NEW YORK - Both Barack Obama and Joe Biden have described Tuesday’s midterm elections as “the most important in our lifetimes.” Their Republican rivals are somewhat less melodramatic, and for good reason. If the GOP loses control of the House of Representatives and even the Senate, if the “blue wave” turns out to be more of tsunami, Republicans will be sorely disappointed.
On the other hand, if Democrats don’t take the House, at the very least, they’ll be utterly devastated.
The reason for this disparity is obvious: Even in a worst-case scenario for them, Republicans will be able to find consolation in Donald Trump. True, he may find it difficult to pass legislation in an energized and confrontational Congress, and could soon face impeachment hearings, but Trump will nonetheless continue to wield power from the White House.
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After they recover from the shock of defeat and possibly vent their frustrations with Trump’s self-defeating, divide and rule scare tactics, most Republicans will happily fill the bleachers to cheer their hero as he slugs it out with a liberal Congress, as only he can.
If Democrats lose, however, they will be inconsolable. They will be facing two more years of frustrating impotence as a minority opposition. In the past century, the ruling president’s party has lost an average of 30 House and 4 Senate seats in the midterms, more than enough for the Democrats to take over both chambers of Congress. If they don’t even come close, despite their collective aversion to Trump and unequivocal enthusiasm for sticking to him on Tuesday, they will be consumed by a despair that could have a significant negative impact on their chances of recovering the White House in 2020.
Midterm elections are always perceived as a referendum on the president’s performance, and this time more than ever. Voters are concerned with a host of issues, most notably health care for Democrats and illegal immigration for Republicans, but the cardinal question of being for or against Trump, overshadows them all. The Democratic resentment of Trump is so palpable, and their opinion of him so dismal that a sweeping GOP triumph on Tuesday is simply unthinkable. Many of them will feel that America has repudiated them and their values.
Trump has intentionally placed himself at center stage. It’s in his narcissistic nature. He has become the beating heart of the GOP, even when his actions belie the party’s core ideology. He has inflated the national deficit and he kowtows to dictators such as Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin with nary a word of protest from his once hawkish and fiscally conservative party.
Trump’s cult of personality excites the GOP base, but his obsessive inclination to speak of himself, even at political rallies ostensibly aimed at boosting Republican candidates, could turn out to be a double-edged sword: Trump’s name isn’t on the ballot while those of the candidates he belittled and shunted aside don’t spark the same kind of blind loyalty that he inspires.
But it’s not only Trump’s controversial conduct and cantankerous character that Americans will be voting for, but the values that he represents as well. After all, it was the saga of Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court that marked the turning point for the GOP. With his incisive political instincts, Trump recognized a golden opportunity to fire up his hitherto dormant GOP base. He leveraged the militant Democratic assault on Kavanaugh, which was buttressed by the so-called mainstream media, to persuade his voters that the elections are nothing less than a battle for the soul of America, one which requires blind faith and total commitment. The referendum on Trump evolved into a fateful decision on America’s future.
Divisions between right and left, after all, have never been as binary. Despite the ideological differences between the liberal left and the conservative right, most U.S. presidents, from Eisenhower to Clinton - with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter - were centrist enough for most Americans to continue identifying with their government. The polarization started with the GOP assault on Clinton in his second term, and escalated during George Bush’s tenure in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq, deteriorated dramatically with the election of America’s first black President Obama and has now expanded to the point of complete rupture in the days of Donald Trump.
Thus, a GOP victory in the midterms won’t be viewed by liberals as yet another swing of the political pendulum but as a triumph for the white, nationalist, isolationist and at least partially racist America that Trump has nurtured, fostered and turned into a rallying cry for the elections. If the GOP succeeds in confounding the polls and predictions once again, as they did in 2016, many liberal Americans will feel as if their country has repudiated them. Prominent among these will be American Jews, who are convinced that Trump’s poisonous rabble-rousing is to blame, at least in principle, for the unprecedented and murderous attack on Tree of Life synagogue, in which 11 Jews were slaughtered.
The Democrats’ disappointment will be compounded by their unbridled enthusiasm, which will be for naught, as well as by their dashed expectations to take over the House of Representatives at the very least. If Trump’s astonishing 2016 victory can be explained by the complacency induced by the general expectation that Hillary Clinton’s victory is assured, by her defects as a candidate and by the vagaries of the U.S. electoral system, which gave Trump the keys to the White House despite losing the elections by close to 3 million votes, this time there’ll be no excuses. With all the energies the Democrats have invested, failure is simply not an option.
One thing that can be said in Trump’s favor is that he has singlehandedly invigorated the often lethargic Congressional elections and driven up voter participation to unprecedented levels. The U.S. media is treating the 2018 midterms as if they were no less crucial to America’s future than any presidential ballot, and possibly more. The international community is just as entranced by the midterms, in which they used to take scant interest in the past. Once thing’s for sure, if the Republicans win, most of the world will be sitting shiva together with the Democrats to mourn the only America they can love and respect.