Though his name was not on the ballot, the US mid-term elections were all about Donald Trump.
For his opponents these elections were about reducing his political size. For his supporters, this was a moment to reassert the underlying shift in America’s domestic political landscape. Both sides did everything possible to rally their base and in the end it seems it was Mr Trump who managed to have the upper hand despite ceding control of the US House of Representatives to the Democrats.
Many Democrats were predicting this to be a wave election which would take away Mr Trump’s power. Nothing of the sort really happened. While the Democrats will have a majority in the House, the Republicans have ended up with 54-55 Senate seats, up from 51 in the outgoing Congress. In a feat that seldom happens, Mr Trump’s party gained Senate seats, a rarity in US mid-terms. Moreover, the Senate majority that Trump will have now is cast in his own mould, so a friendlier Senate is in the offing for the US president. Traditional Republicans such as Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, and John McCain who opposed many of Mr Trump’s policies are not in action any longer. Their replacements are in tune with Mr Trump and the trajectory he is shaping for the GOP.
On the other hand, incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi will find that managing an unruly Democratic caucus with a thin majority will be an uphill task. Without a supporting Senate, it is rather unlikely that the Democrats would be able to advance their pet legislations. Moreover, there will be a temptation to double down on targeting Mr Trump by using their newfound power to hold hearings and subpoena witnesses. The president will use this targeting to play the victim card, something he does very effectively.
Mr Trump has already seized on the election results by taking credit for Republican victories and mocking Republicans who lost their elections by taking more centrist positions. These elections have in many ways reinforced Mr Trump’s ability to mobilise votes in largely white areas, helping the GOP in the Senate and with wins in the Ohio and Florida governor’s races. Mr Trump has made his brand of politics the new normal in the US electoral landscape. His supporters are embracing him with some success and his opponents are trying to respond to a narrative shaped by him with some difficulty.
What will be of immediate concern for Mr Trump now is how far the Democrats will go in using their new-found power in the House to scrutinise his administration. The House Intelligence Committee, which investigated Russian meddling in the US 2016 elections, will be under the control of outspoken Trump antagonist Adam Schiff, who has pledged to look deeper into the president’s foreign financial dealings. It has been speculated that the president’s tax returns might be revealed to the public.
Mr Trump was quick to sack Attorney General Jeff Sessions after the elections, which followed months of Mr Trump criticising Mr Sessions, mainly for his decision to step aside from the Russia inquiry in March 2017. Sessions removed himself from the probe after Democrats accused him of failing to disclose contacts he had had with the Russian ambassador as a senior adviser to Mr Trump’s campaign. Acting attorney general Matt Whitaker does not intend to recuse himself from overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, which has resulting in a series of criminal charges against several associates of Mr Trump. For the Democrats, the firing of Mr Sessions was aimed at jeopardising the US inquiry into alleged Russian meddling during the 2016 election.
Mr Trump has vehemently denied that any collusion took place, and repeatedly called for the inquiry to be shut down, calling it “the greatest political witch hunt in history.” Buoyed by the Democratic control of the House, Mr Mueller is likely to accelerate his investigation toward a conclusion, as the new arithmetic in the House will provide some protection against any White House or Republican moves to bury the results of the probe.
If there was one big takeaway from these mid-term elections, it's this: The US remains as divided as ever and those divisions are only likely to grow under a Trump Presidency that is all about rallying the base. While the Republican party
is getting ever more firmly entrenched in the rural, predominantly white parts of the nation, the suburban areas with higher levels of education are going in the Democratic direction. But with both sides trying to stress on the differences, the stage is set for a bitter 2020 Presidential election in which all gloves will be off.
The writer is Professor of International Relations, Department of Defence Studies, King’s College London