The midterms are over. The results are perhaps not what anyone predicted. The Republicans have held the Senate. The Democrats have taken the House, but their gains, 26 seats at this writing, are a fraction of the 63 seats the Republicans took in the 2010 midterms following Barack Obama’s first election. There was at best, a “Blue Ripple.” There is great consternation and gnashing of teeth amongst the members of the pundit class.
Maybe now, two years into the Trump era, we can finally have an honest conversation about what is happening in this country. We can stop trying to pretend that nothing has changed. We can face reality. This will be painful but necessary, not just for Democrats, but for Republicans as well.
Ever since Donald Trump was elected in 2016 the Democratic Party has looked for a way to avoid confronting the magnitude of what has occurred. First, there was the mad fiction that Donald Trump was somehow a puppet of Vladimir Putin, and electoral fraud on a massive scale had occurred. When that fantasy began to be exposed for exactly what it was then the next idea was that none of this really mattered in the long term.
Trump was an aberration. Trump would go away. There would be a Blue Wave. We would all wake up from this nightmare and go back to the way things used to be. God willing, Hillary would emerge triumphant in 2020, and it would be as if Camelot had been restored.
None of that has happened. None of it is going to happen. The reality is much more prosaic and much more powerful.
People did not so much leave the Democratic Party as the Democratic Party left them. The modern Democratic Party emerged under Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the party of the working man and woman. It was concerned with living wages and safe working conditions and human dignity. What now passes itself off as the Democratic Party has veered dramatically to the left. It is focused on identity politics and the redistribution of wealth and a host of other policies virtually indistinguishable from those of European social-democratic parties.
The modern Democratic Party wants open borders. The modern Democratic Party apologizes to the world for American preeminence. The modern Democratic Party is complicit in policies which have shipped jobs abroad and driven the American middle class to ruin. The modern Democratic Party has no answers for the plight of the overwhelmingly African-American urban poor other than to keep handing them benefits and making them slightly more comfortable in poverty.
The modern Democratic Party is an endangered species. It has lost entirely the white working class that was once its bedrock. It continues to exist only because of the overwhelming allegiance of African-American voters. If trends hold true in terms of numbers of Blacks walking away, the Democratic Party as we know it may soon be extinct.
The Democrats are not the only ones who need to absorb the lessons of Trump’s victory in 2016 and the just completed midterms. Republicans as well need to wake up. Donald Trump is not in any meaningful sense a Republican president in the way that the term Republican has been used for decades. Core Republican policies identified with globalization and neoconservatism have been completely rejected by Trump and his followers. The Bush years with the massive growth of our defense and security bureaucracies and huge conventional military interventions abroad are a long way away.
Donald Trump is the head of a populist movement. This populist movement has its roots in the campaigns of Ross Perot for president in 1992 and 1996. It is a populist movement that is distrustful of government and wants a tight focus on American national interest above all else. It does not believe we should be the world’s policeman. It does not believe we should tolerate illegal immigration and the flaunting of our laws. It cares one hell of a lot more about the quality of life of the average American than it does about foreign entanglements and free trade.
This populist movement is immensely powerful. It has transformed the political landscape. Massive rallies held by President Trump in the days leading up to the midterm election are testament to the enduring appeal of a populist message to the large numbers of people who believe, frankly, that both political parties have failed them for a very long time.
Still, as much as many in this movement do not want to admit it, the movement in its current form is not powerful enough to truly seize and retain control of the national government. The same “rough around the edges” messaging and bravado that appeals so much to the faithful turns off many in that great mass of independents that typically decide the balance of power. The same messaging about illegal immigration and crimes committed by illegals makes some wonder if the real subtext is something like “whites only.” Too many African-Americans, weary of the Democratic Party and looking for an alternative, still wonder if they are really welcome within the GOP.
The challenge for the movement going forward is to broaden its appeal and focus more on the aspects of its message that truly resonate with all Americans. In the runup to the midterms the GOP ran a controversial ad about immigration showing a grinning Hispanic cop-killer bragging about his intention to kill more police officers after he escaped from prison . There was nothing dishonest or deceitful about what was contained in that ad. Still, one wonders if pounding that message, a clear appeal to President Trump’s “base,” was the wisest political course of action.