A referendum on Trump’s policies and leadership

November 2018

Interview: Eric D. Carter / Marcos Cueto and Vivian Mannheimer

Eric D. Carter, Edens Associate Professor of Geography and Global Health at Macalester College. He is also the author of “Enemy in the Blood: Malaria, Environment, and Development in Argentina”. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012.

On November 6, the United States had its first national election since Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016.

Many in the country viewed this vote as a referendum on his policies in his first two years in office, and observers can interpret this election as a repudiation of Trumpism.

Eric D. Carter, Edens Associate Professor of Geography and Global Health at Macalester College examines the midterm election results and the prominence of themes such as healthcare and immigration.

What is a midterm election, and why was it so important?

On November 6, we had our first national election since Donald Trump shocked the world by winning the presidency in 2016. In a “midterm” election, Trump himself was not running, but many of us viewed this election as a referendum on Donald Trump’s policies and leadership in his first two years in office. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives (the lower house of the US Congress) were up for grabs (although a great many incumbents ran unopposed), along with about one-third of Senate seats. In addition, there were many races for state governors, and for thousands of state legislative seats and other local offices.

What were the main results of the election?

At a national level, the most important result was a change in majority control of the House, with the Democrats taking over from the Republicans. This outcome was expected. Historically, the opposition party often wins the first midterm election of a new presidency, and Trump’s words and deeds have given rise to a well-organized resistance.

The Senate, however, stayed in the hands of the Republican party, and once again, we have a divided government. As a result, there will be additional checks on Trump’s power, but it’s also worth noting that Trump has had few legislative achievements in his first two years, despite a solid Republican majority in Congress, other than an important tax reform bill that favors the wealthy and drives up the national debt. Divisions between factions of his own party mostly explain this failure to produce new legislation.

So instead, Trump has been governing by “executive order,” to increase border security, curtail immigration, raise import tariffs, and roll back environmental regulations. But continued Republican control of the Senate is crucial, since it has power over appointing new members of the Supreme Court. It is quite possible that Trump, with the Senate’s consent, will be able to place another ideological conservative on the Supreme Court, and a 6-3 conservative majority would likely result in severe restrictions on abortion rights.

Results of state governor’s races should be encouraging to the Democratic party. In particular, three Midwestern states that voted for Trump in 2016 (Kansas, Wisconsin, and Michigan) chose to switch from Republican to Democratic governors. Notably, all of these states had experienced aggressive free-market-oriented policy reforms under Republican party control in the last few years, and voters had clearly grown weary of budget cuts, especially in public education.

All in all, though the results were mixed and Trump continues as president, it was a great night for the Democratic party: a diffuse resistance to Trumpism was transformed into well funded and well organized campaigns, tangible electoral victories, and many new faces that may represent the future of the party. A record number of women (mostly Democrats) will be serving in the new Congress, including Ilhan Omar, a Muslim woman born in Somalia, representing a district in my state of Minnesota.

Was health an important issue for many voters? What about illegal immigration?

It’s always a challenge to pinpoint one issue that swayed the electorate, but both healthcare and immigration proved to be prominent themes in campaign rhetoric and debates. In mid-October, research by the Wesleyan University Media Project found that most Democratic candidates for Congress focused on health care in their televised campaign ads, reminding voters that a Republican-controlled Congress voted repeatedly – over fifty times – to repeal the Affordable Care Act of 2010, also known as Obamacare (although, due to discord in their own party, Republicans were unable to do away with the law even after Trump took office).

Evidently, the Democratic position to make health care accessible and affordable for more Americans was appealing to voters. Although economic growth is high and unemployment is low, wage growth is still sluggish, a problem exacerbated by the relentless rise of health insurance premiums, which effectively eats away at middle-class salaries. To give you an idea, the average annual premium for family health insurance is now close to $20,000, with employees typically covering about 30 percent of that cost, and this doesn’t even include other “out of pocket” costs. While the progressive wing of the Democratic party increasingly pushes for a “Medicare For All” program – a single government payer plan – many Republican candidates actually embraced certain elements of the relatively centrist Obamacare program that they used to vilify just a few years ago.

The immigration issue proved divisive, as always, and possibly decisive in scattered Republican victories. Just in the last few weeks, President Trump and his propaganda machine, the Fox News television network, whipped up nationalistic and xenophobic fervor about the caravan of Central American immigrants slowly proceeding on foot towards the US-Mexico border. Just seven days before the election, President Trump ordered 5,200 military troops to the border to respond to what he called an “invasion” of migrants from the south. Astoundingly, just days before the election, one commentator on Fox Business News claimed that these migrants were threatening to bring leprosy and even smallpox—eradicated in 1980—across the US border. It is possible – though again, hard to say with certainty – that the perceived threat of the migrant caravan drove many conservative voters to the polls in Texas, where the rightwing incumbent, Ted Cruz, won reelection to the Senate over a well-funded Democratic opponent, Beto O’Rourke.

Is this the beginning of an impeachment process against president Trump?

Impeachment proceedings against President Trump appear unlikely in the next two years. Clearly, most Democrats avidly wish to remove Trump from office as soon as possible, and some powerful Trump opponents argue for seizing the moment and impeaching Trump right away, for a wide range of reasons: the possible ties between Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russian agents, the president’s use of political influence in suspicious business deals while in office, and his notorious mistreatment of women. However, removing a president from office requires the participation of both chambers of Congress, with the House acting as a sort of prosecutor and the role of jury played by the Senate, where a two-thirds majority vote would be needed to remove the president from office.

Since the Democratic party controls the House only, impeachment proceedings would probably be pointless, and could backfire politically. It is possible that the president will do something so serious or repulsive that even Republicans see impeachment as a necessity, but party loyalty and cohesion remains strong. Nevertheless, House Democrats now have the power to launch or accelerate investigations into the Trump administration’s misdeeds, even without an impeachment procedure, which might undermine his chances of reelection in 2020.

Will these elections have an international impact?

Of course, US national elections can have a huge influence abroad, in ways that most voters here do not understand. International observers should interpret this election as a repudiation, though not quite a defeat, of Trumpism. Given the seeming drift towards conservative and authoritarian politics worldwide, as symbolized by Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, our recent election could signify a shifting of the political winds, or a bulwark against the rightward global trend.

It is also important to recognize that Trump has never enjoyed the support of a majority of people in the United States: due to our peculiar system of elections, Trump won the presidency in 2016 despite losing the popular vote by a margin of over 3 million, and public opinion polls continue to show dismal levels of support for him. However, he is still the president, and we can expect that he will continue to take a hardline stance against immigrants, including political refugees; continue to deploy protectionist trade policies and accelerate a “trade war” with China, which could have far-reaching and varied impacts on the global economy; diminish hope for international coordination to act on climate change; and continue to cultivate ties to other nationalist strongmen, like Vladimir Putin. Also, Trump seems to thrive when he has a convenient foil, so expect him to attempt to turn Democratic party intransigence to his advantage and position himself for a climatic battle for reelection in 2020.

Read more in HCS-Manguinhos:

CARTER, EricPostcolonial nation-building and health in IndonesiaHist. cienc. saude-Manguinhos, June 2018, vol.25, no.2, p.591-594. ISSN 0104-5970.

Social medicine in Latin America, 1930–1945 – Eric Carter examines the international networks that influenced ideas and policy in social medicine in Latin America, focusing on institutions.

Malaria, modernidad y desarrollo en la Argentina de la primera mitad del siglo XX – Una reseña de Marcos Cueto, editor científico de HCS-Manguinhos, del libro Enemy in the blood: malaria, environment and development in Argentina, de Eric D. Carter, publicado por la editorial de la Universidad de Alabama, 2002.

A divided US: The unexpected electoral victory of Trump – Theodore Brown, professor of history at the University of Rochester analyses the victory of Donald Trump and the reactions of the progressive political forces in the US.

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