The United States has just concluded mid-term elections that were deeply rancorous—and oh-so-predictable. The main protagonist, Donald Trump, was not even running, and yet the Democrats trained much of their fire on him, such is his perversely gigantic stature in a country whose politics he’s turned inside-out/ripped to shreds/subverted/revolutionized. (Take your pick.)
The Democrats characterized Trump as diabolical, and in truth, he is that way on some important issues. His attitude toward immigration seems to have morphed from being one of robust and sometimes distasteful opposition to illegal immigration into a more generalized—and disconcerting—species of nationalist ethnocentrism, in which foreigners are deemed a threat to America and its values (whatever those may be in Trump’s playbook). There hasn’t been a president in the history of this land of immigrants who has shown such naked hostility to the very idea of immigration. Such is Trump’s imperviousness to counterpoint that it is a waste of time to indicate that he’s married to an incomer from Slovenia, and that all his grandparents were born outside America. Oh, and his mother, too.
Caravan of refugees
Trump’s reaction to the “caravan of refugees” that is snaking its way north to the US has bordered on the hysterical. These people are migrants fleeing the socio-economic ghastliness of Honduras and other central American countries, and have embarked on a road-trip that has become a part of America’s national debate. Of course they have no right to enter and live in the US, but the living conditions they wish to leave behind are undeniably squalid and impoverished. Trump has called in the army to keep the hordes at bay, and has ratcheted up his xenophobic talk by several unlovely decibels.
And yet, by their equally hysterical assertion that the migrants must be admitted to the US, many Democrats have played straight into Trump’s hands. They have allowed him to tell his base that the country is in mortal peril, and that if they don’t vote Republican—i.e., for Him—the US will be eternally lost to ever more waves of Spanish-speakers from the south. He even used the opportunity to promise a repeal of birthright citizenship, whereby a person is entitled to American nationality if he is born on American soil. This was legally absurd, socially inflammatory, and yet wildly popular with many who support him.
Back to the elections: As of this writing, the Republicans have consolidated their control of the Senate, the American upper house, gaining two seats and poised to win a couple more. They have, however, lost control of the House of Representatives, with Democrats forming a majority there for the first time since 2010. The Republicans have also lost the governorships of several states, but I will dwell only on the picture in Washington.
As every pundit with buttocks planted in a TV studio has asserted, the US faces “gridlock,” one of the oldest clichés in American politics. Simply put, Trump will be unable to push through laws of his choice because he no longer has the backing of the House of Representatives, and man cannot legislate by Senate alone. This puts his recently confected NAFTA 2.0 deal in peril. Trump will need the support of House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and as an editorial in The Wall Street Journal this week pointed out, “she will try to extract policy concessions, such as a tax increase to pay for public works.” He has already hinted at an “adjustment” on the corporate tax rates that he cut only recently. The Journal warns that the Democrats will want a pound of flesh from Trump in exchange for any cooperation in passing laws, including a demand that the minimum wage be raised and that the price of prescription drugs be capped—policies that would be anathema to Senate Republicans.
So gridlock it may be until 2020, raising the question of which party will be more damaged as a result. There is the added likelihood that the House Democrats will hit Trump with a barrage of investigations, seeking—somehow—to secure his impeachment before the next presidential election. Trump’s preemptive riposte has been blunt. “If the Democrats think they are going to waste Taxpayer Money investigating us at the House level,” he Tweeted the day after the elections, “then we will likewise be forced to consider investigating them for all of the leaks of Classified Information, and much else, at the Senate level. Two can play that game!” This raises the prospect of a delicious internecine war between House and Senate, over which Trump looms as guerrilla-president. Politics in America is about to get even uglier.
Good for America?
The Republican Party’s loss of the House may, in the end, be good for America. And in a paradoxical way, it may also be good for Trump. There is no doubt that a president as volatile as Trump could not be trusted to govern responsibly with control of both House and Senate. That was too much untrammeled power in the hands of a man whose political beliefs veer from the unorthodox to the incendiary. Add to that the fact that the Supreme Court is now firmly “Republican,” and many Americans wondered where the brakes on Trump were.
Let us not forget that the Republicans now have a clear and handsome majority in the Senate, which means that Trump will face no impediment in the next two years in his nomination and confirmation of federal judges. Had the nomination to the US Supreme Court of Brett Kavanaugh occurred now, Trump would have had a cake-walk, with none of the tension associated with persuading senators to support a controversial candidate.
The fabled “checks and balances” of American politics have now been restored. The House, which Trump had in his back pocket, is now a bastion of the opposition. It is the place from which the Democrat insurgents will launch their raids on the White House. It is also, possibly, the place from which the party’s next stars will emerge. For all its successes in this week’s elections, the Democrats are in desperate need of wattage, of inspiration, of leadership. There are few more depressing sights in American politics—few things that offer more irrefutable proof of political stagnation—that Nancy Pelosi, and the prospect of her retaking the reins of the House must depress many Democrats (even as they exult in winning the House back from the Republicans).
Pelosi is the classic political lifer, of the kind that Indian voters habitually endure. Think of Pranab Mukherji in a Chanel suit and pearls. There is, as yet, no leader in the Democratic party with the oomph, the heft, the ideas, and the energy to take on Trump in 2020. And this gets me to how gridlock may be good for Trump. If the Democrats play spoilers for the next two years, opposing laws and demanding concessions that no Republican president could conceivably make, Trump gets to tell America that his hands are tied, and that the Democrats are preventing him from Making America Great Again.
As with every Trump assertion, this will not be entirely true, but it makes for one heck of an attractive narrative with which to regale the Republican base. Trump could emerge from two years of gridlock stronger, meaner and even harder to defeat in a presidential election, especially one in which he will fight a candidate who has yet to show his hand, and who has only a year, more or less—starting now—in which to ready himself for battle. The candidates who’ve stuck their necks out so far—Senators Corey Booker, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren—will be eaten alive by a ravenous Trump.
There is talk of Joe Biden, the former vice-president, riding to the party’s rescue, and there is no question that he’s the Democrat that Trump would least like to face. But he’s 75 right now, will be 77 in 2020, and 81 at the end of the next presidential term. Age matters less in today’s politics than it has ever done before, but those numbers do give us cause for pause.
One is tempted to ask, as India heads to the polls next year, whether there are lessons from all of this Americana for Prime Minister Modi. Naturally, comparisons should be made with caution, as India does not have a presidential system. Under Modi, however, it has the most presidential prime minister since Indira Gandhi at her most autocratic. Is there anything he can learn by looking at the way Trump has conducted his politics recently?
The obvious conclusion is that it seems to pay to have a strong, eye-catching leader who is unapologetic about his dislikes and unabashed about his nationalism.
We have already seen Modi heightening the Hindutva agenda, as have his most strident acolytes. Modi predates Trump as a politician, but he also admires the American for his ability to extend the boundaries of the possible and the permissible. He will have seen Trump on the political trail and said to himself, “Now that’s the way to do it. That’s the way to rouse my base to action.”
Tunku Varadarajan is executive editor at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.