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Trump’s politics the new normal in US

Office of the Speaker [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While the Republican Party is becoming more firmly entrenched in the rural, mainly white parts of the country, the suburban areas are going in the Democratic direction.

Though his name was not on the ballot, the US mid-term elections were all about Donald Trump. For his opponents these elections were about reducing his political size. For his supporters, this was a moment to reassert the underlying shift in American Domestic political landscape. Both sides did everything possible to rally their base and in the end it seems it was Trump who managed to have an upper hand despite ceding control of the US House of Representatives to the Democrats.

Many Democrats were predicting this to be a wave election which would take away Trump’s power but nothing of the sort really happened. While the Democrats will have a majority in the House, the Republicans have a Senate majority with 52 seats. In a feat that seldom happens, Trump’s party gained Senate seats, a rarity in US mid-terms. Moreover, the Senate majority that Trump will have now is cast in his own mould, so a friendlier Senate is in the offing for the US President. The Traditional Republicans of the kind of Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, and John McCain who opposed many of Trump’s policies are not in action any longer. Their replacements are in tune with Trump and the trajectory he is shaping for the GOP.

On the other hand, incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi will find that managing an unruly Democratic caucus with a thin majority will be an uphill task. Without a supporting Senate, it is rather unlikely that the Democrats would be able to advance their pet legislations. Moreover, there will be temptation to double down on targeting Trump by using their newfound power to hold hearings and subpoena witnesses. This targeting will be used by Trump to play the victim card, something that he does very effectively.

Trump has already seized on the election results by taking credit for Republican victories and mocking Republicans who lost their elections by taking more centrist positions. These elections have in many ways reinforced Trump’s ability to mobilize votes in largely white areas, helping the GOP in the Senate and wins in the Ohio and Florida governor’s races. Trump has made his brand of politics the new normal in the US electoral landscape. His supporters are embracing him with some success and his opponents are trying to respond to a narrative shaped by him with some difficulty.

What will be of immediate concern for Trump now is how far the Democrats will go in using their new found power in the House to scrutinise his administration. The House Intelligence Committee, which investigated into 2016 Russian meddling in US elections, will be under the control of outspoken Trump antagonist Adam Schiff, who has pledged to look deeper into the president's foreign financial dealings. It has been speculated that the president's tax returns might be revealed to the public.

Trump was quick to sack Attorney General Jeff Sessions after the elections which followed months of Trump criticising Sessions, mainly for his decision to step aside from the Russia inquiry in March 2017. Sessions removed himself from the probe after Democrats accused him of failing to disclose contacts he had had with the Russian ambassador as a senior adviser to Trump's campaign. Acting attorney general Matt Whitaker does not intend to recuse himself from overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, which has resulting in a series of criminal charges against several Trump associates..  For the Democrats, Trump’s firing of Sessions was aimed at jeopardizing the US inquiry into alleged Russian meddling during the 2016 election.

Trump has vehemently denied any collusion took place, and repeatedly called for the inquiry to be shut down, calling it "the greatest political witch hunt in history.” Buoyed by the Democratic control of the House, Robert Mueller is likely to accelerate his investigation toward a conclusion as the new arithmetic in the House will provide some protection against any White House or Republican moves to bury the results of Mueller’s probe.

If there was one big takeaway from these mid term elections, it’s this: The US remains as divided as ever and those divisions are only likely to grow under a Trump Presidency that is all about rallying the base. While the Republican party is getting every more firmly entrenched in the rural, predominantly white parts of the nation, the suburban areas with higher levels of educations are going in the Democratic direction. But with both sides trying to stress on the differences, the stage is set for a bitter 2020 Presidential election in which all gloves will be off.

This commentary originally appeared in Business Standard.

Harsh V. Pant (King's India Institute)
29 November 2018

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