The 2018 elections are being widely painted as a “split decision” for President Donald Trump — Democrats won the House while losing seats in the Senate — but this framing actually undercuts just how much there is for Democrats and progressives to celebrate about the results.
Three of the biggest narratives driving our politics now lie in ruins, and their deaths carry important implications for the future of the Trump presidency, public opinion in the Trump era, and the character of our country.
Trump has magical political powers, and his lies are “working”
For a year and a half, many of us who got it badly wrong in 2016 have been in a kind of defensive crouch, assuming that Trump possesses a mystical grasp on public opinion that must mean polls revealing his deep unpopularity are missing something.
They weren’t missing something, and neither were we. Trump really is deeply unpopular, and that translated into a large rebuke at the polls, in the form of the Democratic takeover of the House, which was driven by a widespread desire for a check on his presidency.
As of Wednesday morning, Democrats had picked up 26 House seats, and may be on track for many as 230 seats when it’s all over. The path to the Dem majority ran through flipping not just blue-leaning suburban districts, but also some surprise areas that leaned red. This was made possible by a huge outpouring of money and organizing, as well as good candidates in tough areas, which combined to broaden the map, factors that were undoubtedly driven by a backlash to Trump. As one GOP operative put it, in these elections, voters were “checking yes or no when it comes to the president.”
All this came after Trump escalated the lying to an extraordinary degree. Perhaps most prominently, he (and Republicans) lied relentlessly about their desire to protect people with pre-existing conditions. The sheer frequency of the lies led some to hand-wring that he was overwhelming our political system’s capacity for absorbing untruths. But exit polls showed large majorities said Democrats would better protect pre-existing conditions, and huge majorities of those who ranked health care as most important picked Democrats. Three red states are on track to pass ballot initiatives to expand Medicaid.
Trump also escalated the lying about the migrant caravan, which goes to the second component of the “Trump has magical powers” narrative: That he possesses total mastery over the news cycle. Because he willed it, the elections were magically transformed into a contest about immigration, which, if kept in the headlines, guaranteed a Republican win. Related to this idea is that Trump’s mystical sense of public opinion leads him to speak to real public anxieties about the issue that we’re all missing.
But by the end, Republicans conceded that Trump’s stoking of xenophobic and racial panic was putting House GOP incumbents in educated, suburban districts in greater peril. Regardless, despite Trump’s best efforts to make the elections all about immigration, it is Democrats who largely set the election’s agenda, by keeping the focus on health care. One analysis found that health care was the most commonly discussed topic in television ads in 45 percent of local media markets this year. And it was the most important issue for voters.
Democrats have no answer to the nationalist backlash
Trump tried to turn the elections into a referendum on xenophobic populist ethno-nationalism, hyping destitute migrants hundreds of miles away into a national emergency orchestrated by globalists bent on undermining America from within, and even vowing to end birthright citizenship. Some argued Democrats handed Trump an opening to do this by failing to offer an answer to legitimate worries about immigration and globalization tapped by Trump, as if they were merely stumbling around shouting, “Abolish ICE,” giving Trump more fodder to paint them as pro-open borders. This is also an argument that advisers such as Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller love to make.
It’s true that Democrats focused more on health care than on immigration. But this was a strategic decision (a correct one). At the same time, many Democrats did offer an answer to Trump’s racial nationalism: What you might call inclusive patriotism or civic nationalism, the idea that our national pride should be located in our commitment to political equality and economic opportunity for all, regardless of race, ethnic background, or religion.
Indeed, Democrats widely condemned Trump’s race-baiting and xenophobia, stressed their support for sane immigration reform, which entails legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants, and denounced Trump’s inhumanity toward asylum seekers as contrary to American values. In a sense, Democrats offered another answer to Trump’s racial nationalism by fielding a crop of candidates with extraordinary racial and ethnic diversity. Candidates such as Anthony Delgado of New York, the target of one of the most racist ads of the cycle, pulled off surprise wins by showcasing qualifications and merit.
It’s true that this argument is far from settled. The Democratic House must put forth a real immigration agenda. Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign looms as another big test of the Democratic response to the supposedly vaunted nationalist backlash. But Tuesday night’s results did showcase a resounding answer to it.
What’s more, another key component of Trump’s nationalism — trade policy — arguably failed him Tuesday night in an important way. Democrats easily won Senate races in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and won governorships in the latter three of those, including ousting anti-worker Scott Walker in Wisconsin, a tremendous Dem win. It amounted to a remarkable turnaround in the “blue wall” states Trump cracked, supposedly with his emphasis on trade. Trump’s trade wars and theatrical belligerence toward China did nothing for Republicans in “Trump country.”
Democrats can’t assemble a multiracial majority to confront Trumpism
Trump’s advisers and supporters constantly make veiled variations of this argument. They have suggested objections to Trump’s racist, xenophobic and cultural provocations (and his cruel immigration agenda) are confined only to the identity-politics-obsessed left, and that they aren’t merely about galvanizing the blue-collar white GOP base but also have tacit majority appeal. But it’s hard to square this with what happened Tuesday night.
Here some major caveats are in order. Trump’s closing strategy probably did galvanize the white vote in numerous red states, enabling Republicans to win Senate seats in Indiana, North Dakota, Missouri and Florida. Andrew Gillum’s loss in the Florida gubernatorial race to one of the worst Trumpists in the country (remember Ron DeSantis’ racial dogwhistling and his attendance at conferences organized by a fellow who believes the “only serious race war” is against whites?) is a terrible blow.
But, for all the reasons noted above, the results in the House do show a multiracial majority rising up to confront Trumpism. As Ron Brownstein predicted, all those Trump provocations further polarized the country between blue-collar, rural, evangelical and aging white voters on one side, and all those groups on the other side of this cultural divide: young voters, minorities, and secularized, socially liberal college-educated and suburban whites, especially women.
Those latter groups helped assemble a majority in the battle for the House. Fueled by enormous turnout for a midterm, Democrats may end up winning the House popular vote by seven points. It’s true that this majority ran into a wall of voters on Trump’s side of the divide in red state Senate races, and it’s an open question whether a longer-term realignment is underway, in which college-educated whites defect to Democrats.
But, while it remains to be seen whether this anti-Trump majority will endure against him in 2020, it can and did mobilize itself, rising up to put a big check on the Trump presidency, and on Trump himself.
Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog for The Washington Post. He joined the Post after stints at Talking Points Memo, New York Magazine and the New York Observer.