According to Democrats, Tuesday was supposed to be a blue wave election. Democrats would pick up dozens of House seats in the midterms, and might even take the Senate.
And President Donald Trump, said liberals and many in the press, was hastening this wave personally. His message was racist, his speeches fear-mongering and his “nationalism” and “globalism” were none-too-subtle signals to white supremacists and anti-Semites that a fascist takeover was in the works.
Yet, Trump’s message in large part prevailed. In many key states where he campaigned aggressively — including Florida, Missouri, Indiana, Tennessee and Texas — Republican statewide candidates prevailed, perhaps due to Trump’s rollicking, improvisational rallies. He certainly didn’t hurt them.
The expected “thumping” and “shellacking” — terms deployed respectively by George W. Bush and Barack Obama to describe their party’s major midterm defeats — didn’t materialize.
The likely clamoring by Democrats that the “popular vote” in the House went strongly for Democrats is bunk. Republicans devoted their resources to close races, not to trying to prevent Democrats from running up the score in urban areas. It is impossible to say what the vote count would be if the House was apportioned based on the popular vote.
So why did the country fail to reject Trumpism?
What liberals who believed the president would provoke a tsunami of new House Democrats failed to understand — as they failed to understand in 2016 — is that the caricature of Trump and his supporters they revel in is fiction. Trump addresses — flamboyantly and divisively, to be sure — the serious concerns of average Americans worried that their country is changing too fast. These voters are concerned that the nation they’ve known, and that has in many ways been remarkably successful, is slipping away from them.
Even establishment Republicans don’t get it. They begged Trump to emphasize the economy during his rallies. But Trump, who is preternaturally connected to the GOP base — for a New York businessman, in particular — understands that many Americans are deeply concerned about events like the migrant caravan. It is not because they are all racists — though, of course, a small subset of them are. It is because Americans understand that an unceasing influx of people can be complicated to absorb.
Similarly, many Americans understand that if Trump nastily attacks African Americans like Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., or failed Democratic Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, it does not make him a racist. He is going after them because they are very liberal Democrats. Nor does it make him sexist when he shuts down two female reporters at an October press conference — as was widely alleged. He also shut down two male reporters during the same event.
Trump is an equal-opportunity insulter. Just ask the white, black and Hispanic males he eviscerated during the 2015-16 Republican primaries.
Neither is fear-mongering a sin — when there is something to be fearful about. Playing on fears is a tactic used by all politicians. It is employed more ostentatiously by Trump, but Democrats, including Obama, have similarly preyed on the fears of gays, seniors, African Americans and others when warning about the possibility of Republicans winning elections. “They're going to put y'all back in chains,” Vice President Joe Biden warned a largely black audience during the 2012 campaign. But the press fails to play up Democratic demagoguery the way it does Trump’s.
Many American voters believe that anti-globalism is not akin to buying into a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to control the banking system, or something like that. It reflects a fear that whether talking about the United Nations or international treaties like the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the Paris climate change agreement, U.S. sovereignty is threatened by bureaucrats overseas.
The news is not all good for Trumpism. His failure to maintain GOP control of the House signals problems in suburban areas, where women, moderates and even some Republicans are turned off by the president’s brutally direct, divisive and insulting style. This no doubt helped cost the GOP Virginia’s 10th District — a Washington suburb where Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock was defeated Tuesday night.
But Trump has demonstrated time and again that he is not going to change. And having helped increase the Republican majority in the Senate, Trump has shown that he doesn’t have to; the Senate reflects the Electoral College. If anything, the midterms suggest Democrats should be even more concerned about their prospects in the 2020 presidential campaign. Because Trump has demonstrated that despite receiving endlessly negative coverage, and despite Republicans being outspent by Democrats in the midterms, his brand of politics is not — at least not yet — still resonates with a significant portion of American voters.
Tuesday’s results showed that the 2016 elections were not an aberration. They reflected deep anxieties in the electorate. Fears that may be strong enough to keep Trump in power until January of 2025 — and maintain the popularity of the policies he advocates.