A Brief Progressive Perspective on the US Mid-Term Elections and the Trump Phenomenon

Leonidas Petrakis

The just concluded mid-term elections in the US featured one of the most expensive campaigns in the electoral history of the country, the highest voter turnout of the last fifty years, unprecedented world wide attention, rather meager discussion of substantive issues, and plentiful and often acrimonious political theater. Several days after the election was concluded, ballots were still being counted in some key districts, and lawsuits have been filed disputing many results.

In the mid-term elections (halfway in the four year Presidential election cycle) voters choose all members of the House of Representatives for two-year terms, one third of the 100 Senators who serve for six years, and numerous State and local officials. In addition, in a few States, especially California, there are always referenda, which allow the voters to directly decide taxation, regulation, and other issues. The mid-term elections also provide the opportunity for voters to evaluate indirectly the President through the approval or disapproval of his party (historically the party in power tends to suffer losses), and they mark the unofficial start of the next Presidential campaign, with aspirants to the Presidency launching their campaigns (fund raising) without formally declaring their candidacy.

This year the undisputed focal point of the mid-term elections was Mr Trump, both for the Republicans and also the many Democrats who hope to replace him in 2020, if they do not impeach him and force him out of office before then.

The results of the last election pleased both parties and allowed each to declare “a great victory”. The Democrats wrestled the control of the House of Representatives, while the Republicans increased their majority in the Senate. The Democrats also scored significant victories in State offices, which could prove vital for their chances for the 2020 Presidential election, since States control the election mechanisms and can prevent “gerrymandering” (advantageous manipulation of electoral districts) and “voter suppression”, tactics for which the Democrats have often accused the Republicans of practicing especially in the “Red States” and the South.

One of the most remarkable results of the mid-term elections was Mr Trump essentially completing his taking over the Republican Party and transforming it to his image. Several of his most vocal critics will not be in the new Congress, including the late Senator “Bomb bomb bomb Iran” John McCain, Senator Bob Corker –current Chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Affairs-, and the outgoing Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. Several other formerly bitter antagonists of Mr Trump have capitulated to him, including Senator Lindsey Graham –another super hawk on foreign affairs who seems not  to ever have seen a war that he does not like-, and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas whose antagonism to Mr Trump had become personal, but being seriously challenged by the young and charismatic Beto O’Rourke for the Senate seat in TX Mr Cruz set aside the received insults and sought the help of Mr Trump for his own re-election. Also helping Mr Trump in pursuing his agenda with an eye to 2020, especially in the appointment of federal judges, is that several “moderate” or “centrist” Democratic Senators who often would vote in line with Mr Trump have been replaced by Republicans expressly loyal to Mr Trump.

Mr Trump for his mid-term elections success had at his disposal and played expertly two powerful cards. He claimed credit for the economic recovery (which really had started during the Obama administration), the low unemployment, the tax cuts for business and high income individuals, and the record high stock market prices giving the impression of a general economic well being, which however is not reaching broad sections of the American working force. The other card that Mr Trump played successfully using his long time TV experience was the “TV visuals”. The Fox TV network, a strong supporter of the President, was relentless in showing the caravans of immigrants from Central America entering illegally Mexico and marching en mass towards the Southern border of the US. These were powerful images that Mr Trump, as a master puppeteer, manipulated to his advantage, easily winning the contest of TV visuals.

Mr Trump’s almost unprecedented involvement in the mid-term elections featured mass rallies with his boasting to his base that he kept the promises that he made during his Presidential campaign. It is true that either through legislation or by executive orders and defunding of programs he did proceed, as he had promised, with undoing much of the legislation enacted by the Obama administration, affecting both domestic issues (environmental, health, tax, education) as well as foreign policy issues (Iran nuclear and Paris environmental agreements, United Nations, US embassy to Jerusalem). However the surprisingly positive promises he had made during his Presidential campaign (extricate the US from Syria and Afghanistan, improve relations with Russia, fix the crumbling US infrastructure) all have been ignored or in fact reversed. Remarkably he has appointed to key positions neoconservatives, like Mr John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who are pursuing policies in his name that he had campaigned against. His cavalier attitude about international agreements and the sense of unreality (in line with his previous TV career) is epitomized by the remark made by his UN Ambassador Ms Nikki Haley on his behalf that the Trump administration has enhanced the world’s respect for the US, the remark made in spite of UN delegates laughing dismissively at Mr Trump’s UN speech, and the General Assembly voting against the US sanctions on Cuba by 189 vs only 2 votes for the US position (US and Israel.) Mr Trump can contradict himself, make baseless pronouncements, stock the darker side of angry voters whether it is race relations, gun violence, foreign policies, but none of that seems to matter to his base, his followers continued to flock in huge numbers to his campaign events and turned out to vote.


And what about the Democrats especially going forward and into 2020?

Clearly the mid-term elections results strengthened the Democrats, and they may be in a position to control to some significant degree the political agenda even though Mr Trump’s GOP has the White House, increased majority in the Senate, and increasingly the Judiciary. But the Democrats face a serious problem, for they are deeply divided and undecided as to what their program should be and how to present it in order to regain power.

The Democrats, following the stunning and unexpected defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016, have been searching for ways to “stop” Mr Trump and undo that defeat. Starting literally the day after the 2016 election they had their ”million women’s march” on Washington, followed by various  “resistance” moves under the rubric of “activism”, from spontaneous protests to nationally coordinated events, some getting out of hand and becoming violent.

In pursuing this goal, the Democrats for the last two years have made “investigation” and “impeachment” the central elements of their strategy. They have focused on the “Russia probe” (seeking evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia and personally with President Putin to defeat Hillary Clinton.) These investigations have produced so far indictments of persons (as for example the quixotic bit player George Papadopoulos, favorite to Mr Panos Kammenos also, for lying to the FBI) in criminal activities not directly associated to the 2016 campaign. They also sapped the energies of the campaign away from issues that resonated with voters.  And as far as impeachment is concerned, it is unlikely to happen for the Democrats may be able to bring charges against Mr Trump in the House (impeachment proceedings) given their control of the Lower House of Congress, but they will not be able to gain enough Republican votes especially in the more conservative new Senate to reach 67, the number required to convict and remove Mr Trump.

Overall the strategy employed by the Democrats remains anchored on “identity politics”, a strategy that has been blamed by many for the failure of the Democrats to succeed on a national level. The case against “identity politics” has been made most forcefully by the self-proclaimed progressive Columbia University professor Mark Lilla in his controversial book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, with his central argument that “identity movement politics is preventing liberal Democrats from developing a vision of our common destiny that would expand our appeal and help us seize institutional power from the Republican radical right, and thereby actually protect the groups we profess to care about…. You don’t build a Left by arguing over who has been most victimized; you build it by organizing all the victims”. Other significant voices against identity politics have included the distinguished historian Arthur Schlesinger, who rejected political activism that is based on emphasizing marginalization, and Senator Bernie Sanders, who has stated, “ It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’ No, that’s not good enough”,

The recent electoral gains by Democrats may in fact exacerbate the obstacles for their mounting an effective challenge to Mr Trump. The divide between the established Party leadership and the more energetic and impatient younger Democrats has deepened. These new Democrats are exemplified by the 29 year activist Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez who defeated in the NY primaries one of the Democratic national leadership stalwarts on her way to becoming the youngest member of the new Congress; Stacey Abrams, the Yale educated and tenacious African American woman who may indeed gain the Governor’s chair in Georgia; and Beto O’Rourke who almost flipped the very red state of Texas into blue by challenging Senator Cruz. Many younger Democrats are impatient with the established leadership that features a bunch of octogenarians and septuagenarians such as Senator Diane Feinstein, former and still aspiring Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Vice President Biden, and others who run the Democrats’ fortunes as the Party had been in decline, and lost to the Republicans’ worst candidate. 

The Democrats appear not to have decided what their message should be -“investigate and impeach” vs laying out a progressive agenda on health care and other issues that resonate broadly with voters. The first big test which of the two competing factions for the soul of the Democratic Party will be in the very near future with the election of the leadership of the new Congress.

The national Democratic Party leadership in opting to ignore the sage advice of Micelle Obama who advocated “when they go low, we go high”, and instead adopted the hawkish position advocated by Hilary Clinton (Democrats will be “civil” only after they win, she declared as she seems to be preparing for another run at the Presidency in 2020); by President Obama’s Attorney General and also aspiring 2020 Presidential candidate Erick Holder (“when they go low we kick them”); by Congress woman Maxine Waters urging followers to “challenge” Trump Administration officials even in restaurants; and celebrities supporting the Democrats by advocating the “F…k Trump!” political rhetoric. There are many observers who believe that the Democrats missed a chance for making really big gains in the mid-term elections, if instead of running on “investigations and Impeachment” (and name-calling) they had taken Micelle Obama’s advice and featured real issues –especially health care, infrastructure, education. Such an approach and issues would have been winners even in red States. (Utah and other red States voted for expanding Medicare.)

Regarding Greek interests and Greek Americans, the new Lieutenant Governor of the biggest State (California) will be Eleni Kounalakis-Tsakopoulos. Five Greeks have been elected to the House of Representatives, and the strongest supporter of Greek causes, Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey has been reelected to the Senate.

The mid-term elections, however, did not lessen the worsening and ominous polarization, which threatens to become more acute and prevent meaningful and respectful discourse required for effective governance in the face of daunting domestic and international challenges.


(first published in CHRONOS magazine, 15 Nov. 2018)


ΧΡΟΝΟΣ #67, 15 Νοεμβρίου 2018

Leonidas Petrakis holds a PhD in Physical Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley; has taught at various universities—in the US, France and Greece; was Department Chairman and Senior Scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory; and worked in the private sector. He specialized in energy and environmental issues, and has authored, coauthored, or co-edited six books and more than one hundred and fifty scientific studies in peer-reviewed journals.

The mid-term elections did not lessen the worsening and ominous polarization, which threatens to become more acute and prevent meaningful and respectful discourse required for effective governance in the face of daunting domestic and international challenges.