Voter anger with Donald Trump is spurring changes in party politics and it’s already swamping Democrats.
Beginning with a Republican civil war in Michigan, where the junior senator, Debbie Stabenow, defeated an insurgent rightwing candidate backed by Trumpism, the Republican party has changed considerably. Heading into the congressional midterms in November, House of Representatives Republicans are increasingly in a panic over its rightwing ascendancy, and in the face of his apocalyptic rhetoric on immigration, the party seems locked in a battle to the finish.
On the other side of the scale, Democrats are starting to take note of what’s happening. “We’re seeing a real tsunami in support of Democrats … the night [after Trump’s historic election] was already a tipping point,” Iowa Democratic chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan told the Iowa press following his midterms win. In Arkansas, it was reported that with the help of $1m in donations, voter registration volunteer reached 485,000 in one month.
Fellow Democratic chairwoman Mary Beth Cahill of Maryland admitted to the Baltimore Sun that Trump was creating a flood of enthusiasm. “I don’t know if I can identify any other time in the history of our party where you have rallies and call outs like you did in November.”
This trend is reflected in the national polls. The Guardian’s average of polling shows the Democrats leading the Republicans, taking a solid 16 point lead across the country. However, this phenomenon is not entirely unique to red and blue states. In a recent poll in Massachusetts, Democrats were enjoying a 40 point lead, three times the size of Trump’s difference between the two parties at the same point in the 2012 presidential campaign. Elsewhere in the country, despite the huge discrepancy in the national polls, Republican voter apathy was reflected in their own party. In Iowa, such apathy is behind the rise of every Republican running for Senate. While of the seven most endangered Republicans, all but one are former governors or senators, none are considered in danger of losing re-election. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Eric Ciotti a Republican strategist put the blame on what he called the “senior party leadership”: “They failed to articulate a real conservative economic message,” he said. “Over the years they failed to lead.”
This Republican change-of-mind is not solely a function of Trump’s maladroit negotiations with Democrats over the budget. Increasing numbers of conservative evangelicals and members of the Republican party are coming to realise that Trump’s policies on the environment, trade, race and immigration are all antithetical to their beliefs. Former Republican congressman Steve King held a news conference late last year to repeat his unpopular views, including that “the ‘under God’ word has no spiritual grounding.” And on the 2016 election night, the world heard a different language from the president.
“I saw Christians and Jewish leaders in New York come up to me afterwards, saying, ‘We don’t agree with you, but thank you for being a Christian’ and the candidate coming up, ‘Thank you for being a Christian’,” one Trump supporter told the Hill. Meanwhile, Trump has been spurning his own party. As the Minnesota Star Tribune reported, last year he refused to endorse his then-Senate candidate. And he is pushing the party further to the right on the national security front, contradicting its previously pro-establishment stance.
Granted, the presidential campaign was littered with fantastic assurances from Trump about his political skills. “I will absolutely be a great president,” he told Fox News last September. However, he is not an architect, a strategist, or a tactician. In the run-up to this election, one Republican operative told the Hill: “Trump is being Trump. That isn’t smart – he’s being dumb. He should be modeling himself after someone like John F Kennedy. JFK was the smartest, most calculating pol in the country. But he never tried to be himself and he was awesome.”
• Cerise Brugan is a former editor of The Nation.