I’m calling this post “aftershocks” because, like those geological events, it’s still not clear whether the kind of political upheaval Americans are likely to see in the near future are simply the death rattles of the initial quake or signs of worse to come.
All the same, at the time of this writing, assuming that the final results of Election 2020 will see Democratic nominee Joe Biden win the Presidency, the Republicans keep the Senate, and the Democrats retain control of the House, the following observations and predictions seem reasonable.
First, whatever the outcome, President Trump’s campaign performance and likely vote percentages were still remarkable. In the middle of a re-spreading pandemic, a deep CCP Virus-led economic slump that’s left unemployment at still punishing levels, and, as mentioned before, unremitting hostility from the very beginning on the part of most and possibly all powerful private sector institutions in this country as well as much of Washington’s permanent government, he gave his opponents a monumental scare. If not for the virus, the President could well have won in a near landslide. And will be made clear below, this isn’t just “moral victory” talk.
Second, at the same time, the kinds of needlessly self-inflicted wounds I’ve also discussed seem to have cost him many important advantages of incumbency by combining with pandemic effects to alienate many independents and moderate Republicans who backed him four years ago.
Third, the stronger-than-generally expected Trump showing means that, all else equal, the prospects for a nationalist populist presidential candidate in 2024 look bright. After all, how difficult is it going to be for the Republican Party (whence this candidate is most likely to come) to find a standard-bearer (or six) who champions the basics of the Trump synthesis – major curbs on trade and immigration, low taxes and regulations but more a more generous economic and social safety net, a genuine America First-type foreign policy emphasizing amassing of national power in all its dimensions but using it very cautiously, and a fundamentally commonsense view on social issues (e.g., recognizing the broad support of substantial abortion rights but strongly resisting identify politics) – without regular involvement in Twitter fights with the likes of Rosie O’Donnell?
Fourth, these prospects that what might be called Trump-ism will outlast Mr. Trump means that any hopes for the establishment wing to recapture the Republican Party are worse than dead. Ironically, an outsized nail-in-the-coffin could be produced by the gains the President appears to have made with African Americans and especially Hispanics. After Utah Senator Mitt Romney’s defeat at the hands of Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election, the Republican conventional wisdom seemed to be that the party needed to adopt markedly more tolerant positions on social issues like gay rights (less so on abortion), and on immigration to become competitive with major elements of the former President’s winning coalition – notably younger voters, women, and Hispanics. The main rationale was that these constituencies were becoming dominant in the U.S. population.
The establishment Republicans pushing this transformation got the raw demographics right – although the short run political impact of these changes was exaggerated, as the Trump victory in 2016 should have made clear. But it looks like they’ve gotten some of the political responses wrong, with immigration the outstanding example. However many Hispanic Americans overall may sympathize with more lenient stances toward newcomers, a notable percentage apparently valued Mr. Trump’s so-called traditional values and pro-business and pro free enterprise positions more highly.
If the current election returns hold, the results will put the GOP – and right-of-center politics in America as a whole – in a completely weird position. Because the party’s establishment wing still figures prominently in its Senate ranks, a wide, deep disconnect seems plausible between the only branch of the federal government still controlled by Republicans on the one hand, and the party’s Trumpist/populist base on the other – at least until the 2022 mid-term vote.
Fifth, as a result, predictions of divided government stemming from Election 2020’s results need some major qualifications. These establishment Senate Republicans could well have the numbers and the backbone to block a Biden administration’s ambitious plans on taxing and spending (including on climate change).
But will they continue supporting Trumpist/populist lines on trade and immigration? That’s much less certain, especially on the former front. Indeed, it’s all too easy to imagine many Senate Republicans acquiescing in the Democratic claims that, notably, the United States needs to “stand up to China,” but that the best strategy is to act in concert with allies – which, as I’ve explained repeatedly, is a recipe for paralysis and even backsliding, given how conflicted economically so many of these allies are. As suggested above, the reactions of the overwhelmingly Trumpist Republican base will be vital to follow.
One reason for optimism (from a populist standpoint) on China in particular – Senate Republican opposition to anything smacking of the Green New Deal should put the kibosh on any Biden/Democratic notions of granting China trade concessions in exchange for promises on climate change that would likely be completely phony. Similar (and similarly dubious) quid pro quos involving China’s repression of Hong Kong and its Uighur Muslim minority could well be off the table, too.
Sixth, their failure to flip the Senate, their apparently small losses in the House, and disappointments at the state level (where they seem likely to wind up remaining a minority party) means that the Democrats’ hoped for Blue Wave was a genuine mirage – and looks more doubtful in future national contests as well. For state governments are the ones that control the process of redrawing Congressional district lines in (very rough) accordance with the results of the latest national Census — like the one that’s winding up. So this is a huge lost opportunity for the Democrats, and a major source of relief for Republicans.
Meanwhile, on a symbolic but nonethless important level, the aforementioned better-than-anyone-had-a-right-to-expect Trump showing means that the desire of many Democrats, most progessives, and other establishmentarians to crush the President (and other Republicans), and therefore consign his brand of politics and policy to oblivion, have been sort of crushed themselves. So it’s an open question as to whether they’ll respond with even more vilification of the President and his supporters, or whether they’ll finally display some ability to learn and seriously address legitimate Trumper grievances.
Seventh, as for Trump Nation and its reaction to defeat, the (so far) closeness of the presidential vote is already aggravating the nation’s continued polarization for one particularly troubling reason: A Biden victory aided by the widespread use of mail-in voting inevitably will raise charges of tampering by Democratic state governments in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Call it domestic election interference, and the allegations will be just as angry as those of foreign interference that dogged the previous presidential election. As a result, I hope that all Americans of good will agree that, once the pandemic passes, maximizing in-person voting at a polling place needs to return as the norm.
Finally, for now – those polls. What a near-complete botch! And the general consensus that Biden held a strong national lead throughout, and comparable edges in key battleground states may indeed have depressed some Republican turnout. Just as important – a nation that genuinely values accountability will demand convincing explanations from the polling outfits concerned, and ignore their products until their methodologies are totally overhauled. Ditto for a Mainstream Media that put so much stock in their data, in part because so many big news organizations had teamed up with so many pollsters. P.S. – if some of these companies are fired outright, and/or heads roll (including those of some political reporters), so much the better.