm in the party’s establishment.
A particularly remarkable development was the election of a large number of women, many of them young and from minority backgrounds—such as Alexandria Ocasio Cortez in New York, the African-American Ayanna Pressley in Boston, the Arab-American Rashida Tlaib in Michigan, and the Somali-American Ilhan Omar.
The women’s vote was crucial, in the context of extraordinary turnout levels: 114 million voters, compared to 83 million during the last midterms. The record turnout confirmed the referendum-like importance assigned to these particular elections, something that makes them difficult to compare to any previous midterms.
The vote was followed all around the world, with a level of interest usually reserved for presidential elections.
The high level of interest also concerned the possible reverberations the results could have on the White House’s foreign policy, with possible new moves by Trump aimed at distracting attention from a negative result—and indeed, there are already some signs that such moves are in the works. The incoming reshuffle of members of his cabinet that “The Donald” no longer likes or finds useful has already claimed Attorney General Jeff Sessions—who resigned yesterday at Trump’s request—and will likely also oust Defense Secretary James Mattis.
With Session’s removal, the president is gearing up for the inevitable hard fight over the Mueller investigation, which Trump always blamed Sessions for failing to limit or put a stop to. As for the impending departure of General “Mad Dog” Mattis, this is a development that we should be concerned about, as strange as that may sound: Trump’s current external affairs and national security team is a moderating element against the trigger-happy influence of the “Dr. Strangeloves” in the administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and, most prominently, National Security Advisor John Bolton. If “Mad Dog”’s departure will also be followed by the ouster of John Kelly, the retired Marine Corps general who serves as the current Chief of Staff at the White House, that would mean that the military men who have so far curbed the president’s immoderate impulses are gone, having left Trump to the influence of the unabashed warmongers around him.
There are some who are trying to minimize the extent of Trump’s defeat on Tuesday, talking about it as if it was little more than a draw.
But this was a serious defeat—one that may result in an escalation of the “civil war” being quietly fought in the US, and one which could also at some point involve—no longer metaphorically, but militarily—other important parts of the world.
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