The US after the midterms: Half a win is still a loss

, by Grischa Alexander Beißner, translated by Bastian De Monte

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

The US after the midterms: Half a win is still a loss
The midterm elections determined the composition of the American Congress, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Photo: Victoria Pickering | Flickr | CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

The midterms are decided. Up for election were one third of Senate seats and the entire House of Representatives, and additionally 36 governor posts. The Democrats could retake the House and celebrated many positive individual results. Despite this decent outcome, there are more Republicans in the Senate than before. A clear signal against Trump, who continues to divide people and the world with his lies, remained absent.

Overall, there is some reason to cheer: The Democrats are finally back from political insignificance and can exert influence over American politics via the House of Representatives. And there are many new faces to be seen in Congress. At least 99 women are going to sit in the House – more than ever before. With Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids, this also includes the first women of native American descent (something also claimed by Senator Elizabeth Warren, however). Sharice Davids is moreover a professed homosexual, like some other winners as well, including the first openly gay governor Jared Polis.

Furthermore, not only were with Ilhan Omar and Rahida Tlaib the first Muslim women elected but, at 29, also the youngest Representative in history: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, declared ‘democratic socialist’ – a term still being viewed with scepticism on the other side of the Atlantic. The good news is, thus, that the midterms have been a clear victory for women, minorities and the LGBT+ community in the US.

Unfortunately, Georgia candidate Stacy Abrams will not be the first black woman to become governor. She was narrowly defeated by the Republican incumbent Brian Kemp. Also not pushed out of office was far-right Republican Steve King in Iowa. At about 63%, one Nevada constituency saw the victory of brothel owner and reality TV star Dennis Hof who had deceased before the election.

Which political means do Democrats now have against Trump?

Initially none. The future lawmakers will only assume office on 3 January. Until then, Trump can continue to act as he pleases. He will likely use the time until the new year to push through as much legislation as possible. Cabinet changes are to be expected as well.

Later, however, Democrats will have the chance to set the brake on Trump’s agenda. They will be able to

  • block legislation (The infamous wall to Mexico is history and besides immigration policy, there will also be no way around Democrats in budgetary questions. Similarly, Obamacare, the former President’s health reform, cannot be simply annulled by Trump.)
  • start investigations and organise public hearings (e.g. resuscitating the prematurely aborted investigations concerning the Russia affair)
  • force the publication of documents (even request Trump’s fiscal declaration, which he – as the only President for decades – has not made available)

What remains unlikely is an impeachment trial against Donald Trump. That requires not only a majority in the House but also a two-thirds majority in the Senate. As Republicans even won seats in the upper chamber, this can be ruled out with certainty.

The midterms’ first victim: Attorney General Jeff Sessions

President Trump has made the midterm elections also a vote about himself. In the run-up, he travelled through the country and held rallies. Most Republicans tried to benefit from that, declaring themselves Trump supporters. This certainly failed. The majority of Americans do not stand behind their president. But still enough many to govern.

Trump will not present himself as bridge-builder and conciliator, even if he is theoretically dependent on compromises with Democrats. His behaviour speaks volumes: first, he declared the results a “big victory” for himself, blamed the loss of the House on its speaker Paul Ryan, continuously insults journalists at press conferences and has now sacked his justice minister, Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Trump seems to go even crazier than before.

The true reason for Sessions’s dismissal, however, is clearly the investigation into the Russia affair by FBI special counsel Robert Mueller. The Justice Department, to which the FBI belongs, will provisionally be led by Matthew Whitaker, a loyal Trumpist who did not refrain from sharing a tweet calling Mueller’s investigations a lynch mob. The appointment of a successor could take several months – months during which Whitaker can restrict the investigations, withdraw personnel and funding or theoretically order to abandon them completely.

What the US, Europe and the world can expect

Trump will be more unpredictable. The attempt to set a clear signal against him has failed. He will continue to pursue his confrontative politics, also vis-à-vis his allies in Europe. Also his fight against the free and democratic press will go on.

Democrats will do their best to stop Trump anywhere they can. The US President, however, has the possibility to bypass Congress and govern with executive orders in some areas. Foreign and trade policy are widely decided by the President, which for Europe and the world means continued unpredictability – as seen with the Iran deal or the trade war with China and the EU.

On the other hand, one could even argue that Trump is pretty lucky as – now having a more visible foe within American politics – he can pick at Democrats for their actions in the House of Representatives. While previously the Republicans controlled both chambers and all decisions could be linked back to them and Trump, the President can now make Democrats responsible for any legislative defeat or simply blame them for the problems the country is facing. It is to be feared that this logic will eventually feed back into Trump’s re-election campaign in 2020.

And whether it finally dawns on Americans – those who support his politics despite all the lies, the corruption, the scandals, the hatred and the anti-democratic, almost dictatorial tendencies – remains doubtful.

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