Donald Trump US midterms

It may not have been the “tremendous success” that Donald Trump claimed it as, but the US midterm elections have positioned him well to be returned as president in 2020. Having control of the House of Representatives go over to the Democrats might actually play in his favour, rather than against it.

It is widely accepted that the size of the swing to the Democrats was much less than earlier anticipated, but recent polling had shown a closing of the gap between Republicans and Democrats. The extent of the swing was within keeping of other midterm election swings against first-term presidents, and far less than the swing towards Republicans in Barack Obama’s first term as president in 2010.

This limited swing appears to have reflected two factors. The first factor is that the “Trump effect” is not nearly as negative as many pundits had believed. Trump’s anti-politician populism and truth-stretching hyperbole continue to play in his favour. The second factor is that Trump’s personal campaigning, particularly on the issue of the “illegal migrant caravan”, rallied conservative voters. Regardless of his unsophisticated campaigning style, or perhaps because of it, he appears to have swayed voters.

Within this context, Trump’s sacking of attorney-general Jeff Sessions has been little more than a blip on the US political radar — it was expected, if not quite so soon. Now it has been somewhat buried under the wider impact of the midterm elections and sideshows such as his heated exchange with CNN reporter Jim Acosta.

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Trump’s new pick for attorney-general, Matthew Whitaker, can be expected to limit — if not end — the FBI’s Mueller investigation into collusion between the 2016 Trump election campaign and Russian interests. The Democrat majority House of Representatives is likely to launch its own investigation into the Russia affair, as well as to block Trump’s legislative agenda, but this might backfire on the Democrats.

Assuming the FBI investigation is cancelled by a new attorney-general, the Democrats launching a House inquiry would be seen by some voters as vindictive. This would be especially so if the new attorney-general made a strong case for canceling the FBI investigation.  

With the Senate even more firmly under the control of the Republican Party — a sign that voters are less than wholly enamored of the Democrats — regardless of what an investigation finds, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives cannot alone impose an impeachment process on the President. This means the Democrats will go into the 2020 elections complaining about the conduct of the 2016 elections rather than countering Trump’s populist appeal.   

Further, by blocking Trump’s legislative program, the Democrats will be able to be portrayed as negative, divisive and potentially destructive. This would further drive divisions over how to respond between the Democrats’ deeply riven “establishment” and “progressive” wings. Short of an Obama-like figure who could charismatically preside over a divided Democrats, they could struggle to present a viable alternative to Donald Trump in 2020.

Assuming that the Democrats choose a good but not stellar presidential candidate, Trump will only have to roll out his populist slogans and negative, fear-based campaigning to remain a strong contender. And, as with 2016, he only needs a slim margin to get across the line. 

Damien Kingsbury is Deakin University’s Professor of International Politics.