As they look ahead to November, Democrats should be in a good mood. Any opposition party ought to do well in a midterm against the party that controls both the White House and Congress. President Trump’s low approval ratings, generic polls that put Democrats ahead of Republicans, a string of special-election victories (with the prospect of winning, later this month, a Pennsylvania congressional seat that was thought to be safely Republican), large numbers of retirements by incumbent GOP members, and a court-ordered redistricting in Pennsylvania all give added reasons for optimism.
But as the 2016 presidential election reminded us, nothing is certain in politics. If the economy remains robust, Trump manages to avoid a damaging trade war, and the Democratic base that has stayed home in recent midterm elections isn’t as energized as party leaders hope, then low turnout could lead to a very different outcome than the one most liberals currently envision. If so, how will Democrats who are, as the New York Times noted on Sunday, “convulsing with outrage” at the president react?
The answer provided by the Times is that they won’t be inclined to accept any outcome that doesn’t at least give the Democrats control of the House of Representatives. Another unexpected Republican triumph, like Trump’s upset of Hillary Clinton, won’t be treated as just bad luck by the opposition. Anger is likely to bubble over into more street protests as well as a refusal to treat defeat as anything but the result of more Russian mischief-Making.
While Republicans would dismiss this attitude as the petty complaints of sore losers, the prospect of another disputed election illustrates more than just the always-precarious fortunes of political parties. It’s clear the Democrats have become so invested in a misleading narrative that has essentially absolved them of responsibility for their 2016 defeat that it’s not clear they’ll accept anything short of decisive victory this year a legitimate result.
Another unexpected Republican triumph, like Trump’s upset of Hillary Clinton, won’t be treated as just bad luck by the opposition.
The distinction between the clear proof of Russian attempts to influence public opinion in 2016 and the lack of any evidence that these efforts had any appreciable impact on the outcome has been lost on President Trump. But it may be that many on the left suffer from the same myopic view. Trump continues to regard the entire discussion about Russia’s activities as well as the probe being conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller as an attempt to delegitimize his victory. But many Democrats also seem to think that if it is true that Russia did anything in 2016, their minimal and largely ineffectual trolling put Trump in the White House.
As the Times’ own Upshot column noted last month, objective measures of Russia’s efforts in 2016 by a series of studies of social-media trolling and disinformation show that it probably had zero impact on the outcome of the election. But after the Democrats spent the last 16 months doubling down on the collusion narrative, that point is lost on a Democratic electorate boiling over with anger about Trump’s outrageous conduct as well as the conservative policies he has been implementing. Convinced that the first step toward evicting him from office will begin with a midterm sweep for Democrats, they might not be able to peaceably accept any alternative outcome.
Is there anything Republicans can do to ameliorate this situation, one that would likely have an impact on the way many Americans think about the 2020 presidential election, in which Trump seeks reelection?
There’s no undoing all of the damage that has been done by cynical efforts to disparage and discount the 2016 election by those who were unhappy with its outcome. Too much of the Democratic base is focused solely on “resistance” to Trump rather than mere opposition. That will mean that an attempt to impeach Trump must be considered a certainty if they do win the House next year, even if their chances of gaining a conviction in the Senate would be near zero, even if they did somehow also gain control of the upper body.
But it must also be acknowledged that Trump has it within his power to do something to undermine a 2018 Russia narrative. The first thing he can do is to stop talking as if Democratic accusations that he is a proto-authoritarian are true.
His approving comment about Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s move to become a “president for life” is likely to have been — like so much of what comes out of Trump’s mouth and Twitter account — an appalling and ill-considered quip rather than a serious expression of U.S. policy. His next remark, in which he said, “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll give that a shot someday,” may have been equally unserious and meant as a joke of some sort.
But if there was ever anyone who ought not to be joking about a dictatorship, it is Donald Trump. While his fans will call it a brilliant example of trolling, such words also fuel exactly the kind of mistrust in the integrity of the U.S. electoral system that Russia desires and that makes Democrats think they are right to view GOP victories as the work of foreign agents rather than the votes of fellow Americans.
Trump should also publicly and specifically order the intelligence community, the State Department, and the Justice Department to take all necessary steps to curb Russia’s efforts to influence U.S. elections in 2018.
We know he has refrained from doing so because he resents the claims that Russia handed him the election and always resists doing what opponents expect of him. But the longer he waits to make some public gesture on this issue, the more it will harm his party as well as the already shaken faith of many Americans in the integrity of the system. A continued refusal will only buttress the narrative that he is soft on Russia and doesn’t respect democratic principles.
Far from bowing to his foes, a concerted public effort to nip Russia’s largely ineffectual trolling in the bud will be the best way to bolster Trump’s legitimacy and to undermine his foes’ attempt to paint him as Vladimir Putin’s satellite.
As things stand now, Democrats are well placed to make major gains in November. If they do, we won’t hear much about Russia, no matter how much the Putin regime invests in the effort. But if the economy and the Democrats’ lack of message other than “resistance” lead to an unexpected GOP win, then the lack of proactive measures now by Trump will result in an already toxic political culture growing even more dysfunctional.