The division of the country has never been so profound or as obvious as the partition brought by the midterm elections on Tuesday.
The gap that divides the United States has never been so profound or so obvious. On Tuesday, districts with higher education that encompass larger cities turned Democrat and those living in the rural districts voted to defend Donald Trump. It was such a bittersweet night for everyone. No one emerged with a clear idea of the direction the country is taking.
Several structural factors have boosted this division. Conservative and progressive voters live in increasingly homogeneous neighborhoods. Newly graduated youngsters leave Midwestern cities and move to Boston or to New York City to look for jobs. When deciding the vote, the economy is less important than atavistic features, such as race or religion.
The United States is a country consumed by polarization, but not disjointed in equal parts. Democratic voters have their tendencies but seek information in press outlets such as The Washington Post, The New York Times or CNN that devote time and resources to reporting information. On the other hand, many Republican voters live enclosed in a parallel world controlled by apostles of hatred and with little contact with reality.
In this fortress, articles that list the president’s lies or those detailing how some of his proposals violate the Constitution do not permeate. The maneuvers of Vladimir Putin’s subordinates on social media should not make us lose focus: As Professor Yochai Benkler of Harvard University reminded us this week, the leader of this brainwashing is not Facebook, but Fox News, whose stars often enlarge racist or anti-Semitic conspiracies that have been generated in online forums.
This sector of the population, persuaded by tax reductions and conservative judges, remains true to Trump. Therefore, every election is decided by a handful of votes, despite his authoritarian outbursts and attacks on any independent institution: the press, diplomacy, the legal system, intelligence services and the FBI.
In the next couple of years, the president will continue to explore the asymmetrical alienation of the electorate, with the help of Republican leaders increasingly subjected to his will. At least 26 congressmen from his party have chosen to leave politics this year. On Tuesday, voters put some more members out of work. With few exceptions, the fanatics and the pushovers who did not know or did not want to face Trump are still in office.
The checks-and-balances system designed by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton was created to govern the country based on consensus. But such consensus is increasingly difficult in a bisected Congress. This time, hundreds of seats in the House of Representatives were decided by a difference of more than 20 (percentage) points. Its occupants have little reason to reach agreements. The survival instinct makes them exacerbate any difference to ward off possible challenges in the primaries. Their positions are derived far more from their districts than from the country as a whole.
Trump is the son and not the father of this gap. But no other politician feels so comfortable defining their boundaries by creating imaginary crises and attacking anyone who tries to bridge the two parts of the country. The checks and balances that the founders created to protect America from a demagogue could help consolidate one of them in power.
The president’s strategy will be exacerbated now that one of the houses of Congress has shifted to the hands of the Democrats. It is not difficult to imagine Trump exploiting the division of his opponents and being re-elected as president against the obstructionism of the Capitol. The 2020 Trump may be the 1948 Harry Truman.
But with the Senate in the hands of Republicans, it seems difficult for Democratic congressmen to pass a single bill. Yes, they may turn the House into a kind of spearhead against the president – disclose his income statements, call his children or victims to testify, investigate his family businesses in countries such as Russia or Saudi Arabia.
This asset could also backfire. If Democrats do not calibrate their actions, the triumph achieved now could be the prelude to Trump’s re-election. Democrats need to keep in mind what happened in 1994 and in 2010 when Republican extremism spoiled a victory just like this one. The 2020 Trump could also be the 2010 Barack Obama or the 1996 Bill Clinton.
Impeachment will be the great temptation of the Democrats, especially if Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report includes unpublished details about Trump’s criminal behavior. But starting this process is a risky strategy. Just over half of the citizens are against it and removing the president requires the votes of a dozen Republican senators. Thus, it does not seem that any of them have a motivation to desert.
Senate control will be a powerful weapon in the hands of Republicans, who could block any Democratic bill and continue to approve conservative judges appointed by Trump. The result reminds us of the inherent disadvantages of Democrats in the Senate, which enhances the importance of rural and sparsely populated states in the center of the country.
The election provides some signs of hope for the Democrats. Their victories in states such as Michigan, Kansas and Wisconsin belied those who declared the Midwest forfeited after 2016. The election of the first openly gay governor in Colorado and the presence of two young women in their twenties, two Native American women and two Muslim women is proof that a more open and progressive country is beginning to emerge under the rhetorical rudeness of Trump.
It is this still-emerging country that the Democratic presidential candidate will have to envision in 2020. The primaries are contested as a pitched battle and for now, there are no clear favorites. Unless there is a surprise, whoever wins will have to face a president with loyal supporters and a booming economy. Trump will have the weight of history at his side – since 1945, only Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush have lost the race for re-election.
The campaign led the country back to the traumas of two years ago, but it also fostered an awakening of citizenship that brought politics to youngsters, nurses and veterans driven by fruitful idealism diametrically opposed to Trump’s ideas.
The United States is a nation of extremes. Often its citizens have wavered between deception and hope and have never eradicated all the seeds of hatred that Trump continues to exploit. Near the end of the book “East of Eden,” John Steinbeck puts words into the mouth of a character that define the country very well: “And so we’re overbrave and overfearful – we’re kind and cruel as children. We’re overfriendly and at the same time frightened of strangers. We boast and are impressed.” In these sentences lies the riddle that Democrats need to decipher in the next couple of years. For now, no one has deciphered it better than Trump.