Election Analysis: Trump sacrifices House Republicans to strengthen GOP Senate majority

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A busy week of explaining the U.S. election to Chinese audiences.

China Radio International asked me to analyze the November 6 U.S. midterm elections. Instead of staying up all night watching the results in Washington, as I used to do during my 35 years of covering politics, I spent a day of my midterm (exam) week at Tsinghua University monitoring the returns, taking advantage of the 13-hour time difference to avoid sleep deprivation.

Here is a lightly edited transcript of my CRI Q&A:

Q: What’s your reaction to the election result?

A: It was exactly the result I expected. Donald Trump’s decision to divide the country along class and racial lines helped Republicans make gains in the Senate but it doomed them in the House. And I think Trump made a rational political decision: sacrifice the House to keep the Senate, where his nominees for executive office and the courts must be confirmed. This split verdict of the voters strengthens Trump as far as nominations are concerned, but it will make it hard for him to pass any legislation unless it is truly bipartisan. It also will subject him to aggressive oversight by the new Democratic committee chairmen in the newly Democratic House.

Q: To what extent do you think this is going to reshape the political landscape of America?

A: It confirms that 2016 was not a fluke and that Trump has realigned American politics. On the one hand, some suburban voters are switching to the Democratic Party, and women and younger voters are becoming more and more Democratic. But Trump has consolidated the realignment of white working-class voters and has managed to maintain the support of many educated white men in the suburbs. I think it means at least two more years of deeply divided politics and a focus by both parties on a few states that will determine the 2020 election: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Arizona and probably Florida.

Q: Donald Trump said two days before the elections that he planned to focus on the Senate. He declared the election results a “tremendous success” for Republicans. In what ways could this be a victory for Donald Trump?

A: Well, it’s a victory because he kept control of the Senate, and even strengthened the Republican majority. He is directly responsible for that with his highly charged rhetoric and his aggressive campaigning. Five new senators owe Trump their jobs. It means that Trump will have virtual carte blanche on nominations for administration positions and federal judgeships for the next two years.

Q: Do you think Donald Trump should be given the credit for Republicans keeping the Senate red?

A: Yes, he deserves credit. And so does Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump figured out a way to motivate his base. Democrats were enthusiastic about going to the polls to vote against Republicans. They figured out a way, with the Supreme Court nomination fight over Brett Kavanaugh, to charge up Republican base voters. Trump understands the Trump voters better than the American media does.

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The Magic of MAGA? Trump charges up his troops … again.

Q: With divided leadership in Congress and a president who has taken an expansive view of executive power, is Washington going to see even deeper political polarization and legislative gridlock?

A: Because the Democrats control the House, there will either be bipartisanship or gridlock. Judging by Trump’s track record, I would bet on gridlock. Unless Trump completely changes his persona and suddenly becomes a statesman, Washington will devolve into gridlock and recriminations. The House will investigate Trump. The Senate will support Trump. The most likely compromises will come when Congress debates spending bills, because they have to figure out a way to agree to pay for government operations.

Q: The 2018 midterms are viewed by many as a national referendum on President Trump. Why is that? Is that what usually happens in the U.S.?

A: Midterms are rarely a referendum on the president. The 2010 midterms were a referendum on Obamacare and government spending to counteract the Great Recession. The 2006 midterms were not a referendum on George W. Bush but a rejection of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a saying in Washington that in Congress, all politics is local. In Donald Trump’s Washington, all politics is all Trump, all the time.

It was a referendum on Trump because he made it a referendum on himself. He could have made it a referendum on a strong economy, but he decided that dividing voters over issues such as immigration and judges would help Republicans keep the Senate. He was right about that, although Democratic Senate candidates got millions more votes than Republican candidates, and House Democratic candidates received a bigger majority of the two-party vote than either party has received since 2008. So the public spoke: Trump and Republicans are unpopular, but the American system, which gives each state two senators, benefits the smaller, more conservative states where Trump is popular.

Q: A survey released on the eve of the election shows that a quarter of Americans have lost friends over political disagreements and are less likely to attend social functions because of politics. What does it tell about the political environment in today’s American society?

A: It is toxic. I stayed off Twitter for much of the past week because there were too many angry people spending their time insulting each other. Social discourse in America is making people angry, depressed and divided. I hope that changes, but I’m not sure where the change will start.

Q: Why are we seeing more far-right activists using violence to express their political views, from the pipe bombs sent to prominent Democratic figures to the shooting at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 people?

A: Far-right activists feel empowered and emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric and his successes. Trump is not responsible for crazed people who commit violent acts, but he does bear some responsibility for the lack of civility in public discourse and a failure to repudiate racial and religious hatred.

Q: Will the election result in any way influence the Trump administration’s trade policies?

A: I am an eternal optimist, and I think there’s a chance that Trump will try to cool down the rhetoric and try to find a negotiated settlement to the trade dispute with China. Election Day polling of voters found that only 25 percent of them believe that Trump’s trade policies are good for the American economy.

But it is also possible that, having declared victory, he will feel emboldened to continue to challenge traditional allies such as the EU and NATO, and get tough with China and even Russia, as we saw recently when he pulled out of the nuclear arms treaty.


The rise of Trump explained in four graphics

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How did he get this far this quickly?

A little more than a year ago, when Donald Trump opened his presidential campaign by gliding down the golden escalators of Trump Tower, with paid extras hired from the New York theater community to pad the crowd size, it was easy to dismiss the real estate mogul as a self-promoting dilettante more interested in publicity than politics.

So many people got it so wrong. His Republican rivals, in the famous words of George W. Bush, “misunderestimated” him. The Pundit Elite kept predicting that just one more embarrassing gaffe would extinguish his White House hopes. The nation’s best newspapers kept churning out damning investigative pieces questioning Trump’s business acumen, his honesty, his ethics, his wild flip-flops on issues and his command of basic knowledge of the world ~ and it seemed to matter nary a bit.

Historians will be discussing the Trump phenomenon for decades. Yet here we are, the general election upon us. How did Donald Trump, a political neophyte and nearly lifelong Democrat, emerge as the self-proclaimed champion of conservative values, the master of the Republican National Committee, and the voice of angry white people?

It’s easy to oversimplify Trump’s appeal, but I’d like to try to explain the rise of Trump in four informational graphics.

#1: Americans have grown increasingly alienated from major institutions

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Until the 1960s — amid Vietnam, civil rights struggles and social unrest — Americans had almost universally positive views about basic institutions in U.S. society. The trend has been downward ever since. But there has been a significant drop in the past decade in institutions as diverse as religion, schools, banking, the news business, the courts, and, of course, the Congress. There are two major reasons: self-inflicted wounds, such as congressional dysfunction and the Catholic church sexual abuse scandal, and a partisan media led by Fox News, which has made it a constant theme of its programming to tear down institutions in order to rebuild America in its ideological image. Donald Trump positioned himself as the champion of the “little guy” against all the big, bad institutions — from Wall Street, to the news media, to big business, to the “rigged” Congress and court system … even against the Pentagon generals who know less about military strategy than the reality-TV star.

#2: There has been a rapid, dramatic shift to the left on social issues

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Within the past decade, the United States reached a tipping point on social issues. On gay rights, the nation went from strong opposition to same-sex marriage to overwhelming support for the new reality that was blessed in 2013 and 2014 by the U.S. Supreme Court. The younger generation — Democrat, Republican and those disgusted with both parties — is almost unanimously in favor of social change that affects women (“no means no”), gays (“marriage equality”) and the environment (climate change is real, not a Chinese-inspired hoax). This rapid shift has proven to be disconcerting to many older people, particularly men, who cling to (no, not their guns and bibles) their now-unpopular views. They want to say no to social change. Trump says they’re right. And he says that he’s their voice.

#3: We’ve seen a partisan reversal on globalization

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For decades, Democrats were the protectionists and Republicans were the free-traders. Democrats, influenced by labor unions and environmentalists, resisted trade liberalization as bad for workers and the environment. Republicans embraced globalism and immigration as good for business, good for America, and, ultimately, a net plus for American workers.

Not any more. The Republican Party, radically altered by a massive influx of middle-aged white men displaced by a global economy for which they no longer have the requisite skill set, has become the party of protectionism and economic nationalism. They see immigrants as a threat to American jobs and American values.

Democrats and independents are now more open to international economic liberalization than the Republican Party, the traditional home of the U.S. business community. Trump is the big winner in this new reality. His “America First” backers crushed the internationalist Republicans like Jeb Bush in the Republican primaries and are challenging Democratic dominance in the nation’s economically distressed industrial heartland.

#4: People now get political information from self-selected partisan sources

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We live in parallel information universes. Left-of-center Americans rely on a mix of CNN, NPR, MSNBC and the New York Times for their political and government news. Most of those news outlets present news from a predictably liberal mindset. Right-of-center Americans overwhelming rely on Fox News and local radio for their information. Fox and the Rush/Hannity/Coulter axis is not just conservative, it is almost anarchic in its desire to tear down institutions of the “elites” and the “establishment” while advocating for the grievances of whites who feel they are innocent victims of racial minorities, immigrants, non-Christian religions, China, Japan, Korea, Iran, Israel, Mexico, NATO … you name it.

The result of this Great Information Divide is that facts have become obsolete. The news of the left may be biased, but it is rooted in objective fact. Nonpartisan fact-checking websites can tell you how often politicians tell you the truth or lie to you. The news of the right has increasingly become resistant to globally accepted facts (evolution, climate change) and has allowed the virus of “fake news,” often generated in countries like Russia and Macedonia, to infiltrate the political mainstream. As Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said after Fox News retracted a false story that Hillary Clinton would soon be indicted, “The damage was done.”

Social media has exacerbated the divide. Citizens follow information sources on Twitter and Facebook that confirm their preconceptions of reality. This has become the first post-fact-check presidential election. Trump, with his finger on the “tweet” button of his smartphone and a knack for creating viral content, is the perfect politician for this moment in history.