Ever since 2:29 a.m. on November 9, 2016, America has been waiting for this Tuesday, when a new set of elections would start to bring more clarity to how we should think about the stunning upset that made Donald Trump President. I don’t think the country, or the world, has got over the shock of that night. We haven’t moved on; we haven’t even really accepted it. We are having the same debates about Trump that we had then. We are still endlessly reliving the moment when America turned out to be a country so divided and unhappy that it could elect a man who seemed unelectable by every conventional standard. Trump himself often seems suspended in a time warp, stuck on the best night of his life; just look at how often he still mentions his “beautiful” win over Hillary Clinton.
So now, finally, comes another vote, and with it a chance to move on. For Republicans, the 2018 midterms are a bid to confer legitimacy on a President whose power has always come with the asterisk of not having won the popular vote. By frantically travelling around the country these past six weeks, insisting at rally after rally that this year’s election would be a referendum on him, Trump has made it one. If he and his party maintain control over Congress in a national vote, he will have shown that his Presidency is no fluke. The taint of minority rule will at least partly be washed away.
Trump’s opponents are, of course, well aware of those stakes. Democrats go to the polls this week anxious and hoping to prove that 2016 was indeed the unlikely lightning strike that it seemed. The President’s name is not on the ballot, and many individual candidates may be touting their health-care policies or their service records, but Trump is the inescapable subject of this year’s election.
And that, of course, is just how the President wants it. Disregarding the counsel of his party, Trump has created a closing argument that is all too reminiscent of his 2016 campaign. His endless rallies have been the distillation of his message down to its fearful, divisive essence: Close America’s doors; build the wall; stop the caravan of alien invaders; Democrats will turn America into a socialist hellhole. The President, whose Inaugural address warned of “American carnage,” and who believes that he won his office by lamenting the decline of American greatness, has not been able to adapt to a different narrative. Even the rosy economic statistics that the Republican Party would prefer to talk about are subordinated to the darker language of hatred and conflict, framed with a torrent of lies that, before Trump, would have been extraordinary from a political figure. “Believe me, folks,” he told his crowds back in 2016, before proceeding to lie to them. “I’m the only one that tells you the facts,” he told a crowd the other day.
The President wants us all to keep living in the time warp, to stay suspended in the early morning hours of November 9, 2016, when he did what no one thought he could do.
The election two years ago was an early call, as these things go: everything that could break for Trump did. Even before the polls closed, it wasn’t just a matter of the Democratic “bed wetters,” as the Obama political strategist David Plouffe once memorably described them, wondering whether Trump could win. Plenty of news organizations had walked us through the scenarios in which a Trump upset could happen. More or less everyone, in both parties, just couldn’t accept that it was actually possible, and I think that is, in some ways, still true today. How many people wake up some mornings and wonder if Trump is really President, or if it’s all some kind of dream? Trump’s victory had felt like a low-probability event, like getting hit by a bus on the way to work. But people really do get hit by buses.
Can the country move on from the shock of getting run over by the Trump bus? Perhaps the night of November 6, 2018, will change things. But I doubt it. The past month has suggested that we now have a politics so broken it is hard to imagine it ever being fixed. At least in the immediate aftermath of 2016, we still asked conventional questions, like, Will Trump attempt to heal the divisions of the Presidential race and reach out to those who didn’t vote for him?
No matter the outcome, no one will ask that question this year. There is a dark certainty to what will follow this election. If the Democrats win, they will go for Trump’s jugular. Investigations, subpoenas, perhaps impeachment will unfold. These moves will not be accepted as legitimate by the millions of Americans who have kept the faith in Trump no matter what he does and says. If Republicans hold on, Trump, emboldened further, will show us what a Presidency unfettered by fears of congressional oversight really looks like. Few doubt that he may fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions or Defense Secretary James Mattis, or the special counsel, Robert Mueller, or perhaps all of them. He already believes himself to be a political “genius” who defied history and the collective wisdom of the experts to take the White House; it takes little imagination to see how he would respond to the validation of a second history-defying win.
Barely forty-eight hours after Trump’s victory in 2016, I spoke with a group of Republican strategists to help make sense of it all. The conversation makes for instructive reading two years later. In some ways, the group was prescient, accurately seeing that most Republicans, even those who had not wanted Trump as their nominee, would rally around him once he was President. But few of them—like the rest of us—had really absorbed yet what a different kind of President Trump intended to be. We were still talking and thinking about Washington as it was, and not as it would become. Katie Packer, who had opposed Trump in the Presidential primaries, remained dubious about him, but still saw politics returning to a debate about the record that Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress would compile. “He’s got a Republican team now that’s going to be expected to deliver on all of those things,” she said. Jeff Roe, who was the campaign manager for Senator Ted Cruz in the Republican Presidential primaries, was focussing on the fact that Clinton had made the fall campaign about demonizing Trump, and had failed. He saw this approach as a problem for Democrats and assumed that, as President, Trump would simply put the qualms to rest. “If Trump walks and chews gum, and doesn’t call people dirty names, then people are going to wonder what all the fuss was about,” Roe said.
But that is not what has happened. Trump is no longer calling Roe’s boss Lyin’ Ted Cruz, but he has found many, many new targets to belittle. People are pretty clear on what the fuss is about. There was no pivot to a new and less incendiary Trump, no moment of national reconciliation. The “axis of adults” in Trump’s White House and Cabinet did not last. Wary Republicans did not constrain the President; like Cruz, they submitted to him, or, like House Speaker Paul Ryan, they quit the field. Hatred, lies, and racist appeals were features of Trump’s campaign in 2016, just as they are today; he has actually just turned the volume up. Trump is the same as he was two years ago; it is our expectations of him that are different.
Most Americans still disagree with Trump, but what is remarkable is the extent to which even those who hate him are forced to conduct the debate on the terms he has set. In redefining American politics to suit his own explosive style, Trump has got inside our heads much more deeply than he was during the 2016 campaign, when we still had the luxury of tuning him out at times and believing he would not be around much longer.
Which is why I believe that the psychological shock of 2016 will not have fully worn off until and unless the results of 2018 produce results that adhere to what used to be the laws of American politics. Are the polls going to be right this time? Are there any political norms that matter anymore? Or has Trump definitively rewritten the code of what is acceptable to American voters? I spent much of my twenties reporting on congressional elections for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, and, while we were not always dead-on election forecasters, the general picture that emerged in the run-up to elections was usually right. We knew that Republicans were headed for a huge win to take over the House in 1994, for the first time in four decades. We knew it again in 2010, when Republicans delivered a sixty-three-seat “shellacking” to President Obama, in what remains the high-water mark for modern midterm election gains. All the data suggest that this, too, should be such a year. Pick any indicator, and it argues for a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives: history, fund-raising, polls. But there are no guarantees, and, after 2016, this nagging uncertainty has come to define the Trump era.
A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with a Republican lobbyist who has spent years observing campaigns. Democrats will win the House, he said decisively. His tone of flat certitude surprised me at a time when much of political Washington is still second-guessing itself after the embarrassment of being so collectively wrong in 2016. “Are you sure?” I asked. And besides, I added, how can we be sure of anything anymore? “I’m betting on it,” he replied. “In American politics, what is supposed to happen tends to happen.”
Then he laughed. History may be good to the Democrats on Tuesday night, but that is hardly the end of the story. Two years from now, the lobbyist pointed out, the odds strongly favor four more years of President Donald J. Trump. Since the Second World War, in fact, only once has a party held the White House for only a single term before losing it, “and that was Jimmy Carter.” So, yes, we may well find out in this week’s midterm elections that the laws of political gravity do in fact apply to this unconventional President. But are his opponents really ready for what comes next?