Have there ever been so many surprise or shock developments in the course of an election campaign?
In the U.S. midterms they never stopped coming. The paroxysms over the Kavanaugh Supreme Court appointment, the 11th-hour continental trade deal, the pipe-bomb scare, the Pittsburgh synagogue horror, the so-called onslaught of a migrant caravan.
Add Donald Trump’s race-baiting, his fictional diatribes, and his full-frontal attacks.
The stakes being high, the clamour rarely ceased. Some of my main take-aways follow.
1. It could have been so different, appealingly different. Mr. Trump had a policy record to run on. He had achievements he could point to on the economy, trade, the judiciary. He could have run a conventional campaign in which he tried to expand his base, seek some middle ground, and lower the temperature in the hothouse he has created.
But he chose to opt for a divisive culture war instead, further splitting the country into enemy camps. His campaign was a rerun of 2016 highlighted by immigrant-bashing and America-first prejudices. His caravan-invasion hyperbole; his sending of thousands of troops to his border. His fear-mongering video featuring a police-killing immigrant was egregious even by his own standards.
2. On the Democratic side, the midterms produced a new star, dealt a hard blow to an existing one and had the sad effect of making the cerebral and eloquent Barack Obama sound like he was from a bygone era.
The new star is Beto O’Rourke, the Texan who captured the imagination of youth in his insurgent campaign against Senator Ted Cruz. Even if he loses to Mr. Cruz, which is likely, he is positioned to take a crack at the Democratic nomination. The loser is Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a 2020 front-runner who in an attempt to undermine Mr. Trump’s “Pocohantas" taunts, took a DNA test to establish that she was of Native American descent. It backfired as it showed only infinitesimal traces. As for Mr. Obama, his benedictions on hope and idealism were lost in the bristling attack-rhetoric of today’s politics.
3. The midterms have enhanced Mr. Trump’s reputation as a political apocalypse. They demonstrated that he is not about to change. Civility, ethics, morality, and truth-telling again took a woeful beating as he continued to trash conventional approaches. In this past week he spoke of an immediate middle-class tax cut, suggested the migrant caravan was replete with dangerous elements and said he planned to revoke the automatic citizenship rights of children born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants. There was no basis for any of the three claims.
While rolling out fabrications and fake news at a tremendous clip he doubled down on blaming the media as the architects of falsehoods. When asked about his record of lies and distortions, he said “I always like to be truthful.” But he has learned that fiction and fabulism work better.
4. Distressingly, the vital issues of gun control and climate change were largely ignored. Democrats didn’t press on either. Even the Pittsburgh slaughter couldn’t rouse them on guns nor could another report on climate change that demonstrated how antediluvian the Trump gang is on the issue. Health care has been the Democrats' big issue and it appears to be a strong one for them.
5. Foreign affairs? Who cares? Americans again showed their parochial ways. Pollsters found little impact on voters in respect to the controversy over Russian collusion in the 2016 campaign, the diplomacy with North Korea, or the uproar over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
6. Look for both sides to claim victory. All prognostications point to the Democrats happily gaining control of the House of Representatives but Republicans happily holding the senate. Given precedent showing the midterms are usually a dismal day for the governing party, Mr. Trump will be able to say he did well.
7. What does the campaign say about the state of the country? Many thought that 2016 was an accident, that Americans would recoil once they realized what they had done.
It hasn’t happened. Despite the level of disgust at his ways of governance, Mr. Trump’s approval rating has been moving up through most of this year, getting closer to the 50-per-cent mark. If he’s the ugly American, he’s not alone. In the United States of 2018 almost half the population is with him.