The world’s eyes always nervously follow US Presidential elections, fearful or hopeful of the results. But it is difficult to recall any time in recent memory when so much global attention was paid to a US midterm congressional vote and its aftermath. While the results will have no small impact on US foreign and defence policies, it was more of a split verdict than the tsunami that Democrats had hoped to see.
Trump forced Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign the day after the election. He is expected to replace him with a compliant official willing to constrain the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. This could spark a constitutional crisis and growing efforts to impeach Trump. This casts a pall over governance even before the new Congress begins work in January.
The Democrats needed 23 seats to capture the House of Representatives and won at least 31 to hold a majority. The Democrats also picked up seven state governorships that will help in 2020 presidential elections. But Trump’s heavy, partisan campaigning helped the Republicans strengthen their control of the Senate, picking up additional seats, with two races still undecided.
Around the world, US allies and adversaries regarded the midterms as an indicator of the durability of Trump and his “America First” policies: Can they “wait him out”? On that question the results are ambiguous. For now, it would be unwise to bet against a Trump reelection in 2020. Certainly, stronger control of the US Senate will ease appointment of cabinet members who require confirmation votes – important because at least four cabinet members could be replaced in 2019, most consequentially, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a force of sobriety, caution and traditional allied policies in a turbulent administration.
Historically, the markets appreciate divided government, especially gridlock, and true to form, the Dow Jones stock index jumped over 500 points on Wednesday – a perspective suggesting that with stalemate government can do less damage and, at times, has helped with governing: After former President Bill Clinton lost the Congress in 1994 midterms, he succeeded in numerous bipartisan legislative deals.
Trump has two choices. One is the high road: He can seek to make lemonade from the lemon of a Democratic Congress and make deals on issues such as infrastructure, healthcare, climate change, trade and defence. The other is a Trumpian path of confrontation, using Republican control of the Senate to block Democratic legislative initiatives and fight Democrat efforts to release Trump’s tax returns. The president firing Mueller would have echoes of Watergate and likely spark a constitutional crisis and impeachment proceedings. Trump’s initial post-election combative press conference suggests the latter can’t be ruled out.
In Trump’s first post-election press conference, his initial response contained a bit of both approaches. Like his overtures to Kim Jong Un, Trump extended an olive branch, speaking highly of Nancy Pelosi, anticipated to become Speaker of the House, claiming, “It really could be a beautiful bipartisan type of situation.” Yet at the same time, he threatened Democrats that he could retaliate, taking a “warlike posture” if they launch investigations of his administration: “I think I’m better at that game than they are.”
Looking out to 2020 presidential elections, Trump is likely to take credit for any political successes, but also use the Democrats as a foil, blaming them for all failures, including a recession by late 2019, predicted by many economists.
Foreign and defence policies
Democratic control of the House is likely to have significant impact on Trump’s foreign and defence policies. Trump himself ordered the Department of Defense to reduce the defence budget from $733 billion to $700 billion, so expect the Democrats to reinforce that. There will also be tough oversight and accountability on military operations and likely a push to end US involvement in the war in Yemen, pushback against arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and a brighter spotlight on failing policies in Afghanistan as well as proliferating military operations in Africa. Moreover, the Democrats are likely to challenge Trump nuclear policies, aspects of a $1.5 trillion 30-year modernisation plan. Specifically, Democrats may try to kill plans for new low-yield nuclear weapons to respond to Russian nuclear policies and some land missile upgrades.
With regard to foreign policy, Democrats will counter Trump’s “anti-globalism” agenda with stronger support for US alliances in Europe and Asia, and toward multilateral institutions, not least on climate change. Expect the Democrats to be tougher on Russia, and depending on what the Mueller investigation concludes in terms of any 2016 election collusion, that would have an impact as well.
There will be tougher scrutiny of Trump’s North Korea policy and dubious claims of success. Expect more frequent hearings and demands for regular reporting requirements on the status of talks. On trade and China, the Democrats will generally support Trump’s aggressive posture. One key issue will be ratification of North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA 2.0. Some think Democrats in control will make ratification more difficult. But the new agreement addresses some key Democratic concerns about NAFTA, particularly labor rights, so ratification might proceed as smoothly as it would have if Republicans held the House.
Looming partisan fights
To the extent that the observers were looking to the midterm elections for signs of a return to US democratic norms, the outcome was ambiguous at best. Polarisation, the US urban/suburban versus rural, gender and racial divisions appear sharper. The Democrats were buoyed by new activism from women, youth and minorities. But they failed to make major inroads with white male voters, who trend heavily toward Republicans.
The Trump campaign, stoking racial fears on immigration, repeating wild, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, and denigrating some black candidates may have helped him win Senate races in states with a strong Trump base. But it made for a nasty, uncivil campaign. The reality of American “checks and balances” were offset by the ugliness of the rhetoric and Trump’s success in gaining Senate seats.
Most analysts see nasty partisan fights looming, with the Democrats looking to investigate Trump and his cabinet for corruption and collusion with Russia and to subpoena his tax returns.
Such realities do little to restore the lustre of the American “brand” or the appeal of US democracy as a “shining city on a hill,” to quote Ronald Reagan. The debate over the relative virtues of democracy versus authoritarian rule persists. The trend towards authoritarian rule and setbacks to democracy worldwide, which Trump’s denunciation of the press and the judicial system and penchant for unilateral executive action tend to reinforce, have not subsided. The landslide presidential election of Jair Bolsaro, often referred to as Brazil’s version of Trump, is the latest example of this trend.
All this suggests that the populist nationalistic reaction to the downsides of globalisation seen everywhere from the US to Poland, Italy and Hungary in Europe and Latin America is a trend not subsiding. Fasten your seat belts, the last two years of the Trump presidency promise to be a wild ride.
This article first appeared on YaleGlobal Online.