In the leadup to the 2016 elections, the widespread misperception by the mainstream media was that the vote would be a referendum on the excesses of Donald Trump. Instead, the vote ended up being a referendum on the acceptability of Hillary Clinton – and fewer people showed up to vote for her in key swing states because of it.
But there is one crucial rule in American politics that doesn’t seem to change in midterm elections: the referendum is on the president. And that means that President Trump’s excesses and his wild conduct, his exaggerations and his prevarications, his failures and his foibles – all will be on the ballot, even though Trump won’t be on the ballot himself. That’s why Democrats have spent outsized attention on labeling Trump a racist, sexist, bigoted and homophobic anti-Semite, and have tried to tie his party and his voters to that label: they’re hoping that using the Trump brush to paint the entire Republican Party will be successful as an electoral strategy.
But make no mistake: if the Democrats win the House and the Senate, or even if they win the House alone, their agenda won’t be checking Trump. It will be full-scale Leftism. In 2008, Barack Obama ran as a candidate who would supposedly unify the country; he promised to re-orient the country away from partisan divides, away from “red states and blue states,” and toward the United States. Instead, he proceeded to spend the next eight years dividing Americans by race, class, and sex, and spent his first two years pressing forward the most progressive political agenda since LBJ.
Democrats will do the same. Which is why they want to talk about Trump.
Here’s what we should be talking about in the lead-up to the election, or what we would be talking about if Trump weren’t a black hole of media coverage: Republican policy versus Democratic policy, Republican direction versus Democratic direction, Republican candidates versus Democratic candidates.
If that were the battle, Democrats would be in serious trouble. Because here’s the reality: the Democrats’ most beloved policies are deeply radical, and Republican policies have been highly successful; the Democratic direction is highly radical, while Republicans have been re-orienting from Trumpian populism toward more traditional conservativism; and Democratic candidates are uniquely terrible this cycle, while Republican candidates are more traditional.
Policy. After Trump’s election, traditional conservatives feared that President Trump would embark on a populist course: trade wars, taxes on high-income earners, blowout spending on infrastructure, and the like. Instead, despite Trump’s tough talk, trade worries have remained largely in check (although we may feel the effects of Trump’s trade war with China beginning next year), tax cuts have bolstered perceptions of business confidence, and infrastructure deals have remained dead on arrival (although Trump has blown out spending just like every other Republican president of our lifetime).
Democratic policy prescriptions, by contrast, are deeply radical. We’ve heard Medicare for all, a vastly expensive program, that would do significant damage to the nation’s functional insurance markets; we’ve heard free college tuition, another vastly expensive program that would do little to ensure job security for those leaving college; we’ve heard radical tax increases, social policy driven by animus toward religious Americans, and open borders immigration policy. As likely soon-to-be Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said over the weekend, the Democrats are enamored of San Francisco politics. Those simply aren’t national politics.
Direction. For all the talk about Trump’s hijacking of the Republican Party, that hijacking can mainly be confined to affect. Trump’s affect is deeply damaging to America’s social fabric, without a doubt – he has done little to nothing to tamp down the polarization of our politics, and his constant stirring of the pot simply raises hackles to ever-greater heights. Others in the Republican Party have been imitating that affect, with different results. But in terms of the future direction of the party, there is no Trumpian affect without Trump – and the party seems to be moving in a more traditional direction with regard to policy, both at home and abroad. It’s fairer to say that the Republican Party shaped Trump on policy than the opposite. And Republican willingness to humor Trump’s excesses lasts only as long as Trump is president. The inflammatory politics of Trump doesn’t translate to others, and is at least largely a reaction to the inflammatory politics of Democrats.
The same isn’t true for the Democrats. The grassroots base of the Democratic Party has been deeply radicalized; that's a continuation of the Obama years, not a reaction to Trump. Intersectionality is the future of the party, which is why its rising stars all tout the glories of divisive identity politics. The Democratic Party has embraced the rhetoric of polarization and violence the same way Trump has, except that the media has maintained the Democrats’ clean hands – a version of gaslighting that has exacerbated divisions rather than closing them. Does anyone think our partisan war will calm down with Democrats in control of Congress? Or will the Democrats keep doubling down on their most radical impulses? Remember Brett Kavanaugh, and you’ll know the answer.
Candidates. There’s been a lot of talk about Trump from Democrats this election cycle. And there’s been a lot of slander about Rep. Ron DeSantis in Florida – all without basis. But the truly radical candidates in this election cycle are all Democrats. Arizona Senate candidate Krysten Sinema openly endorsed the idea of Americans joining the Taliban in 2003, ripped stay-at-home moms as leeches, and has spent years deriding her own state. Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams endorsed full scale gun confiscation. Andrew Gillum hobnobs with the radical anti-police, anti-Israel Dream Defenders, and has been bogged down in a serious federal corruption investigation in Tallahassee. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a clueless socialist with a penchant for expensive shoes. Beto O’Rourke lied about driving drunk and hitting another driver on the other side of the road. This is an extraordinarily flawed and radical group of candidates. But all we’ve heard about is Trump. There’s a reason for that.
Our elections ought to be about more than a referendum on the personality of the president in power. This election won’t be. But if Democrats win, expect them to treat the election not as a referendum on Trump, but as support for their radical policies. That will be dishonest, but dishonesty has been the name of the game throughout this cycle.