Despite the Democrats winning the House of Representatives and scoring impressive gains in races for state governor, U.S. President Donald Trump will nonetheless claim a moral victory, likely making the next two years even more tumultuous than the last.
Although hardly a Democratic wave, Tuesday’s midterm elections gave the party control of one house of Congress. This will act as a powerful check on Mr. Trump’s ambitions.
The Democrats will use their power in the House to rein in the worst excesses of Mr. Trump’s domestic agenda. He will have a very difficult time, for example, trying to revoke citizenship for children born in the United States to parents who are not citizens themselves.
There will be no wall on the southern border, no further erosion of Obamacare, no more tax cuts for the rich.
The Democrats can also use the House’s investigatory power to probe alleged Republican misdeeds during and after the 2016 campaign. And they will be in a position to act on whatever comes out of the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller into foreign influence in that campaign.
But the Senate stayed in Republican hands. And the President, whose ability to translate reality into a narrative he controls, will point to the modest improvement in the Democrats’ fortunes — the party of the president usually does worse than this in midterm elections – as good reason to continue attacking immigrants, sexual minorities, the rights of women and others in his sights.
And what will happen when Mr. Trump turns his attention to foreign affairs? Will he seek to further undermine NATO? How will the trade war with China unfold? And what about North Korea and Iran?
One thing is certain: Right-wing populism—authoritarian, intolerant, isolationist—is now an entrenched fact of political life in the United States. It dominates the governing party. And it will not soon pass from the scene.
Joseph Lowndes, a political scientist at the University of Oregon who studies U.S. political movements, said in an interview that right-wing populism first emerged in the unsuccessful but influential campaign of segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace, who ran for president in 1968 and 1972 as an independent.
Mr. Wallace told audiences that liberal elites promoted the civil-rights movement while ignoring the priorities of working- and middle-class whites. Richard Nixon channeled that unhappiness when he talked about the “silent majority” of conservative voters.
Learning from Mr. Wallace, strategists in the 1970s dreamed “that they could put together a national coalition of what they called ‘hard hats’ and suburbanites, among others, whom they called ‘middle Americans' or “forgotten Americans’ – white voters opposed to the priorities of liberals," Prof. Lowndes said – especially policies that supported African-Americans, such as integrated schools and affirmative action.
Their champion was the avuncular Ronald Reagan, who was beloved by evangelical Christians and other white populists, even though his policies catered to the financial elites.
George H. W. Bush and his son George W. Bush governed largely in the interests of economic conservatives who favoured global free trade, which was anathema to right-wing populists.
Pat Buchanan, a former aide to Nixon and Reagan, ran against the elder Mr. Bush in the 1992 primaries on a platform that added feminists, gay-rights advocates and immigrants to the mix of despised others.
This wing of the party became increasingly powerful after the financial crisis of 2008: Sarah Palin. The Tea Party. Then, Donald Trump.
Trump Republicans – and they control the party, now – are anti-minorities, anti-feminist, anti-LGBT and, above all, anti-immigrant. Tuesday’s result will encourage this President to go farther on all fronts.
The present is not the future. As the United States becomes more and more diverse – the white birth rate is too low for any other result – the power of the Republican coalition will wane. Some fear the party will become even more bloody-minded in trying to hold on: More voter suppression, gerrymandering, limits on free speech and freedom of the press.
Will the Democrats ever be able to broaden their coalition enough to break the Republican Party’s hold on the presidency and Senate? When, if ever, will the populist fever within the GOP break? Can either party ever find a way to reduce the growing gap between rich and poor, people of colour and whites, that drives this deep divide?
The results of this day make that answer depressingly unclear.