Trump pumped for midterm clash
The big read: Energised by the Brett Kavanaugh row, Democrats are betting on curbing the power of US President Donald Trump after November's midterm elections. But, as Dr Robert Schmuhl reports, Trump is on top rallying form and finding his Republican supporters every bit as motivated
The US midterm elections early next month feature political battles in legislative districts and states spread across America. But this year's more down-home contests are also shaping up as a noisy and consequential nationwide referendum on Donald Trump and his unprecedented presidency.
When votes are counted on the evening of November 6, Americans and people elsewhere will learn one of two future-shaping lessons. Republican Party loyalty to the current White House occupant will either strengthen his grip on power, or anti-Trump intensity by Democrats will begin building barriers to restrain the president's conduct in office.
Congress is the focal point of attention as Election Day nears. Every seat in the House of Representatives - all 435 of them - will be on ballots next month along with 35 of the 100 seats in the Senate. In addition, 36 states will select governors, and thousands more local offices will also be decided.
Trump's unexpected victory in 2016 gave Republicans control of the executive branch and both chambers of Congress, the House and Senate. This political trifecta meant the Grand Old Party (GOP) could set the federal government's agenda since the beginning of 2017. With Trump leading the charge, Republicans have simultaneously reversed policies of Barack Obama's two terms as a Democratic president and initiated new measures to the delight of the GOP's core supporters. Taxes, including corporate ones, have been slashed. Environmental and other regulations are no longer in effect. Executive orders, signed by Obama to get around Republicans in Congress, quickly got tossed in the White House waste basket.
The Paris climate accord? The nuclear deal with Iran? Certain trade and security agreements? In all cases, American participation is now history.
When executive and legislative authority resides in the hands of a single party, the opposition can do little more than shoot spitballs at those in power. Obama and Democrats enjoyed Washington superiority during 2009 and 2010, and that's when the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, became law.
After the midterms of 2010, mostly fought out on the merits of the new healthcare legislation, Democrats never had the clout of unified control the last six years Obama was president.
As much as anything, midterm elections serve as occasions in the US system when voters get a chance either to endorse Washington's direction or mandate a governmental course correction.
Even though a president's name never appears on the ballot, whoever occupies the White House is also under review at the mid-point of an executive's four-year term. This year, besides several legislative and regulatory objectives achieved, Trump can trumpet the lowest unemployment rate in half a century, a rising stock market, growing consumer confidence, the easing of tensions with North Korea and other successes.
The lessons of history
Historically, though, the president's party usually endures losses after two years in office. In 2010, Obama watched 63 House seats and six in the Senate flip from Democrats to the Republicans. Bill Clinton in 1994 suffered a similar fate, with 54 House and eight Senate spots shifting to the GOP from the Democrats.
Since Harry Truman's first midterm in 1946, every president - with the exception of George W Bush in 2002 - has witnessed a decline in Congressional support two years into his first term. In Bush's case, most analysts point out, post-September 11, 2001, solidarity helped provide the GOP modest gains in the House and Senate. However, Bush's next midterm (in 2006) turned out differently, as Republicans dropped 30 House and six Senate seats.
Interestingly, Jimmy Carter, a Democrat who was unable to win re-election in 1980, was the last president to serve a complete four-year term with both Congressional chambers in the hands of his party. Each successor - Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush, Clinton, George W Bush and Obama - had to learn to deal with divided government in some form.
Of late, in fact, Americans seem to prefer a Congressional check on the executive branch. Since Richard Nixon's election in 1968, the US has voted for and experienced divided government in 36 of the last 50 years.
Particularly when both the House and the Senate are controlled by the opposition, a president faces immense obstacles trying to advance a distinctive agenda. As American politics have become more partisan and polarised, difficulties in governing also steepened and executive leadership turned more precarious.
Clinton endured six of his eight White House years with Republicans running the entire Congress, the longest stretch for a recent president. Of course, in 1998, he suffered the humiliation of impeachment by the House before winning acquittal in the Senate.
Many commentators trace Clinton's troubles, at least in part, to the treatment of Nixon during the Watergate scandal that resulted in the only presidential resignation, in 1974. Clinton was the first two-term Democratic president since Nixon's time, and Republicans were itching for partisan payback.
With divided government, it's not only more demanding to try to move legislation forward or to receive approval for new initiatives. Significantly, the party without the keys to the White House can put an administration under a microscope, investigating every department and activity - a prospect that makes Democrats drool with the Trump team currently calling the shots.
Congressional hearings and inquiries can - and often do - consume day after day of a high administrator's time. A chamber controlled by the opposing party can toss a succession of spanners and tons of sand into the gears of the executive branch.
The numbers challenge
Membership of the House in 2018 numbers 236 Republicans and 193 Democrats. There are six vacancies: four in districts won by Republicans and two by Democrats. The Senate roster includes 51 Republicans and 47 Democrats (with two declared independents voting as Democrats) for a total of 49.
To achieve a House majority, Democrats will need to win 23 districts now represented by Republicans. There are currently between 65 and 75 House races classified as competitive by Congress watchers.
Though the 51-49 Senate situation might seem easier for Democrats, 26 of the 35 seats being contested this year are already held by Democrats. Defending that many places won't be easy, and the national political environment is vastly different from 2012, when most of these senators last won.
Indeed, 10 Democratic seats that will be decided next month take place in states where Trump prevailed in 2016 - five by 19pc or more. In West Virginia, for instance, Joe Manchin faces a formidable challenge for re-election largely because of the president's popularity among coal miners and their families.
Trump carried the state by a massive margin, 42pc, and has returned seven times since becoming president, headlining two political rallies there in recent weeks. It surprised few that Manchin was the only Democrat who voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in the 50-48 tally on October 6.
A critical factor in what will decide midterm races, historically involving a smaller voter turnout by upwards of 20pc, will be the ardour of those casting ballots. At the end of September, the non-partisan Pew Research Centre released a study, concluding that "voter enthusiasm is at its highest level during any midterm in more than two decades".
In the survey, encompassing responses from 1,754 men and women, the president played a key role in opinion formation: "A 60pc majority views their midterm vote as an expression of opposition or support towards Trump - with far more saying their midterm vote will be 'against' Trump (37pc) than 'for' him (23pc)."
That gap, however, might narrow in the wake of the partisan brawl over the Supreme Court appointment of Brett Kavanaugh. The battle, waged to ensure a conservative majority on the highest court, was a significant White House victory and strengthened Republicans.
Though his name's not on any electioneering ticket this autumn, Trump's an unavoidable presence at political gatherings and almost everywhere else you go in America these days. His ability to attract attention and create controversy would make him a prime candidate for Guinness World Records in both categories, if they were ever listed as competitive fields.
It's a rare day in the New World when the president isn't front-and-centre for a statement or action that makes the news media produce bulletins with siren-screaming urgency. Pity any full-time White House watcher struggling to keep up or trying to interpret a day's events with some semblance of coherence in relation to previous presidential activity.
The fervour question
What makes Trump an indisputable wild card for the midterms is the fervour of both his defenders and his detractors. Few voting-age (or sentient) citizens are lukewarm about this president. How he conducts himself and the office leads people either to applaud vigorously or angrily throw up their hands.
In the 2016 election, Trump won 46pc of the popular vote. Since then, it's rare to see his approval rating at or above that number. His average in recent weeks has hovered between 40 and 44pc.
Disapproval has been consistent, too. Since shortly after his inauguration in January 2017, Trump has had just a handful of opinion surveys out of hundreds with his approval higher than his disapproval. The current average of those people disapproving, as measured by Real Clear Politics, stands at 53pc.
When you examine all the polls closely, the intensity of the public's opinion is the most striking dimension. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released in late September reported Trump's approval at 44pc and his disapproval at 52pc. Those that "strongly approve" stood at 29pc, while the "strongly disapprove" numbered 45pc.
You can bet that people with firmly fixed viewpoints will show up to vote next month. They're already motivated and want to send a message, however they can, to continue or to change the current political situation.
Unlike a general election with a presidential campaign squarely in the spotlight and on everyone's mind, the midterms revolve around base voters in the two major parties with less participation by independents who swing either way electorally. In this respect, Trump's been masterful in constantly and assiduously cultivating the backing of core Republican voters.
How successful has he been? In late May, former House speaker John Boehner, a Republican, went so far as to say: "There is no Republican Party. There's a Trump party. The Republican Party is kind of taking a nap somewhere."
That admission and other ones by members of the GOP that "a cult of personality" surrounds the president emphasise the personal nature of his role and the massive shadow he casts from the White House. Republican office holders and candidates are afraid to criticise him because they worry about the backlash they'd receive from staunch members of the party - or even from Trump himself.
No slight or shot directed at the president goes unanswered. If he's on the receiving end of a discouraging word, he responds with a radioactive reply in his defence. What's fascinating about Trump's pre-eminence in the GOP - of the 34 candidates he endorsed in this year's primaries, 31 won - is the way he's turned traditional party orthodoxy on its head in relation to free trade, fiscal discipline in government spending, immigration, antipathy to Russia and other matters. It's as though historic positions lost their salience when an outsider and non-politician took the reins of power and imposed his views on the party.
A trade war? The US is getting cheated globally. A spike in the government's deficit? Well, large tax cuts and increases in military spending aren't cheap. Embracing Vladimir Putin? He seems a nice enough fellow.
The art of distraction
It's impossible to understate Trump's dominance of the American political and media environment today. According to a New York Times report, outgoing White House counsel Donald McGahn II has been overheard referring to the president as 'King Kong'. Other West Wing staffers never quite know when the Oval Office might serve as the launching pad for an out-of-the-blue tweet that becomes a momentary policy or political obsession before another appears to take its place.
What's called "message discipline" - having a definite strategy to reveal information with a specific (and intended) purpose - is not only an unnatural expectation but also something of a foreign concept. But there is one consistent pattern to communication emanating from the Trump White House.
When bad news starts reverberating in the media's echo chamber, you can anticipate, as night follows day, the release of a new story to divert the public's attention in hopes of changing the subject.
A few weeks ago, shortly after Omarosa Manigault Newman released her unflattering memoir, Unhinged, about her days as a White House aide - she previously worked on Trump's reality-television show - the president with great fanfare revoked the security clearance of former CIA director John Brennan. The names of several other administration critics in jeopardy of losing their clearances were also released, and the insider's tell-all book rapidly dropped from the news agenda.
Besides introducing different information as a distraction, Trump relies on Twitter and political rallies to make sure his followers know exactly what he's thinking and how he's reacting to information involving him and his administration.
On September 4, The Washington Post published an absorbing, comprehensive report about the "nervous breakdown" of the presidency that Bob Woodward chronicles in his new book, Fear: Trump in the White House. Along with the article, The Post included the audio on its website of Woodward talking directly to Trump in August about the author's numerous unsuccessful attempts to schedule an interview with the president.
Near the beginning of the conversation, Trump says: "It's really too bad, because nobody told me about it, and I would've loved to have spoken to you. You know I'm very open to you. I think you've always been fair."
After the most eye-opening and head-scratching quotations from the book started circulating, Trump's opinion about Woodward's fairness dramatically changed. In a series of tweets, the president labelled the book "a scam" based on "so many lies and phony sources," stating at one point: "Bob Woodward is a liar who is like a Dem [Democratic] operative prior to the Midterms."
When Trump feels aggrieved, he can't stop himself from fighting back. He even made a veiled legal threat in one outburst directed at Woodward: "Isn't it a shame that someone can write an article or book, totally make up stories and form a picture of a person that is literally the exact opposite of the fact, and get away with it without retribution or cost. Don't know why Washington politicians don't change libel laws?"
A principal premise of Woodward's Fear is that Trump is conducting "a war on truth" as president. All the president's complaints about "fake news" by (in Trump's often-repeated phrase) "the enemy of the American people" create a climate of doubt. Whatever's reported by mainstream journalistic outlets becomes suspect in such a dubious atmosphere.
During a speech to the Veterans of Foreign War this summer, Trump stormed: "Don't believe the crap you see from these people - the fake news." After noting examples of coverage not to his liking, he declared: "And just remember: What you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening."
The president views everything as either helpful or hurtful to him. In this sense, his self-absorption is oceanic, if not cosmic. Policy considerations quickly become personal. Political issues are less institutionally partisan than individualistic and, from his perspective, almost always about him.
Interestingly, his self-absorption, always outsized, has grown more pronounced as Trump's time in the White House ticks by. On Twitter and during interviews, he habitually attacks members of his own administration - notably Attorney General Jeff Sessions - and entire departments in the government (such as the FBI and the intelligence community).
What's happening is new in American political history - Trump is the first president ever to enter the office without an hour of service in either government or the military - and the impact of such behaviour on the midterm voting is a colossal mystery. Nobody knows what to expect, and polls - which proved almost universally inaccurate in predicting the outcome of the 2016 presidential race - are viewed with more than a suspecting glance.
What's clear, however, is that Trump wants to do what he can to keep both the House and the Senate in the hands of Republicans. That's one reason he's scheduling so many rallies across the country to help GOP candidates in tight contests, especially ones involving the Senate.
As often as four times a week, the president leaves Washington to fly to a strategically selected city with an auditorium or gymnasium able to accommodate thousands of followers. Amid a carnival-like atmosphere, hawkers outside peddle hats, T-shirts, badges and other political paraphernalia. The circus has come to town.
To watch Trump at a political rally, starring him, is to see someone completely in his element and very much at home. The figure behind the brand-name buildings and products, who parlayed that business background into reality-TV celebrityhood and a later foray into politics at the highest level, commands the stage for over an hour. Largely unscripted, he brags, jokes, fulminates, pontificates, assails and swaggers. He even mocks the presidential office he now occupies by marching around and acting ceremonially formal to hoots and laughs.
Every accusation of "fake news" leads to clenched-fist fury directed at the press area, while mentions of Hillary Clinton automatically trigger chants of "Lock her up. Lock her up". For a congenital showman, who's also a teetotaller, all the cheering is a 100-proof elixir. Part political pep talk and part ego trip, the entertainment value far exceeds any serious disquisition on policy or the state of contemporary politics.
Trump's performances at big rallies helped him win two years ago, and he's banking on them again next month. According to polling of Gallup, nearly 90pc of Republicans approve of Trump, 10 points higher than Obama's standing with Democrats prior to his first midterm.
Moreover, another recent survey asked "strong Trump supporters" whom they most trusted "for accurate information". The president himself was selected by a staggering 91pc, far surpassing "friends and family" as well as the "mainstream media" - at a measly 11pc.
Since June, the president has been predicting a "Red Wave" - with 'red' meaning Republican - even though most polling indicates Democrats as a party are preferred nationally by an advantage of almost 8pc in what's called by political scientists "the generic question" concerning someone's choice for a particular party to control Congress.
These surveys strongly indicate there might be gains for the Democrats in November, especially among women and suburban voters, but nobody knows the exact extent or what might happen during the next few weeks.
The Senate's confirmation process of Kavanaugh the past few weeks was so heated and divisive that it could become a rallying point for one party or the other - or both - as the high-decibel campaigning ends. Republicans galvanised behind Kavanaugh, and Trump is capitalising on this new-found enthusiasm to animate crowds and propel them to the polls.
A considerable percentage of the president's core supporters, particularly those who flock to his appearances, like him because they hate today's politics in the US with its big money, involvement of lobbyists, debilitating polarisation and everything else. Yet it could be difficult for Trump, as the unprecedented and full-throated tribune of anger, to transfer personal allegiance to someone else, even a candidate he's promoting and endorsing.
At rallies, though he appears on behalf of others, sharing the spotlight is somewhat unnatural. As he told a crowd in Mississippi earlier this month, "I want you to vote. Pretend I'm on the ballot. And don't worry, we'll be on the ballot in two years, and we will do a landslide again."
The rhetoric at his rallies is as incendiary as a flamethrower. Recently in Indiana, he identified constituencies in the opposing party with specificity: "Today's Democrat Party is held hostage by left-wing haters, angry mobs, deep-state radicals, establishment cronies and their fake-news allies. Our biggest obstacle and their greatest ally actually is the media."
The other evening in Wheeling, West Virginia, Trump made a confession (of sorts) that set heads spinning. A year ago, he demeaned North Korean leader Kim Jong-un by referring to him as "Little Rocket Man," dismissing him in no uncertain terms.
Yet here's what the president said on September 29: "I was really being tough [with Kim], and so was he. I would go back and forth and then we fell in love. Okay. No, really! He wrote me beautiful letters. And they're great letters. We fell in love. Now they'll say [here he assumes the persona of a serious television presenter]: 'Donald Trump said they fell in love. How horrible, how horrible is that? So unpresidential!'
"And I always tell you, it's so easy to be presidential. But instead of having 10,000 people outside trying to get into this packed arena, we'd have about 200 people standing right there. It's so easy to be presidential."
You might consider this shtick a serio-comic performance, but a Trump campaign oration is definitely not a political occasion to attend for literal accuracy of the spoken word. In fact, The Washington Post recently analysed what the president said at a pair of political rallies that were staged in Montana during July and last month.
The newspaper's 'Fact Checker' came to this conclusion: "More than two-thirds of every factual claim made by President Trump at two of his rallies turns out to be false, misleading or unsupported by evidence." The article - nearly 7,500 words - examined statement after statement, offering corrections and clarifications.
For instance, there's this charge with its related prediction: "You know, when I won the election, The New York Times, all their subscribers were leaving, and when I'm ultimately no longer president, and hopefully about six-and-a-half years from now, The New York Times will go out of business."
Actually, the newspaper's subscriptions markedly increased in 2016, and there's no suggestion by anyone, other than the president, about a future without The New York Times.
The loose relationship to veracity underscores the improvisational quality of a Trump public performance. He says whatever comes to mind, speaking lines he thinks the crowd will cheer, whether there's a basis in reality or not.
Weighing every word, a usual practice for a president, is just one norm Trump doesn't worry about violating. He's also not keen on cultivating traditional alliances, and his involvement in private business affairs hasn't stopped since his inauguration.
In addition, 'the Presidents Club', an informal coterie of former White House occupants willing to advise the current executive, is moribund with Trump in office, as he boasts that predecessors, even George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, don't measure up to him. He also blames his predecessors (Obama, George W Bush and Clinton) for many of the problems he keeps proclaiming he needs to correct.
The consummate outsider
So much is distinctive about Donald Trump - seemingly endless chaos and controversy, non-stop combat with perceived enemies, the perma-cloud of the investigation involving Russian interference, the revolving door of the White House staff - that his first midterm election is a countrywide shot in the dark that's taking place on firing lines across all 50 states.
Will this consummate outsider, who's more personality than politician, enhance or reduce his position, particularly vis-à-vis the Republican Party? Will voters decide that the discombobulating rollercoaster ride since Trump's victory in 2016 is not only exhausting but potentially dangerous? To what extent will next month's results provide clues about 2020 - and Trump's already much-ballyhooed campaign for a second term?
In a month, US voters, one by one, will help answer such questions and collectively decide how much different America's political landscape will look in early January.
The time of Trump is uncharted territory, and speculating whether the terrain of governance will become more favourable to Republicans or Democrats during the next two years is little more than a fool's errand. For multiple reasons, though, these midterm elections have the makings of being momentous.
Robert Schmuhl is professor emeritus of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame and an adjunct professor in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University
Trump has been busily touring to mobilise the Republican vote. Here are some of his jibes:
"They wanted to destroy that man. Of course, they want to destroy me, too. In just four weeks, you will have the chance to render your verdict on the Democrats' outrageous conduct."
On Brett Kavanaugh in Iowa
"You don't hand matches to an arsonist and you don't hand power to an angry left-wing mob."
On Democrats in Kansas
"Since right from the moment we announced, radical Democrats launched a disgraceful campaign to resist, obstruct, delay, demolish and destroy, right from the beginning … Brett Kavanaugh is a man of great character and intellect."
"When I say and come out with very, very strong statements about the media, I'm talking about the fake news media. They are truly an enemy of the people... This November you have a chance to reject these disgraceful political hacks."
In West Virginia
Key stats: Trump and midterms
Donald Trump’s aggregated national approval rating
September’s US unemployment rate (lowest since 1969)
Proportion of Democrats who are “very motivated” to vote*
Proportion of Republicans who are “very motivated” to vote*