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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Handing Trump more power would be a disastrous outcome for the midterms

The forthcoming ballot has been framed as a referendum on Donald Trump's tenure so far. However, that may have to wait until the next presidential election

President Donald Trump takes the stage to speak at a campaign rally in Indianapolis. AP/Michael Conroy
President Donald Trump takes the stage to speak at a campaign rally in Indianapolis. AP/Michael Conroy

Next week’s US midterm elections are widely expected to be among the most consequential in decades. Both sides have, in different ways, framed them as a referendum on President Donald Trump, who has been doing his best to nationalise the vote and insist that he’s “on the ballot”.

But he’s not.

The vote will be exceptionally important, but unless there is a decisive outcome, which seems unlikely, the American jury will still be effectively out on Mr Trump and his nativist agenda.

Mr Trump is a remarkably unpopular president with the public at large, yet he has won the strong support of the Republican base.

A split decision reflecting that seems to be shaping up, with the Democrats’ widespread appeal, especially in urban and suburban areas, positioning them to win control of the House of Representatives, in which all 435 seats will be contested.

However, only about a third of the Senate – 35 out of 100 seats – will be decided. Twenty-six of those seats are now held by Democrats and only nine by Republicans, who currently hold a two-vote majority.

The Senate elections, unlike the House, won’t be comprehensive or in any sense national. This year, they will largely reflect the voting power and influence of the rural and exurban white electorate that backs Mr Trump and his allies.

So, it now looks likely that Democrats will win a solid majority in the House, but Republicans will keep a narrow grip on the Senate. That’s the kind of split decision that decides nothing major and postpones the national verdict on Trumpism to the presidential contest of 2020.

The political landscape has fundamentally altered since 2016. Mr Trump has seized complete control of the Republican Party, which now sometimes looks like a personality cult, with most of its officials competing to express devotion to him.

Mr Trump has accomplished a total realignment − but only on the right − by transforming the GOP from a conservative party to a white-nationalist one. His continued support among former Democratic and swing voters, especially among the white working class, is untested and a split decision will leave this question unanswered.

The US system seems to have produced a profound anomaly in 2016: comprehensive minority rule in a democratic system.

Most empirical evidence suggests that the US public, as a national whole, has a core and growing centre-left majority. But the complexities of the political system have left Republicans both in total control of national government while shifting in a white-nationalist direction.

The federal electoral system, which gave the White House to Mr Trump, even though Hillary Clinton beat him by almost three million votes, produces even starker distortions in the Senate.

The political impact of a single vote in Montana (with fewer than 600,000 residents) is significantly greater than one in California (with almost 40 million), since both states get the same two Senate seats.

Added to this are rampant partisan gerrymandering, growing voter suppression, a flood of dark money and a right-wing majority on the Supreme Court bolstered by the recent addition of long-time Republican apparatchik Brett Kavanaugh.

That all suggests that the national government has, for the past two years, been entirely controlled by a minority, and in some ways even fringe, tendency.

Democrats were hoping to demonstrate that with an overwhelming “blue wave” vote. If the midterms were truly a national election, that could have happened. But the Senate, which is more powerful than the House, makes it unlikely that Democrats can establish any such thing.

However, if Democrats can capture a House majority, the political conversation will be significantly altered.

Democrats can and will use House committee and subpoena powers to investigate a wide range of information regarding Mr Trump, his allies and other Republicans, and will conduct the kind of oversight that the Republican Congress has meticulously avoided.

Mr Trump’s legislative agenda will be essentially paralysed, unless he veers significantly to the centre and compromises with the Democrats.

However, losing the House will not be a complete disaster for him. Unless there are some easily discovered and highly damning secrets about him, it will greatly strengthen his ability to get re-elected in 2020 by blaming House Democrats for everything the public does not like. Victory now would leave Mr Trump and the Republicans solely responsible for all developments in a country that consistently prefers divided government.

There are two other possibilities, though.

First, the Democrats could win both the House and Senate, and the apparent centre-left American majority could start strongly reasserting its power, despite the significant structural obstacles. That would be widely regarded as a powerful repudiation of Mr Trump. Second, the Republicans could retain control of both the House and the Senate, and score a decisive vindication for Mr Trump and his policies.

An anthropologist from Mars, dispassionately observing this process as fascinatingly strange behaviour by an odd species, might welcome the second outcome, as it would invite Mr Trump to test just how far he can go in exercising what would be an extraordinary level of power and to experiment with the implementation of his obviously authoritarian tendencies.

That’s such an alarming prospect that many Americans will be relieved by an otherwise unsatisfactory split decision that postpones the national reckoning with Trumpism for two more, very long, years.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington