U.S. Mid-Term Elections:
The People Check Donald Trump
The oversight function of the House of Representatives has been greatly strengthened
By Patrick Barnard
Donald Trump unleashed the dogs of hatred in this country.
Political commentator David Gergen, CNN News, October 23, 2018
‘Today is more than about Democrats and Republicans, it’s about restoring the Constitution’s checks and balances to the Trump administration.’
Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, November 6, 2018
The mid-term elections of 2018 in the United States are over. The people have said no to a campaign of fear and, while the Republicans retained control of the Senate, Democrats have gained a majority in the House of Representatives.
There have been groundbreaking congressional results, most involving women. Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 29 years old, won 78% of the vote in New York’s 14th district, becoming the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Another 29-year-old, Abby Finkenauer – still carrying $20,000 of student debts – won a congress seat in Iowa for the Democratic Party, running to “fight for the things that matter to us: better paying jobs, affordable health care, rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, and good schools for our kids.”
For the first time, two Native American women won seats in the House, and so have two Muslim women – all for the Democrats.
And against the background of their success in the Senate, Republicans nonetheless saw that their vote is increasingly older, white, and rural.
Most importantly, perhaps, the oversight function of the House of Representatives has been greatly strengthened. California’s Adam Schiff, for example, will probably become the new chair of the House Intelligence Committee where he is sure to use subpoena powers to further investigate Donald Trump, as will colleagues on other committees. The Robert Mueller probe will continue, and will undoubtedly receive legislative protection, if need be.
By giving the Democrats a congressional majority, voters have halted the drive of the Trump administration to dominate all three branches of the federal government and permanently shift the political centre of gravity to the right in the United States. Nonetheless, the continuing control of the Senate by the Republicans gives them the power to further facilitate the appointment of highly conservative judges to the bench.
‘… voters have halted the drive of the Trump administration to dominate all three branches of the federal government and permanently shift the political centre of gravity to the right…’
For the moment, a sovereign people has blocked the strategy first set out by the now departed Steve Bannon: to bend the three branches of government to create a right-wing hegemony in the United States.
Trump and his present advisors knew that they would lose the House, so they decided to deploy an attack strategy centered on Trump himself in order to shore up the Senate. That meant Trump would once again stoke fear, grievance and aggression among his supporters.
There were many strange epiphanies during the mid-term run-up, but one of the key moments came in the last week of October when three hate crimes made headlines in the U.S. and throughout the world.
On October 24, 2018 a 51-year-old white man, Gregory Bush, could not force access into a black church in Kentucky, so he went nearby and randomly killed two black people, muttering, “Whites do not kill whites”. When Bush appeared in court he was asked about his occupation and answered, “disability”. At the very same time, more than 14 home-made pipe bombs were sent to prominent Democratic supporters, apparently by a 56-year-old white Floridian, Ceasar Sayoc, whose van was covered with pro-Trump stickers. And at the end of that fatal week, a 46-year-old sometime truck driver, Robert D. Bowers – another marginal, white male – killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the worst attack against Jews in all of American history. Bowers, who burned with hatred for Jews, clearly stated on social media that he was to the right of Trump himself.
These three accused men all had a history of mental instability and are marginal members of the white, lower-middle class, a group that has supplied Trump with some, but not all, of his key supporters.
‘Trump and his present advisors knew that they would lose the House, so they decided to deploy an attack strategy centered on Trump himself in order to shore up the Senate.’
In the days that followed Donald Trump chose not to make a really vigorous denunciation of violent bigotry. He did not issue the traditional kind of unity speech. He did not take any responsibility for the social climate he has helped to create in his own country. Instead, he continued attending rallies with his “base”, lamenting only that the awful events in October had cost him “momentum” in his highly personalized mid-term campaigning.
Anti-Trump voters – younger, female, people suburban and urban, minorities – saw again what the Charlottesville incident showed in 2017: a sitting President indifferent to race hatred and perfectly willing to use the extreme right as part of his pursuit of power.
In an op-ed for The Globe and Mail, America’s unending civil war (October 20, 2018), economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote from New York: “Donald Trump is a geographical anomaly, a pro-Southern racist from Liberal New York State. Mr. Trump, a champion of the white male southern culture, is shunned by his home state. He is more Mississippi than Manhattan”.
The widely followed columnist for The Washington Post, Eugene Robinson, has been making much the same argument. He thinks that the United States is going through a continuation of the Civil War, an enormous conflict between past and future, he says, between what the country used to be and what will emerge in the years to come.
That is what is so important about the 2018 elections: they are indeed a battle about the future of the United States. They also throw us back to the very foundations of the country, whether we live there or elsewhere in the world.
‘Anti-Trump voters… saw again what the Charlottesville incident showed in 2017: a sitting President indifferent to race hatred and perfectly willing to use the extreme right as part of his pursuit of power.’
One of the voices heard in the chorus of comment has belonged to the Harvard historian, Jill Lepore, now in her early fifties. She decided to write a 789-page book, These Truths: A History of the United States, in which she sets forth her longer vision of what the country stands for and the crisis that it now finds itself in. Her survey really begins with the Founding Fathers, as they are known, and the effort to create a rational political order “that would be ruled not by accident and force but by reason and choice”. She puts great stress on “English ideas” that Americans made their own: a “mixed constitution, the rule of law, the will of the people”. Much later in her book, Lepore laments the manipulation of opinion in modern politics and the rancorous climate that has developed in the last generation. After 9/11 she thinks “the United States lost its way in a cloud of smoke” and her verdict on the 2016 election of Donald Trump is damning:
“The election dredged from the depths of American politics the rank muck of ancient hatreds. It revealed the dire consequences of a dwindling middle class. It suggested the cost, to the Republic’s political stability, of the unequal constitutional status of women.”
Slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, separate but equal, demagoguery of the McCarthy variety – all these “ancient” themes seem to have conflated in the Age of Trump.
Yes, there are these echoes of the past, but Trump is the first U.S. President to publicly use ethnic hatred to gain election. It is impossible to imagine FDR, Truman, Eisenhower or Reagan using such visceral, lethal emotions in a country that has been multi-racial and multi-ethnic from its very beginnings. This point is immensely important. Stoking these fires inside people is dangerous to the body politic, to individuals, and even to Trump himself, even though he feels vindicated, speaking of “Tremendous success” in his evening tweet on November 6.
Trump’s real record is well known to New Yorkers (see Donald Trump’s Racism: The Definitive List, The New York Times, January 15, 2018). The most revealing instance of his views came with the trial of five young men, four black and one Latino, for the shocking rape and beating of 28-year-old Trisha Meili in Central Park during April 1989 in what is now known as The Central Park Jogger Case.
‘Slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, separate but equal, demagoguery of the McCarthy variety – all these “ancient” themes seem to have conflated in the Age of Trump.’
Eventually the DNA of a convicted rapist and murderer tied him to the crime and the original conviction of the five was vacated. However, in 1989 Donald Trump took out ads in four New York newspapers calling for the return of the death penalty in the state, saying that “these muggers and murderers… should be executed for their crimes” (See BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!, New York Daily News, May 1, 1989.) This private advertisement, violating all notions of presumptive innocence, appeared well before the first trial of the suspects in August 1990, and Trump used deliberately incendiary language: “I want to hate these murderers and I always will”. And he told CNN’s Larry King, “maybe hate is what we need if we’re gonna get something done”.
In 2016, campaigning for President, Trump again said the Central Park Five were guilty, prompting John McCain to comment about the “outrageous statements about the innocent men in the Central Park case” as one of his reasons for ceasing to endorse Trump.
Indeed, we all know that the political exploitation of hatred had terrible consequences in the twentieth century.
That lesson is obviously lost on Trump – but Democrats need to think long and hard about the structural reasons that explain the emotive pull that Trump has for certain electors.
The most widely accepted and reliable appraisal is that Trump voters fear the future loss of status in their own country, and in a world, that is less and less “white” every day (See, China on the rise roils Washington: Trump, the G7, and America’s Fears). Compounding this social fear is what historian Jill Lepore and many others have called the “dwindling middle class”.
There is now a substantial literature on the problem of growing economic inequality in all the rich countries of the West (Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Picketty; Inequality: What can be done?, Anthony B. Atkinson; Global Inequality, Branko Milanovic).
‘… but Trump is the first U.S. President to publicly use ethnic hatred to gain election.’
Beginning in the 1980s, what is called the “Inequality Turn” began in the United States (Atkinson) and for the last 20 years the income and wages of the middle class have stagnated: the average person has not experienced the reality of economic progress. Thomas Picketty has meticulously shown how wealth has become increasingly concentrated in the ownership and management of capital goods – and not in the wages of labour. The result is a concentration of wealth in the richer countries not seen since the Gilded Age of the 1890s. Milanovic’s research indicates that economic progress has been most strongly experienced in this age of “high globalization” by the world’s 1% and – significantly – by the very large “emerging global middle class” in China and Southeast Asia, but definitely not by the “lower middle classes of the rich world”. The “top 5 percent in the United States”, Milanovic observes, “have almost as much income as the entire middle class”.
This inequality is observed throughout the OECD countries and especially in the U.S. It creates a toxic political environment in which big money calls the shots and support declines for “the public provision of social services, principally health and education”. Yet, tellingly, it is the restoration of good, essential services, especially increased education and decent wages, that is essential to repair the fragility of the world’s advanced economies.
The most successful Democratic candidates in 2018, such as Iowa’s Aby Finkenauer in her ten-year-old car, have directly experienced the new reality of today’s middle class.
Another striking figure, with similar first-hand experience, is Rashida Tlaib who has won Michigan’s 13th district in the Detroit area. She has been a very effective “people’s lawyer” at Detroit’s Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice and has been extremely clear in her purpose: “In Washington I’ll fight back against the Trump agenda that puts corporate profits and serving the rich over the needs of the rest of us. I’ll fight alongside you for Medicare-for-all so everyone can receive the healthcare they need and for a $15 minimum wage that helps workers provide for their families.”
The energy of the new House members indicates that the 2018 congressional election is fundamentally hopeful and carries a message to all future candidates to get back to basics.
‘The energy of the new House members indicates that the 2018 congressional election is fundamentally hopeful and carries a message to all future candidates to get back to basics.’
The Harvard historian, Jill Lepore, is an 18th century specialist and believes in government by reason. She is fascinated by the contradictions of her own country and the preoccupations of the original framers of the Constitution regarding the whole notion of popular sovereignty. Lepore likes to quote the letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to his fellow Virginians when he returned from Paris in 1790. “There was a worry”, he confessed, “that the ‘will of the majority’ might sometimes err.” Then he added, firm in his beliefs, that “the errors of the majority ‘are honest, solitary and short-lived’ – Let us then, my dear friends, for ever bow down to the general reason of the society. We are safe with that, even in it’s [sic] deviations, for it soon returns again to the right way.”
1790 is a long time ago, but the young women of 2018 are putting all their intelligence to work in order to return the United States to what they see as its “right way”. One can only admire them and wish them the best on their own way.
Image: rawpixel.com from Pexels
Read also: China on the rise roils Washington
Patrick Barnard is a board member of the Green Coalition, a non-partisan environmental group in Montreal. He is also the editor of the video blog The Pimento report/Le Piment and a free-lance journalist. He has worked in the past for CBC Radio, Radio Netherlands, and Dawson College where he taught English Literature. He is also one of 20 environmentalists and transit experts who signed an open letter in Montreal asking an end to the REM.