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Andrew Preston is a professor of American history at the University of Cambridge whose books include Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy.

Despite all the passion and rancour – and, yes, the fire and fury – what’s most surprising about this year’s midterm elections is how conventional they were. The Republicans suffered large losses in the House, but they held the Senate by winning at least one and possibly two more seats. What this means for the future isn’t clear.

In congressional elections, a first-term incumbent president’s party always loses seats in the House and usually loses seats in both chambers – on average, 27 seats in the House of Representatives and three in the Senate since the Second World War. Even though the president isn’t on any ballot, the national scope of the elections and the issues they raise – usually things such as health care, the economy and war and foreign policy – make them a referendum of sorts on the occupant of the White House. Most presidents discover that living up to the expectations from their victory is difficult if not impossible.

Since the Second World War, the party of a first-term president has bucked this trend only three times. Two were split decisions, just as we saw happen this year: In 1962, John F. Kennedy’s Democrats lost four seats in the House but gained three in the Senate; in 1970, Richard Nixon’s Republicans lost a dozen seats in the House but picked up two in the Senate.

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U.S. President John F. Kennedy waves to a crowd at the conclusion of a speech in downtown Detroit, Mich., on Oct. 6, 1962.AP

Only once, in 2002, when the unique trauma of 9/11 rallied the country behind George W. Bush, has a president’s party increased its strength in both houses of Congress at the first midterm hurdle – it takes that kind of seismic event to change the contours of history. Even then, the Republicans’ gains were relatively modest, with eight additional seats in the House and one more in the Senate.

Many Americans, including quite a few Republicans, assumed that because Donald Trump is so unpopular, the Republicans would not simply lose ground in Congress but be washed away by a “blue wave” of Democratic dominance. Order would return to the political world.

But while there were stormy seas, there was hardly a tsunami in sight. The Democrats made large but not unprecedented gains in the House of Representatives and actually lost ground in the Senate.

One conclusion to draw from this is that the Democrats underperformed. And, by historical standards, there’s no doubt they did. Presidents before Mr. Trump, whose approval ratings weren’t nearly as low as his, saw their party suffer overwhelming defeats in their first midterm test. To be sure, the Republicans suffered substantial losses in 2018, and the Democrats performed as one might expect in the regular course of political events. But given Mr. Trump’s record unpopularity, GOP losses could have – probably should have – been much heavier.

There have been several true “wave elections” in modern history. The 1946 midterms saw Harry Truman’s Democrats lose 55 House members and an astonishing 12 senators. In 1966, Vietnam cost Lyndon Johnson’s Democrats 47 seats in the House and four in the Senate (yet so great were their majorities, they kept control of both chambers). In 1994, Bill Clinton’s Democrats were steamrolled by Newt Gingrich’s ultraconservative “Contract with America” revolution: The GOP picked up 54 seats in the House and nine in the Senate, seized power in Congress and forced the political centre of gravity decisively to the right. And in the Tea Party midterms of 2010, Barack Obama rightly called Republican gains – 63 seats in House, six in the Senate – a “shellacking” for the Democrats. In terms of change, 2018 is unlikely to join this list.

More surprising is the limited impact wave elections actually have. The surge from even these historic midterms receded fairly quickly, and with one exception the president who stumbled at his first midterm went on to win re-election two years later (that exception is Johnson, who faced ferocious backlash due to Vietnam and race riots and didn’t stand for re-election). Then there were other presidents whose party suffered modest midterm losses (Dwight Eisenhower in 1954 and Ronald Reagan in 1982), yet coasted to landslide re-election victories.

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Vice President Lyndon Johnson poses with new senators in Washington, on Jan. 9, 1963.AP

Strange as it seems, first-hurdle midterms are actually not a good bellwether of what’s to come. No matter how brutal the beating they take in the midterms, most presidents have won re-election afterward. So if Democrats are assuming their triumph in the House augurs an even greater triumph in 2020, they could be in for a rude awakening.

A different conclusion one might draw from the 2018 midterms is that the Democrats’ glass is actually half-full, and that even if they underperformed two weeks ago, there is plenty of cause for optimism ahead. The Democrats may have lost ground in the Senate, but they were defending a record number of states; while their numbers fell, they picked up a key win in Arizona, where this week Kyrsten Sinema became the first Democrat to represent the state since 1995. Meanwhile, in the House, Republican stalwarts such as California’s Dana Rohrabacher were defeated, and Democrats had their best midterm showing since 1974 despite facing obstacles from a surging economy to systemic voter suppression to pervasive gerrymandering.

There’s some truth to this. As the United States becomes more diverse, demographic changes aren’t likely to favour the Republicans. The incoming Democratic caucus is the most diverse in American history, whether one measures by gender, religion, ethnicity or race. The national complexion is changing and the Democrats are changing with it. Their transformation is mind-boggling given that the era when they were the party of Jim Crow and the Solid South is still within living memory.

By contrast, the appearance of the Republican Party today bears a striking resemblance to the Republican Party of 1988, 1968 – even 1928. In the most basic ways, it has changed very little, and the new groups it has successfully incorporated – evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics, above all white Southerners – have only accentuated the party’s long-standing identity and values. As a result, even deep-red states such as Texas are now becoming contestable battlegrounds. Nobody knows what the electoral map will look like in 10 or 20 years, but it’s probably going to feature a lot more blue than it does now.

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Marvella Bayh, centre right, rests on the arm of her husband, Democratic candidate Birch Bayh, as he learns that the Associated Press has declared him the winner in a race for U.S. in Indianapolis, Ind., on Nov. 7, 1962.IWC/AP

Yet now is the time we live in. And for now, it’s the Republicans who more often set the national agenda and hold the balance of power. This is the third conclusion one can draw from the 2018 midterms: We live in the Age of Trump.

The GOP is clearly Mr. Trump’s party. That may eventually lead to the Republicans’ ruin, but for the time being, it seems to be serving them well. If any more Supreme Court vacancies occur in the next two years, which is likely, the Republican-controlled Senate will swiftly confirm them and cement a conservative majority for several decades to come even if they lose Congress and the White House in 2020.

Even that’s not a foregone conclusion: A complete pounding in the midterms doesn’t necessarily lead to defeat in the presidential election two years later, as Mr. Truman, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama demonstrated. It’s not implausible to see Mr. Trump getting re-elected in 2020, especially if the economy continues to boom.

In a perverse way, the Democrats have also become Mr. Trump’s party. For the past two years, their agenda has been determined by what Mr. Trump does rather than anything they themselves offer. Mr. Trump’s political gift is that he establishes the political terrain on which everyone else must live, and then burns it to the ground with scorched-earth politics only he can survive. This may turn out to be a godsend for the Democrats, but for now, they’re playing a game by Mr. Trump’s rules.

Marco Rubio and other Republican contenders discovered this to their peril during the 2016 primaries. Hillary Clinton encountered it during the presidential campaign. She may have compounded it with her own strategic illiteracy of ignoring the usually Democratic swing states of the Midwest, but this showed that even a previously reliable firewall was no match for Mr. Trump’s incendiary energy.

This isn’t to suggest that Mr. Trump has caused the country’s deeply emotional divisions. He has not. Americans were polarized before Mr. Trump, and they’ll be polarized after him, too. Mr. Obama put it best when he joined the Democratic campaign this September. Mr. Trump “is a symptom, not the cause” of political polarization, Mr. Obama pointed out during a speech at the University of Illinois. “He’s just capitalizing on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years, a fear and anger that’s rooted in our past but it’s also born out of the enormous upheavals that have taken place in your brief lifetimes.”

The culture wars over God, guns and gays had their roots in the 1970s, took shape in the 1980s and exploded into life in the 1990s. The rhetoric about Mr. Trump, on both sides, is undoubtedly shrill, but it’s similar in tone and substance to the political invective of the Nixon or Clinton eras. Domestic political terrorism between 1970 and 2000, which peaked in the Oklahoma City bombing, was even greater, and nothing has approached the political violence witnessed in the periods between 1865-75, 1915-39 or 1955-65.

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Surrounded by a sea of peace symbols, President Richard Nixon's motorcade passes a group of demonstrators in Rochester, Minn., in Oct. 1970.The Associated Press

Presidents have pitted groups of Americans against each other before – both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mr. Nixon thrived on waging different forms of class warfare – but never before has a president done so as wantonly, continually, viscerally and recklessly as has Mr. Trump. It’s hard to see Mr. Trump doing what Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Nixon were also capable of pulling off – working with the opposition on actual policy issues. Mr. Reagan, Mr. Clinton and both Bushes were adept at this as well.

What’s different about Mr. Trump is that he uses the imprimatur of the country’s highest office to intensify rhetoric and escalate passion to the point where compromise is nearly impossible. To Mr. Trump, politics is a zero-sum game. The implications for American democracy are worrying, for democracy simply cannot function without compromise. Mr. Trump has been willing to go where nobody else has dared to go. Americans, his own supporters included, are suffering as a result from the dysfunctional politics Trumpism relies on. It is corroding American democracy.

If Democrats stick to the bread-and-butter issues that delivered them the House this year, while reasonably holding the Trump administration accountable, they’ll stand a good chance at turning their 2018 victory into a durable coalition. They’ve had a bad habit of underestimating Mr. Trump while at the same time overestimating others’ dislike for him. If they continue moving away from simply attacking Mr. Trump, if they instead offer a better future of their own, and if they can welcome home the fabled white working class, they’ll be in good shape. Only then will the Age of Trump begin drawing to a close.

The real difficulty will be those moments when the Democrats will be given a choice to work with the Trump White House to pass key legislation – say, on an immigration reform bill that will require them to accede to some of Mr. Trump’s demands, such as building a wall along the Mexican border.

But if the Democrats try to beat Mr. Trump at his own game, by matching his extremism with their own, they’ll almost certainly lose ground two years from now. If they reject compromise and are seen as obstructionist, they’ll likely pay for it at the ballot box in 2020 – just ask the Republicans of 1948. Unless the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller turns up incredibly compelling direct evidence of serious wrongdoing, impeachment proceedings would be a huge mistake. Trumpism needs to be defeated in an election. And even if Mr. Trump can be forced from office, America’s divisions will not disappear – they’ll probably be much worse.

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