Regardless of affiliation or ideology, the aftermath of Tuesday’s elections presents us all with a stark choice: We can either be serious about politics and policy, or we can be frivolous.
Given the immense amount of energy being directed at such non-events such as Acosta-gate—did the CNN reporter manhandle a White House intern during a post-midterm press conference?—it’s likely we as a country are choosing the latter.
This is unfortunate for an infinite number of reasons, but chief among them is the simple idea that whether we pay attention to it or not, the federal government continues to function, to pass laws and regulation, and to spend more money that we don’t have. Donald Trump’s brilliance in many ways is to make the mundane seem somehow important and out of the ordinary.
Hence, he pretends his minor (though, in most ways, slightly to significantly worse) rewriting of NAFTA as The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) is a big deal, and his opponents and the press follow suit. Everything Trump does is oversized and off the charts. His firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions isn’t a predictable outcome after months of administration infighting and recriminations, it “shows how Trump is eroding democracy.” The only people attributing superhuman powers to Trump other than his own partisans are his enemies.
The reality is less sensational (which is a good thing). When you strip away the media noise and the self-generated acclaim, Trump has governed not so differently than what came before, whether we’re talking Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama, all of whom at times deported massive numbers of immigrants, put up trade barriers, and spent stupidly. Trump has some real achievements from a libertarian angle, such as deregulating aspects of education, the FCC, the FDA, and the EPA. The Republican tax cuts are a decidely mixed bag (it’s good that they changed corporate taxes and ended the deduction for state-and-local taxes; it’s terrible that they massively increased debt and deficits), but there’s no question he was instrumental to their passage. His immigration and trade policies are not simply ill-informed but deeply disturbing from a moral perspective (the United States shouldn’t be keeping out refugees and asylees from countries we helped to destroy).
Not all congressional races have been called yet, but as of right now, the Democrats have taken the majority in the House of Representatives by gaining 30 seats. They will likely pick up a few more. The average number of seats an opposition party wins in midterms in 37, so Tuesday’s results are largely unremarkable. Yet Trump made everything about himself. “Those that worked with me in this incredible Midterm Election, embracing certain policies and principles, did very well,” he tweeted. “Those that did not, say goodbye!” As Trump loyalists such as Rep. David Brat (R–Va.) could tell you, that simply isn’t true. Brat, who was MAGA to the max, especially regarding immigration, got beat in red-state Virginia. In fact, as the Brookings Institution points out, the president backed a lot of candidates, many of whose contests were in areas that strongly favor Republicans. Yet Trump’s stats are pretty spotty:
Trump endorsed 75 candidates, of whom 21 or 28 percent won. This was the lowest win rate of the other national figures—nearly 50 percent of Vice President Pence’s endorsements won, and over 50 percent of [Barack] Obama’s and [Joe] Biden’s endorsees won. [Bernie] Sanders does the best, as his endorsees won 66 percent of the time.
As Reason‘s Peter Suderman put it, the midterms were “surprisingly normal,” and for the most part, “our political contests still revolve around essential policy and governing decisions that matter to the people casting their votes.” You wouldn’t know that from the way most of us are talking about politics.
It seems likely that House Democrats will spend more time investigating the president than pushing legislation. Rep Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) is already calling for an investigation of Trump’s firing of Sessions. Back in October, Nadler, who is set to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, promised to re-investigate Brett Kavanaugh if the Dems took the House. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who is likely to reprise her past role as Speaker of the House, has said she’s not interested in impeaching the president immediately but her party is gearing up for multiple investigations about Trump’s tax returns, business dealings, immigration policy, and more. Given all that, it seems highly unlikely that the Democrats will be serious about legislation, especially since the Republicans control the Senate.
The media, too, are playing a Trump-centric game, giving maximum exposure to every tweet the president emits as if they are new versions of the Gettysburg Address. Former Daily Show host Jon Stewart recently said that many if not most mainstream journalists are taking Trump’s presidency as an affront to everything they hold near and dear.
They’re personally wounded and offended by this man. He baits them and they dive in, and what he’s done well, I thought, is appeal to their own narcissism, to their own ego….
It’s all about the fight. He’s able to tune out everything else and get people just focused on the fight and he’s going to win that fight.
Stewart is on to something here. The main way that Trump controls conversations—and elections—is by making everything about him, even when few things actually are. While we all spend time tracking every gesture and tweet the president makes, the fact is that our national debt is growing, and so-called mandatory spending on entitlements proceeds apace. The military budget grows, too, with bipartisan support. The trajectory is onwards and upwards.
These are the issues that the federal government needs to deal with, especially since runaway debt and spending is a clear threat to long-term economic growth, which is itself the best way to not simply to make America great again, but to make the country a nicer, more peaceful place to live. As everything becomes about the 2020 election, we’d be better off focusing more on substance and less on circus.