The US is experiencing the most turbulent, poisonous and partisan politics since I first started visiting the country nearly 40 years ago. With a week to go before the midterm elections, the future composition of the House of Representatives and Senate is inextricably linked to the fortunes of President Donald J Trump in a battle of two Americas.
From my vantage point in San Antonio, Texas, where there is a remarkable struggle between veteran Republican Ted Kruz and his charismatic, Bobby Kennedy-like Democratic opponent Beto O’Rourke, the US has never looked so divided, so devoured by intolerance and so lacking in political respect for competing ideas and values. It is like Brexit – but much worse!
Trump’s successful exploitation of identity politics and “cultural wars” are hollowing out any lingering notion of a unified American dream or any sense of bipartisanship, which now seems a relic of a bygone age.
The US remains a country of bewildering complexity, a remarkable melting pot of diversity, and there are burning issues to be addressed. But the midterms will focus on little of that. Instead this will be a referendum on Trump’s first two years.
The battleground of the final week will be the relentless pursuit of Trump’s immigration obsession, fueled by the so-called organised caravan of thousands of migrants heading towards the US border from Latin America and described by the President as transporting “Middle Easterners”, gangs and criminals. This is for his base, which is being asked to nurture a resurgent racism, religious intolerance and the often-unstated idea of the superiority of white America. Addressing the lack of respect some people feel, linking this to an assault on their patriotism, blaming immigrants and wrapping it all up in the supposed superiority of ‘real’ Americans is a political master stroke.
The President uses traditional and modern forms of public engagement. Tweets and old-style rallies for the faithful, White House events promoting politically useful groups and organisations designed to stir the base, and finally some relaxation on the golf course, actually quite a lot of that. All of this is with an eye to the 2020 presidential election.
For the Democrats, the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, has emerged as a vital issue with growing fears the Republican Party will scrap important provisions. And removing pre-existing conditions from the Act is also worrying many of the Republican base.
With the electorate hopelessly split, the Democrats are finding it difficult to put together a plausible narrative to promote what a progressive America might look like, freed from the tyranny of the Trump White House and a Republican-controlled Congress. Trump is manipulating raw emotions, building on the anger and resentment of people who have lost out and, with tax cuts, judicial appointments and deregulation, courting crucial influential business figures, evangelical and special interest groups – for example, on abortion and guns.
The President is loyal to himself and his base, and appears to lead a movement, not a country. So much so that the recent terrorist campaign against prominent liberals, in which the suspect is a self-declared Trump fanatic, is now raising awkward questions about Trump’s mocking of opponents and the incendiary language used to fire up his base.
For those outside the US, who are concerned about the wrecking-ball mentality of much of the Trump team, there is an anticipation that the Democratic Party will make progress and be able to blunt Trump’s attacks on the rules-based world order.
All 435 members of the House of Representatives and a third of the 100 Senate seats are up for election. There is growing confidence that the Democratic Party will win the 24 seats necessary to regain control of the House. Top political pollster Nate Silver has given the Democrats an 84 per cent chance of doing that. This would provide protection for the Muller inquiry into possible collusion between the Trump election campaign and the Russians, which Trump has threatened to close down. The start of any potential impeachment process would also be under the control of the Democrats.
Taking the Senate is more problematic for the Democrats as there are 26 seats held by the Democrats and only nine held by the Republicans up for election. The Senate changing hands would be a politically seismic event, although in this febrile atmosphere nothing should be ruled out.
The Republicans are in a poor political shape, but it is important to remember this election is about Trump, not their silent acquiescence to his excesses: important to note that in recent polling, both his base and Republican voters overall are sticking by their man and Trump’s approval ratings are climbing! There are, however, signs of mounting anxiety among the Republican leadership in Congress. The Democrats have also experienced internal problems as its left-wing has sought to oust those on the right, while the national leadership looks tired and uninspiring.
Much of the outcome of the midterm elections will depend on demographics, the size of the turnout, which is notoriously low, and the extent to which each party can energise their supporters. The Democrats are hoping that Latinos, African Americans, young people and women will respond enthusiastically to the call to vote.
This will be a battle of bases, a dialogue of extremes, a disrespectful exchange of views, a rejection of solidarity and civility, and the disintegration of that layer of agreement and understanding that once supported a healthier and more purposeful level of political discourse in the US.
If this was a more settled era in US politics, there would be a raft of big issues to be debated: inequality, the economy, the threatened destruction of precious environments in Alaska, climate change, poverty, health care, data protection, voter suppression, opioid drug-taking and borders and migration policy. Not to mention a raft of foreign policy issues which are seriously worrying the European Union and other US allies.
Instead, the US is fast approaching a near-dystopian reality. Trump is all-consuming. The White House is the stage. Capitol Hill has become an increasingly irrelevant side-bar to the needs of the President. A confusing foreign policy, the rejection of consensus and cooperation, and a new authoritarian nationalism go hand-in-hand as Trump attempts to shape a new global order and emboldens others in Europe to follow: a Europe where history has seen this all before.
November the 6th will be a day of reckoning. Donald Trump will either encounter his first set back at the hands of the people or obtain some form of an endorsement of his brand of divisive and exclusive politics. It’s an American election certainly, but the world is anxiously looking on.