Winter is coming: What the Midterms mean
You could tell something wasn’t right when Donald Trump thumbed his Twitter app straight after the results came in. The president, short of options, was forced to quote from the website ‘Capitalist code’ to big himself up to the level he desired. Trump had ‘magic coming out of his ears’, according to one writer. For someone not exactly inclined to modesty, this was taking chest pumping to a new level. You could call it bravado, but this was the also the reaction of a President somewhat rattled by the midterm results. At the same time, he had reasons to feel emboldened.
While Trump may provoke derision for his self praise, he is not stupid. In-fact, he has proved to be a better reader of politics than several of his counterparts both in the Republicans and Democrats. This inconvenient truth presents the left with a real challenge in overcoming the enormous threat he poses.
Trump knew the house was going to turn to the Democrats, so he focused on the Senate where Republicans stood to gain more on account of the number of defensive battles their opponents were contesting. He targeted areas where he thought he could mobilise people on the back of racist scapegoating of migrants, Muslims and the black population of America. The economy, too, undoubtedly helped him and Trump will be pleased that his efforts in key areas have paid off. In particular, he has built greater inroads into a section of his base who he is further polarising to the right.
This poses an enormous threat to the left in America and beyond, but it is also not a tactic of a politician on an unstoppable rise, it’s the strategy of holding on and consolidating the gains made in 2016.
But there are also reasons for Trump to worry.
Huge dents have been made in places such as Texas and Idaho, and at the time of writing the election was too-close-to-call in Arizona where Trump campaigned hard against the ‘migrant invasion’ which he personified in the people caravan attempting to enter the US. Whatever happens, his attempt to use that issue in particular to deliver an overwhelming right-wing, anti-immigrant vote hasn’t materialised as he would wish and is also vulnerable to attack from the left. Deep down, Trump knows this.
So while he has some reasons to be satisfied, he’ll be also be very aware of what needs to happen to be guaranteed victory in 2020.
This strategy might involve two key themes, among others. One will be to harden his base, both in the population at large and within his party’s establishment. His comments immediately after the results show that he’s already doing this. He tweeted his congratulations to Ron de Santis — the new Florida governor who sang from the same hymn sheet as the President by making gutter racism the central tactic of his campaign against Andrew Gillum — and lambasted those in his party who didn’t wrap themselves in the Trump flag. The aim here is to make the Republicans a more radical, right wing and racist force in US society able to drum up the most reactionary sentiment within the wider populus and fight 2020 on that basis. This, he believes, is the way the likes of Jair Bolsonaro have won in Brasil and it will be the key to future success. He will see some consolidation of his base and will seek to deepen it.
The second theme will be to try and neutralise the Democrats and kill off any threat of a left wing, Bernie Sanders style challenge at the next election. Trump believes that he can beat another Clinton, and will be desperate to make the Democrats look less like an energetic political force and more like a tired, Washington obsessed cohort of wealthy liberals tagging along with moderate republicans. In doing this Trump will be ruthless and we should expect an escalation of everything that has come to mark his Presidency so far.
Incoming House speaker Nancy Pelosi talking blandly about restoring constitutional norms and check and balances will do little to mobilise people further and is the opposite of what is required in the current moment. Major political turmoil is on the horizon (everyone knows that), but there is no guarantee that this upheaval will favour the left or those in opposition to Trump more generally. In-fact, a relentless obsession with Russian interference could easily backfire and benefit the President.
The key reason, surely, for the relative success of the Democrats in *some areas* was that they were seen as the primary vehicle by which to oppose Trump and a force for genuine change. The left and socialist strand within the party has become more powerful and well known since the candidacy of Sanders and the defeat of Clinton. This rebirth of a more radical politics has allowed the Democrats to appear a more exciting prospect to people who otherwise might not bother to vote or even swing to Trump.
In order to challenge Trump in future the radical left has to strengthen its hold on US politics and the Trump opposition.
Those in the centre will be opposed to this. Already we have had the British Labour politician Chuka Umunna taking a swipe at left-winger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and calling for the democrats to turn to the right. If anyone stateside needs to understand whether to listen to this tactical advice or not, they only need be reminded of how disastrous it would have been for the British left to have taken Umunna’s advice at the last UK election. Something that would have involved ditching Corbyn and the radical offerings in the Labour manifesto in favour of bland, neo-liberal centrism.
In-fact the last UK election — where the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn climbed 20 points in just six weeks and almost won — is interesting. The central reason that the campaign did well (and this also goes for Sanders in 2016) was not only that it was bold and radical in its opposition to the right, but also because it relentlessly focused on the lives of ordinary people. It ditched the histrionics and games around Westminster (or Washington), rejected a ‘culture wars’ approach and spoke instead about welfare cuts, housing, the environment, wages, racism and so on. It was unashamedly on the side of ordinary people and the oppressed. It pulled people away from the right be its strength of argument and movement. It was anti-capitalist.
Comparisons with these campaigns are not entirely helpful because the global crisis has only deepened since then. What worked then for the left must be pushed further and made more radical to work now. This is the huge challenge we face.