Briefing Overview

Title: Do Not Look for an Early End to Trumpism
Author: Mat Burrows
Approx. Reading Time: 7 minutes


Do Not Look for an Early End to Trumpism

With so much noise, it is difficult to figure out where U.S. politics may be headed, even in the short term.   Without a crystal ball to predict the future, there are pivotal events ahead—namely the midterm elections in November—that could turn US politics upside down again. Or maybe not.  The consensus among political watchers is that the Democrats could gain anywhere from 20 to 35 seats in the lower chamber—the House of Representatives[1].  They need a gain of 23 seats to flip it and take control of the chamber.  Anything less would be considered a major victory for President Trump and the Republican Party.  Either the Senate—much less promising for the Democrats in this cycle—or the House has been flipped in four of the past six midterm elections.  President Trump’s approval rating gyrates around 40 percent with roughly a 55 percent disapproval rating. This is 3-4 points worse than Presidents Obama and Clinton when they were going into the first term’s midterms, but the electoral map favors Republicans so the losses, even with such a negative approval, are likely to be less than for Democratic presidents.

However, as with all elections, turnout is key.  Typically, only 40 percent of eligible voters come out and cast a vote in the midterms (versus 60 percent of more in presidential elections[2]) so the base is important for both parties.   An early June 2018 poll shows far more Democrats energized against Trump than was true of Republicans or independents.  It could be that Trump has seen the same poll.  Many of his recent posturing on immigration, NATO and Russia, however outrageous and unbelievable to readers of The New York Times and The Washington Post, can be interpreted as ways to rev up and turn out his base.

Take, for example, Trump’s recent remarks about the United States not coming to the defence of Montenegro, despite its recent membership in NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization).  Certainly, a shocking statement to any Washington or Brussels insiders, but 49 percent of Americans, according to Reuters—a higher proportion than his core supporters—share Trump’s sentiment that the United States should not come to the defence of NATO’s allies unless they increase their defence spending[3].

Or, Russian attempts to interfere in U.S. elections.  In an Atlantic (magazine)/Public Religion Research Institute survey[4] in June 2018, only 45 percent of survey respondents saw foreign influence as a major problem with only 22 percent of the Republican survey respondents who shared that view.

Let us look at another case—immigration.  Who was not horrified by the images of children being taken away from their parents only because they had illegally stepped over the United States’ southern border.  The scandal still reverberates even though Trump had to make a U-turn and renounced family separation.  Indeed, in a media poll taken at the height of the controversy in mid-June, 72 percent of Americans disapproved of family separation, including half of Republicans.  Nevertheless, 81% of Republicans support the President for his handling of immigration and 73 percent agree with his “get-tough” strategy.  Moreover, Trump’s standing in the polls has not been dented.

Democrats will have to be careful about how they use the immigration issue against the Republicans in the midterm elections[5].  Scratch even a middle class liberal Democrat: a recent Harvard study found that even white, liberal communities worry about their communities being invaded by too many Spanish-speaking Hispanics.[6]

Trump’s and the Republicans’ big advantages are a booming economy and the boost he got from his summit with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un.  It is not clear that the Beijing’s retaliatory tariffs will hurt enough by the midterms to dampen his base’s turnout.   The 25 percent increased tariffs on U.S. soybeans is probably the biggest threat, with profit margins already being shaved off this year for farmers.   The Trump Administration has responded by announcing a $12 billion program to help affected farmers—proof that Republicans are worried.  Growing business worries over his ratcheting up tariffs also convinced Trump to agree to a ceasefire with the Europeans over possible auto tariffs against the European Union.  Nevertheless, even farmers affected by China’s retaliatory tariffs on soybeans like Trump’s gutsy attitude, sharing his belief that America has gotten ripped off by about everyone, especially China.  That is also true of Americans with a positive view of trade: they want the President to do something about China.  Over time, as Trump and the Chinese tariffs hit the US consumers’ pocketbook, sentiment could change, but probably not substantially before the midterms.

Scenarios Post-Midterm

Impeachment is on everybody’s mind, especially Trump’s.  Republican candidates are using the threat of it as a rallying cry for getting the base out to vote.  The risk of an impeachment goes up if Democrats get control of the House, but impeaching any U.S. President carries its own risks.  At the time of the Clinton impeachment, the Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich expected the Republicans to pick up 30 seats in the 1998 midterms due to the scandal.  Instead the Democrats gained five seats, although the Republicans held onto the House.

Trump could be impeached by a majority in the House, but Democrats need a solid majority to ensure any impeachment would succeed.  Two of the charges against Clinton failed because too many Republican House members defected.  Even on the two charges that passed in late 1998, there were a handful of Republican members who voted against.  The Senate would have to vote Trump’s removal to get him out of office and that requires the consent of two-thirds of the upper chamber.  The Republicans held a majority in the Senate—55 seats at the time of the 1999 trial of Clinton—but, even then, only 50 senators voted to remove Clinton on obstruction of justice and 45 voted on perjury charges.

A prominent political observer[7] believes there is only a 1-in-3 chance of today’s Senate flipping in the midterms.  Unlike the House where the seats in contention are mostly suburban, many of the Senate battlegrounds are in states with disproportionately rural and small-town populations where Trump does best. Therefore, even if Trump would be impeached in a Democratically-controlled House after the midterms, there is little chance he would be removed.

But let us say he is impeached but not removed, what happens next?  There are roughly two schools of thought.  One is that Trump tones down his rhetoric and seeks to work with centrist Democrats and even his own party in Congress.  Clinton, for example, after he and the Democrats suffered huge Congressional losses in his first midterm in 1994, quickly moved to the centre, passing a welfare bill that the Republicans supported.  He manoeuvred around Speaker Gingrich so well that he won a second term.   In this scenario, Trump would make some concessions on health care and the Republicans concede on infrastructure financing.  Trump would not continue to ratchet up tariffs on China, but Republicans would certainly support enacting more restrictions on Chinese investment in U.S. technology startups.  Trump would lie low on his open admiration for Putin, but, whether impeached or not, he already has been largely caged. He cannot relax sanctions or make many meaningful efforts, without Congressional approval, to lower tensions with Moscow.  I do not see this happening for the simple reason that it is so out of character.  Moreover, a polite and courteous Trump would be in danger of losing his fired-up base.

In the other scenario, Trump doubles down on current policies.  What more proof is there that the Deep State is after him than that he has been impeached?  Moreover, it may not be only the base that would be fired up.  By the end of the Clinton trial, the Republicans had lost the support of the vast majority of the country.  Independents and lukewarm Republicans may also be repulsed by an impeachment spectacle and move over to support Trump.

An impeached Trump would be an unbridled Trump.  The North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—if negotiations on an updated version have not been concluded—could be a casualty.  Should the United States lose in the World Trade Organization (WTO), the chances would go up that Trump would take the United States out of the organisation.  The United Nations could lose its United States contribution.  And he could take concrete steps on watering down the U.S. commitment to NATO.  The trade war—already escalating—would be fired up.  There would be more military presence in the South China Sea to irritate Beijing.  He would make sure sanctions would bite in Iran and anybody who transgressed the regime would be harshly punished.  He could even give the go ahead for Israel and Saudi Arabia to take more aggressive military actions against Iran.  Trump’s aim would be to get reelected and he does not have a path without again firing up the base in key battleground states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

2020 and beyond

Whether all of this works in 2020 to get Trump elected is more doubtful.  By then, the tariffs may have put paid to a robust U.S. economy and unemployment back to increasing.  Any military adventurism by Trump could have backfired.  Still, it is not a sure thing he would not get elected even under such conditions.  The Democratic Party must figure out how to pull together its ever more liberal wing with its conservative supporters, drawing back many workers in the old industries who defected to Trump.  As the United States becomes more multicultural, Democrats will have a natural advantage, but for now and into the next election, it is much more of a toss-up.

Mat Burrows



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Briefing Overview

Title: Do Not Look for an Early End to Trumpism
Author: Mat Burrows