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The midterms won’t end the mad melodrama of US politics

Donald Trump at a rally in Richmond, Kentucky. Photo: Scott Utterback/The Louisville Courier Journal via USA TODAY NETWORK/Sipa USA/PA Images

Donald Trump at a rally in Richmond, Kentucky. Photo: Scott Utterback/The Louisville Courier Journal via USA TODAY NETWORK/Sipa USA/PA Images

November 1, 2018   4 mins

Politics in America over the past month has been sounding much like an outlandish plot in a TV series. A Supreme Court Justice nominee faces last-minute accusations of sexual assault, gang rape, and habitual drunkenness; leading Republican politicians are frequently accosted in restaurants by angry mobs; Democrats and liberal media personalities receive homemade bombs in the mail, leading to a national manhunt and the arrest of an unhinged superfan of the President.

But the synagogue massacre, blamed by many on the Left on Trump’s purportedly racist rhetoric despite the fact the suspect hated Trump, has upped the intensity to an entirely new level. Real life is making House of Cards seem tame.

The emotions engendered by TV drama fade quickly because we know it is fiction. The emotions these developments have inflamed feed off each other because they are real. Rather than pulling together as a country in mourning, instead partisans blame and assign malign motives to the other side. The Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan’s column last week appealing for calm in both sides’ rhetoric already seems quaint and naive.

With the midterms less than a week away, you might think that these explosive events might move voters. In fact, many pundits surmised that the Kavanaugh accusations would hurt Republicans among women and swing voters. Instead, the polls show roughly what they did before those three weeks captivated the country. Partisan intensity is so great that each side views facts through their own set of highly coloured spectacles.

This means we are likely to see a split verdict at the polls. Democrats have been energised by their rage ever since Trump’s election and remain united in their zeal to unseat him. The party has also won over millions of former Republicans, mainly in the country’s educated and well-off suburbs. This strong combination means most of the 25 Republicans who currently hold seats carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016 will lose. Other Republicans holding seats in similar regions which Trump narrowly carried are also in danger. Together, this means Democrats should pick up the 23 seats they need to take control of the House – and perhaps quite a few more.

Democrats also look in a strong position to win a number of Republican-held governor chairs. They currently lead in eight Republican-held states, including all five of the states with Republican governors up for election this year that switched from Obama to Trump. If this comes to pass on Election Day, Republicans will know they face an uphill fight going into 2020.

The Republicans do however, look very likely to gain seats in the Senate. That’s because America only elects one third of the 100 Senate seats every two years, and this year the overwhelming bulk of these are held by Democrats. Furthermore, five of those Democrat-held seats are in states that both Mitt Romney and Donald Trump won by large margins.

In today’s partisan era, it is very difficult for incumbents of one party to attract voters who regularly vote for another. Accordingly, polls show Republicans in the lead against three of those members and within a couple of points in two more. They could gain as many as five Senate seats should they run the table and hold all the other seats they currently lead in.

This would not be a terribly surprising result. According to the most recent Economist/YouGov poll, 91% of those who voted for Hillary Clinton plan to vote for Democrats next Tuesday while 88% of Trump voters plan to vote for Republicans. Unlike the European elections where voters regularly shift their party allegiance, the current sharp divide makes American political loyalties look more like tribal ties than rational choices.

The split verdict will satisfy neither side. House Democrats can use their control of the House to issue subpoenas and investigate virtually any aspect of the Trump Administration. This would make politics even more adversarial than it already is. But if Republicans were to gain seats in the Senate, they would have an easier time confirming President Trump’s nominees to his Cabinet and other high-level positions in his Administration. They would also easily be able to confirm any judicial nominee the President makes. Since two liberal Justices, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, are over 80 years old, it is entirely possible that should either die or become physically unable to execute their duties, President Trump and the Republicans could add even more conservative members to the Court. If this were to happen, one should expect it to further enrage a Left that already feels illegitimately deprived of power.

Which brings us back to the prospect of violence. Political violence escalated dramatically in the years preceding the American Civil War. One Southern Congressman nearly beat a Northern Senator to death with a cane on the Senate floor. “Bleeding Kansas”, an irregular war fought by pro- and anti-slavery enthusiasts, took many lives between 1855 and 1861. And on October 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown and his family seized control of the United States armoury at Harpers Ferry with the intent to distribute the guns kept there to slaves throughout the South and encourage an armed uprising.

Modern America will surely not descend to that level. But with the ever-rising political temperatures and the hothouse of social media on hand to inflame emotions further, it wouldn’t take much to persuade an unstable person to take matters into their own hands. We already have seen a deranged anti-Trump man travel over 600 miles from his home in Illinois to a baseball field in suburban Washington, DC, where Republican Congressmen were practising for the annual Republican-Democrat baseball game. He opened fire and would doubtless have killed many Congressman had one of them, Rep. Steve Scalise, not been a member of the House Leadership and thus had round-the-clock security protection. Those guards shot the assailant, but not before he wounded Rep. Scalise and three other people. The next target might not be so fortunate.

But as long as there is life, there is hope. In the 1960s, long-suppressed racial animus exploded into years of bloody riots and three high-profile assassinations. But the nation survived and emerged strong enough to bring down the Soviet Union and unleash the current wave of global expansion that has lifted hundreds of millions from poverty and tyranny. Most Americans do not want violence and do not want to tyrannise their neighbours.

Perhaps after the midterms deliver an inconclusive result, the President might join with his Democratic counterparts to find unexpected ways to work together and dial the conflict down. This would, though, be very unexpected. Instead, the political reality show unfolding before our eyes is more likely to take ever more bizarre, and ever more dangerous and gripping, twists and turns before any semblance of calm is restored.

Henry Olsen is Editor of UnHerd.com’s Flyover Country theme and a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. He is the author of ‘The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism’.


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