Lessons From The Midterms

It was a blue wave. It didn’t appear so on election night but as the days passed, the mail in ballots were counted the Democrats gained 40 seats in the House and did exceptionally well in the Senate. They were able to win the two vulnerable Republican seats – Arizona and Nevada - and avoided losing Montana and West Virginia, two states Trump won handily in 2016. The president and his supporters are still trying to spin gaining two seats as somehow ‘defying history’ but the reality is, given the Senate electoral map in 2018, the GOP should have easily gained 4 to 5 seats. Hopefully, once the happy talk from the RNC about "touching" 8 zillion voters (whatever that means) fades away and the holidays are behind, more and more Trump supporters will realize that the midterms were a disaster for the president. There are many lessons to be learned and no time to waste.

I have my own lesson to learn from the midterms, primarily that I should stick with my initial assessments. Trust my instincts. As early as August 2017, I warned that GOP establishment intended to run out the clock on the Trump administration and block any part of the MAGA agenda that the donor class did not support. Moreover, I argued that it would be preferable for the president not to pursue a major overhaul of the tax code but instead:

"... pursue a corporate tax cut, increase standardized deductions, and call it a day. My preference would be to eliminate the corporate tax for companies entirely based in and exclusively employ individuals in the United States. Perhaps we could target small companies for tax relief while keeping the taxes steady on multinationals or corporations with revenues in the millions as a way to avoid the Democrats’ charge of “tax cuts for billionaires”. Such an approach would provide a boost to the economy, keep the president’s populist bona fides intact and, most importantly, can actually be achieved."

Alas Trump decided to follow the lead of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell - as he has done ever since he was elected - and received no electoral reward as wealthy districts delivered the House to the Democrats. To add insult to injury,  companies that benefited from the corporate tax cuts used the extra cash to fund Democrats or progressive groups. 

In May of this year, I described the GOP establishment's strategy to date as:

"...to extract everything they wanted from Trump -- tax cuts, new military spending, keeping the carried interest loophole, deregulation -- and if this fall the Democrats take over Congress, so be it."

and made the case that the GOP donor class would rather lose the midterms than embrace populism. As late as September 2018, I was still on target as I wrote:

"It is a sure bet that the GOP establishment will work to sabotage Trump - as it did in 2016 - because Democrats controlling the House means no wall, continued mass immigration and paralyzing the administration for the remainder of its term. Should the blue wave materialize, Trump will be challenged for the GOP nomination in 2020."

only to take a wrong turn. In the same article I concluded that the improving economy would cause voters to overlook Trump’s crass and, often, childish behavior as they did in 2016. I was wrong. Very wrong.  

As reliable red states like Texas and Georgia turned into close calls, the immediate response of many on the Right was to blame immigration. While it is not my intention to minimize the potential long term impact of changing demographics, it was not the cause of Ted Cruz having the scare of his political life. It was the white suburban, college educated Republicans leaning voters who delivered the blue wave. Without Hillary as the alternative, these voters decided they had enough of Trump’s behavior and chose to send him a message - healthy 401Ks and tax cuts be damned!  

In retrospect, I also overestimated the impact of the Kavanaugh controversy. I had never seen the Republican Party so united as they fought for his confirmation.  I really believed that the two factions - globalists and populists - had finally come together. Maybe it was all wishful thinking on my part, or it was real but too late. The record retirements by Republicans in swing districts, the decision to pour millions in lost causes like Barbara Comstock while leaving competitive districts short of funds could not be undone. It was too late to organize a more effective ground game or develop a strategy for mail in ballots. The GOP establishment decided to throw the election months earlier and achieved the resulted they aimed for: blocking populism for the next two years.

The Left Gets Its Own QAnon

Just a few weeks ago, progressives were gleefully ridiculing conservatives for buying into the QAnon conspiracy – an anonymous Internet poster claiming to have access to secret government information regarding Trump’s efforts to take down the Deep State.  However, it turns out that progressives were just envious. They too wanted their own secret agent within the Trump administration working to undermine the president they so deeply despise. Two days ago their wish was granted.  An anonymous op-ed piece claiming the existence of a Resistance movement within the White House appeared on the pages of The New York Times. Both sides having their own QAnon is rather amusing, actually laughable if it weren’t embarrassing for the country. The reaction to Trump's election the last two years has telegraphed to the world that America is in serious decline. We may still have the strongest military and a vast consumer market but politically, institutionally and culturally we are in decline.

I find it very difficult to believe that the piece was written by a senior official  in the administration. Why would anyone – who according to the article is working to save the country from an “amoral” president – out himself?  Why risk being discovered?  How does going public help the his cause? If anything, it has jeopardized the entire enterprise. More likely, the author is someone at The New York Times drawing from information relayed to him by various sources the paper has within the administration. I don’t believe The New York Times would be reckless to the point of printing pure fiction – although the president’s opponents have become so unhinged that it cannot be completely ruled out. 

Several have noted the author’s main criticism of Trump was in the area of foreign policy. The ranting about Putin, the praise for John McCain, railing against Trump's treatment of our traditional allies is standard neocon criticism. It would not surprise me at all if Bill Kristol is somehow behind this latest scheme to bring Trump down. He probably had someone from his little neocon cabal contribute to the piece – Nikki Haley comes to mind.

Speculating about the identity of the author is entertaining but it’s not what intrigues me about the piece. More interesting is that it contains - almost word for word - the same arguments that were used against Trump during the last election. He is temperamentally unfit for office. He has no principles and is too close to Russia. There was nothing insightful or original in the article. It is really remarkable that those who clearly see themselves as intellectually superior to the president have not been able to muster one new argument against Trump in two years! 

Clearly the op-ed is just the latest attempt to throw the upcoming elections to the Democrats and historical trends do favor them getting control of the House. It is a sure bet that the GOP establishment will work to sabotage Trump - as it did in 2016 - because Democrats controlling the House means no wall, continued mass immigration and paralyzing the administration for the remainder of its term. Should the blue wave materialize, Trump will be challenged for the GOP nomination in 2020 – again Nikki Haley comes to mind.

I doubt that the same arguments that failed in 2016 will be successful this cycle. Two years ago Trump was a jump in the dark. The dire warnings that he would crash the economy or plunge us into a nuclear war had the best chance of gaining traction back then when there was no way to know what he would do in office. But two years have gone by and the economy is doing well – outperforming when both Barack Obama and George W. Bush were presidents. Despite the predictions that the mere mention of tariffs would cause a world wide economic depression like it happened in the 1930s, the stock market keeps surging, the tariff have helped reduce our trade deficit and, thus, improve our GDP growth. We are not involved in any new wars and for the first time in more than half a century there is a real chance for  peace with North Korea. Trump is still unpredictable, crass and the pivot to being more presidential will never happen. But that was also true two years ago and the voters were able to overlook it and will do so again this fall.

Managing Dissent

After the 2016 presidential election, I had some free time on my hands and decided to watch the election night coverage of all the mainstream American networks, cable news channels plus the BBC, ITV and CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). The coverage began with all anchors and guests of every outlet mentioned uniformly expecting a decisive Hillary Clinton victory while wondering whether Donald Trump would accept his defeat.  Progressive and establishment Republican pundits were certain that vindication was at hand. Trump would be dismissed as an anomaly and would soon be forgotten. As the evening wore on, joyous anticipation was replaced by nervous laughter and eventually despair. It turns out that history was not on their side.

As a Trump supporter, there were many moments to savor.  The reluctance to call states that Trump had clearly won. Brian William’s deep sigh and Van Jones lashing out. Martha Raddatz’s voice breaking as she held back tears. The meltdown of the Young Turks is a YouTube classic. One moment in particular stood out to me, not because it was amusing or satisfying, but because it brought many things that I had observed into focus. 

Late into the PBS coverage, Stuart Stevens – Republican political strategic and Romney campaign manager – remarked,  “Donald Trump went out and said a lot of things that we as a society have decided should be unacceptable. He called for a religious test to enter the United States. He called Mexicans coming into the United States rapists. This is something, I think, it’s not a positive sign.” In other words, we cannot talk about the negative aspect of Muslim immigration as evidenced by the attacks on 9/11, Boston and Chattanooga or the fact that - despite patting ourselves on the back for integrating immigrants better than France – the sons  of Muslim immigrants were responsible for the Fort Hood and Orlando attacks. We are not allowed to talk about the crimes or the depressing effect on working class wages associate with illegal immigration. The only conversation permitted about both legal and illegal immigration – actually we are not even allowed to distinguish between legal and illegal immigration – is to extol the virtues of diversity and celebrate the browning of America.

I fully understand and appreciate that there are those who genuinely find Trump’s crass language and vulgar behavior repulsive - and perhaps Stuart Stevens is among them. However, many who claim to be offended by Trump are not shining examples of decorum themselves and have been known to drop a few f-bombs. I strongly suspect that the effort to force Trump to conform to established norms has less to do with civility or protecting democracy and has everything to do with the ruling class maintaining power and avoiding accountability. As long as the conversation is restricted to the positive aspects of open border policies, the ruling class will never have to answer for the lower wages, MS-13 violence and terrorist attacks. They will never be held accountable for what they have done to the country.  

The more revealing part of Stewart's comment was  “we as a society decided’". When did we as a society decide? Was a vote held and I missed it? When and how was the decision made? Does anyone know? There was no vote. The ruling class and their proxies in the media decided for all of us what information the public was allowed to have and set the parameters of the national conversation. As long as the media outlets could be counted on one hand and newspapers around the country served as transcribers for news services such as Reuters or elite newspapers like the New York Times, the conversation could be restricted. Dissent could be managed or channeled in such a way that would not threaten the status quo. A perfect example of the latter is the Tea Party which was an organic protest that arose in response to various government bailout programs to address the 2008 financial crisis. Within a few years, the Tea Party was transformed from a protest movement against the status quo to another run-of-the-mill Republican group advocating lower taxes and less regulation. The same is being attempted on the MAGA movement – tax cuts and de-regulation were implemented at record speed but still no wall and little progress on reducing immigration.

Looking back on election night I wonder how much of the despondency was due to the mainstream media realizing they had lost their place as the gatekeepers. They could no longer control the national conversation.  Discussing the negative aspect of multiculturalism, mass immigration and questioning globalism is no longer taboo. Social media has created what Alberto Bagnai defined as “too much democracy” and ever since election night the ruling class has been trying to turn back the clock, to be gatekeepers again and the claim the victory that eluded them nearly two years ago.