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When Trump was elected president, he did so on the back of the MAGA slogan. Alamy Stock Photo

Larry Donnelly Race baiting and a GOP reinvention - Trump is now a real threat in the midterms

Our columnist says it’s not looking good for the Democrats in the 2022 midterms this November.

“IF YOU’D ASKED me (at this time last year) would I think Donald Trump would still be held in such high regard and have a vice-like grip over most Republican legislators, I would have said no, but he does. And that’s playing out in people implementing his wishes. I think it can get even worse.”

So said Virginia Senator Mark Warner – a Democrat and close confidante of the formerly obscure, now global household name, Joe Manchin, who represents West Virginia in the United States’ upper chamber – in a recent interview.

At one level, it is difficult to dispute Warner’s assessment. There was the rioting at the Capitol building instigated by President Trump. There was a subsequent second impeachment. There is an ongoing investigation of the native New Yorker’s business dealings which the state’s attorney general says has turned up multiple “misleading statements and omissions” in tax filings and financial statements.

Capitalising on race

And there is race baiting. This is from Trump’s typically rambling speech at a rally last weekend: “The left is now rationing lifesaving therapeutics based on race, discriminating against and denigrating… white people to determine who lives and who dies. If you’re white, you don’t get the vaccine or if you’re white you don’t get therapeutics… if you’re white, you have to go to the back of the line to get medical help.”

Although millions of us are nearly immunised against reacting to what the bombastic ex-star of The Apprentice says and does, the behaviour and rhetoric of the 45th President of the United States are objectively shocking. And a lot of watchers in the US and around the world are stunned that Trump remains a political force to be reckoned with after all that has transpired over the past 12 months. But with one big caveat which I will explain shortly, this writer is not surprised in the slightest.

For Donald Trump has achieved two extraordinary feats simultaneously: a hostile takeover of the GOP and a redefining of what it means to be an American conservative in 2022.

Many of the once sacred tenets – as prime examples: support for global free trade and an interventionist foreign policy, opposition to or at least scepticism of government spending and social programmes at home – have either been discarded altogether or relegated to the bottom of the pile.

Ronald Reagan optimistically asserted that “it’s morning in America” in the 1980s; the vast majority of grass roots Republicans who have embraced Trumpism instead say “let’s turn back the clock” four decades on.

Trump’s foes from within and without claim that the party he has made his own, in allegedly losing its way ideologically, has already suffered significantly. They cite his being denied a second term in the White House and the fact that Democrats run both the US Senate and House of Representatives. They note that the number of registered Republicans declined from 2016 on and that many university-educated, affluent, white professionals, especially women, have left what used to be their natural home.

Who are the GOP in 2022?

Their analysis ignores what are uncomfortable truths for them. First, because of Trumpism, the GOP has morphed into the party of the white working class, who arguably have an outsized say in American politics due to the Electoral College system and the composition of the US Senate.

Second, in 2020, Trump fared considerably better than he had with Latinos in 2016, increasing his tally in the fastest growing segment of the electorate by eight percentage points.

Third, any Democratic triumphalism with respect to Congress really isn’t justified, given the razor-thin majorities they hold. In this vein, the pivotal wins of their two US Senate candidates in Georgia, notwithstanding the success of Stacey Abrams and other Black activists in maximising turnout, were flukish. Fourth, at state and local levels, Democrats performed abysmally in 2020, with one operative describing the results as a “bloodbath” for the party.

And now, Democrats face midterm elections this November. With rare exceptions, a new president’s party does not do well in this test of strength. When that historical reality is coupled with Joe Biden’s rather dire status at the moment – a Gallup poll this month shows that 56% of the citizenry disapprove of the job he is doing – Democrats have little grounds for positivity and ample cause for desperation.

What now for Democrats?

What can they do to avoid a blow-out in the midterms? Unfortunately for them, the continued impact and spread of the Omicron variant and of inflation in the price of consumer goods, two things that lie beyond the control of politicians to a large extent, are not improving the situation and will likely be held against Democrats.

In this context, it is entirely logical that President Biden and his colleagues in Congress undertook a quixotic mission on ambitious federal voting rights legislation. This bid has failed, yet these hugely publicised efforts could help mobilise women and men of colour who must cast ballots for Democrats to stave off disaster.

President Biden needs to up his game in myriad ways. The disapproval figure is stark and speaks for itself. Few observers anticipated that a widely respected senior statesman who was manifestly the best man to take on Trump would sink so low, so quickly in the public’s estimation. Whether he can recapture the good will and trust of moderates and independents, in particular, may decide the fate of his party’s standard bearers later this year.

The wind is blowing in a pretty certain direction. There is the aforementioned caveat, however. While he commands unwavering loyalty from a sizable core of faithful adherents and Trumpism is comprised of a potent set of beliefs, the floating constituency of Americans who shape the outcome of elections have rejected Donald Trump and his worst characteristics.

To win primaries, most Republicans will have to profess political and personal fidelity to the man himself. Not all of them will be able to pull off the fancy footwork that Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin executed last year. Youngkin danced cheek to cheek with Trump during the primary, then distanced himself from his partner – without dissing him – ahead of the final in which he prevailed in an upset.

Some GOP hopefuls won’t be as nimble and will thus be scrutinised harshly for assailing the legitimacy of the Biden presidency, for sanctioning what happened on 6 January and for consorting with conspiracy theorists and other unsavoury elements. This is scary stuff and there is plenty of fodder to fuel damaging attacks.

Accordingly, in these campaigns and in an overarching sense as the mid-term elections approach, Democrats, including President Biden, could employ a line from a former mayor of Boston to great effect. “Don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative.” Strategically, framing the choice for voters in this fashion might be their best bet in 2022.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with His new book – “The Bostonian: Life in an Irish American Political Family” – is published by Gill Books and is available at bookshops throughout Ireland.


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