Trump is Still the Demon King of US Politics

Art by Nick Roney

People who detest Donald Trump as the demon king of American politics are hoping that the feeble Republican performance in the midterm elections will weaken or dethrone him.

Democrats successfully characterised the “Make America Great Again” (Maga), Trump-dominated Republicans as a threat to democracy in the eyes of many voters. Not for nothing did the Democratic Party funnel money in some cases to the primary campaigns of extreme Maga supporters to ensure that they became the Republican candidates. But they could probably have saved themselves the money, because the Trumpian version of the Republican Party has put down deep roots.

The Republicans may have the worst of all possible worlds: a Trump too powerful to displace as party leader because he has the support of party activists; but, come election day, a leader who alienates more voters than he attracts, and is becoming an in-house political Jonah, ensuring the Republicans’ continued under-performance in future elections.

Control of the Senate

Republican leaders are understandably on tenterhooks to see whether Trump’s promised “big announcement” on 15 November will be to declare his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. Many counsel delay, arguing that Trump as a candidate will damage their chances in the crucial run-off for a Georgia Senate seaton 6 December, which may decide control of the Senate.

Possibly, Trump will not want to risk being labelled an election loser once again, but a delay would be a tacit admission that he is an electoral liability. A delay would also undermine his tried-and-tested method of dealing with failure or defeat, which is simply to deny that they have taken place. Brazenly preparing the ground for this tactic prior to the election, he said: “I think if [the Republicans] win, I should get all the credit. And if they lose, I should not be blamed.”

He may well get away with this among his core supporters, since he long ago persuaded them – despite a complete lack of evidence – that he was robbed of the presidency by electoral fraud in 2020.

Trump is not entirely wrong

Yet Trump is not entirely wrong in denying responsibility for the failure of the “Red Wave” to rise above a ripple. Abortion, not Trump, was the main issue for 27 per cent of voters and these broke three-to-one in favour of the Democrats, according to the exit poll. Sixty per cent of voters believe abortion should be legal, but 89 per cent of those who want it to be illegal are Republicans. More than half of Americans believe immigrants help the country, but 83 per cent of those who do not are Republicans. Similar deep divisions exist over gun control and climate change.

In other words, Trump expresses the views of a large majority of Republican voters – but a minority of voters in America as a whole.

The glee with which Trump’s enemies have focused on his latest discomfiture is partially the result of wishful thinking. His track record is of surviving setbacks and scandals that would have sunk any other politician. Many Democrats in 2016 waited for him to self-destruct and instead saw him win the White House. His verbal complicity in the 6 January Capitol riot damaged him, but largely among Americans who would not have voted for him anyway.

Covert enemies

As regards Trump’s survivability, I am reminded of the words of Conor Cruise O’Brien about Charles Haughey, an Irish political leader notorious for rising from what had been billed as his political grave: “If I saw Mr Haughey buried at midnight at a crossroad, with a stake driven through his heart – politically speaking – I should continue to wear a clove of garlic round my neck, just in case.”

Republicans and Democrats are nowhere near writing Trump’s political obituary, since his electoral wounds are not mortal. His many covert enemies among Republican Party leaders will be nervous of putting their heads above the parapet and will most likely wait until next year before seeking the nomination. Trump has already shown that he will ferociously attack any would-be rival, such as Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who cruised to re-election by a 20 per cent margin this week, and about whom Trump says that he knows dark secrets.

His Republican rivals know that opposing Trump unsuccessfully might terminate their careers, as critics of his role in the Capitol Hill riot have learnt to their cost.

A ‘cunning nutter’

The sigh of relief in London and most other European capitals over the underwhelming performance of the Republicans last week may therefore be premature. Non-Americans have tended to underestimate Trump as a politician since they became aware of him in 2016. Crazed and bizarre he may appear to be, but, says one former aide, he is a “cunning nutter.”

The midterms did not go the way Trump wanted, but they have once again made him the centre of media attention. The questions of whether he will or won’t stand again for the presidency is now being asked on every television screen in America and around the world.

Even Republicans unsympathetic to Trump think that reports of his political decline are premature. “All of these Republican power brokers and donors and thinkers and talkers, for seven years they’ve wanted to be rid of Trump, but they never do, and they’ve never said anything,” former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh, who unsuccessfully challenged Trump for the Republican presidential nomination in 2020, told the online magazine Politico. “Now they’re hoping, ‘Oh, my God, a miserable midterm and Ron DeSantis had a great night, this will finally take him out.’ It’s wishful thinking, it’s bullshit.”

Only time will tell, since one of the problems of American election reporting is that it often takes days, even weeks, for the most crucial races to be decided.

Clutch their clove of garlic

One veteran American political expert said last Tuesday that she would be watching a film and not the first election returns because all the important news would come later. We still do not know for certainty at the time of writing who will control Congress, with the Senate tipping towards the Democrats and the House tipping rather more decisively towards the Republicans.

Supposing these expectations are fulfilled, what does the future hold for American politics? Gridlock on legislation and furious Republican inquiries into supposed Democratic crimes, certainly. If Trump stands for the presidency – and that is not a certainty – then Democrats can look forward to Republican fratricidal strife.

Even with a Republican majority in the House, they will be vulnerable to a mutinous far-right faction – a situation not so different from the Tory Party in the House of Commons.

As for Trump, he certainly has been hurt by the outcome of the midterm elections, but even those Republicans who think this damage is serious and permanent would be wise to clutch their clove of garlic for safety’s sake.

Cockburn’s Picks

Media outlets have been publishing lists of winners and losers in the midterm elections. Most of their picks are obvious, but almost nobody has pointed to one embattled group that will have been watching the results with special attention: the American wolf population.

Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, who sought to delist wolves as an endangered species requiring federal protection, was at one point poised to lose a knife-edge election in Colorado. In one much watched video earlier this year, she jokes with an audience about shooting wolf puppies with her Glock firearm to make fur hats out of them. Sadly, she had regained a narrow lead at the time of writing. Howl.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).