Donald Trump is a president with no regard for norms or constraints on his power. Electing a Democratic House puts a crucial check on what he will be able to do, and Democrats and “The Resistance” should feel good about the results. However, having one part of the government to rein in Trump is only the first step; our toxic politics are going to get worse before they get better.
The Republican Party is now fully Trump’s. Those in the party who had qualms about his many faults have mostly retired or lost their seats. The party also has a solid mouthpiece in Fox News and related right-wing media outlets. Trump’s party follows his lead, which is to appeal only to the base, but appeal in intense and apocalyptic terms. The right-wing media amplify his inflammatory rhetoric, helping to create a Republican bubble that is dangerously out of touch with reality. The good news is that this bubble appeals to only a minority of the population; as long as turnout remains high and elections remain fair the strategy of riling up the right-wing base is likely to lead to continued losses nationwide (even if Florida sometimes goes the other way).
The electoral terrain for 2020 is not friendly for Trump’s Republican Party, in part, because they have failed to govern responsibly, pursuing short-term policy gains that will look worse over the next two years. The tax cut is even less favorable to the middle class in later years, for instance, and the massive deficit will be even harder to ignore if we hit a recession before the next election, which is likely. In addition, Republicans have a more difficult Senate map to defend next time around with around twice as many Republicans facing re-election as Democrats. The party still has no realistic policy on health care or the social safety net that doesn’t involve major reductions in popular benefits people rely on, and their traditional positions — free trade and fiscal responsibility — have been sacrificed to Trump.
Democrats, on the other hand, will spend the next two years with the investigative power of the House but none of the responsibility of governing. With the Republican Party hewing hard to the right, Democrats can continually propose centrist legislation and force Trump and the Republicans to stop it. On top of investigations by the House of Representatives, the special counsel is likely to issue further indictments of people close to the president and perhaps issue a final report that is unlikely to look good for President Donald Trump himself. Trump and the Republicans will thus be under continual pressure from the special counsel, from House investigations into emoluments, Trump’s tax returns and who knows what else, and from Democrats who will simply pass popular policy and make the Republicans kill it.
And our politics will stay ugly. Why? Because the rage and deceit comes from the top, and Trump, when cornered, will only double down. The president who ordered U.S. troops to the southern border because of unarmed migrants 700 miles away (a huge and inappropriate waste of taxpayer resources) will manufacture more crises and conflicts to deflect attention from his myriad scandals. To succeed, he’ll have to up the stakes, which means he may order our troops to war, or come up with something else that clearly violates the Constitution like jailing political opponents or stifling their speech. But the right-wing bubble will likely amplify his actions, and many who see themselves as reasonable people will be tempted to remain passive and rationalize anything he does.
Democrats just won the people’s House with a greater than 7 percent margin in the national popular vote. Trump can’t win in 2020 against that sort of margin without appealing broadly to the center. But Trump does not do what normal politicians do; his instincts are those of an autocrat. Expect him to hew more to the right instead, into more conspiracy theories and false threats. And he’ll take real actions on them, with costs to the country and the world.
We have a dishonest president who has consolidated his grip on the Republican Party. The best case for democracy is that he leads his party to a complete defeat in 2020, showing everyone that incendiary rhetoric and bad policies lead to failure. But there are dangers along the way, and he will challenge the fundamentals of decency and democracy before admitting defeat. Prepare for even more divisiveness.
Alan Green is associate professor of economics and chair of the economics department at Stetson University.