by David Faris
August is generally a dull month in politics unless a presidential election is looming. Congress is in recess and millions of checked-out Americans are criss-crossing the country in planes and automobiles (not so much trains in the U.S.), desperately seeking respite from their workaday lives. The last thing most of these Calgon-Take-Me-Awayers want to do is hear from the politicians who will be torturing them for the next 15 months of America’s interminable electoral cycle.
Democrats, in recognition of this basic reality, did not bother scheduling a primary debate this month. President Trump, perhaps cowed by the obvious connection between his vicious rhetoric and the El Paso shooter, has also been unusually quiet. But despite the seemingly calm political waters of late summer, the rudderless Trump administration is drifting inexorably into multiple icebergs. Like history’s most infamous real-life ocean liner, the president and his team are high on their own supply of overconfidence in the unsinkable nature of their ship, and heading directly for disaster.
The biggest reason for President Trump’s equanimity is that he and his team believe that they have put the Mueller investigation behind them and thus steered clear of the single greatest threat to his presidency. The former special counsel’s somewhat anticlimactic testimony in July failed to move public opinion in favor of impeachment. But it did have an effect on the Democratic rank-and-file in the House, and Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, led by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), are now moving toward a confrontation with the president, albeit at impulse rather than warp speed. Nadler told reporters last Thursday that “This is formal impeachment proceedings.” Apparently fearing some kind of media backlash, Nadler and senior House Democrats have downplayed the magnitude of this development. But it is huge.
As the reality of his looming impeachment showdown dawns on the notoriously thickheaded Trump, it will likely push him to engage in prolonged spasms of his very worst behavior, the kind of loopy, stream-of-Twitterness that often leads to damaging or indefensible statements, and which wears down the resolve of congressional allies who would rather retire than continue trying to explain his bizarre conduct. Already this summer, the GOP was hit with the news of eight House retirements, including that of moderate Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), who eked out a victory in 2018 in a rapidly bluing border district and whose seat will now almost certainly be lost to Democrats. This is after 26 House Republicans chose to retire rather than run for reelection in last year’s midterms.
When the maw of the political news cycle opens back up in a few weeks and demands its ritual sacrifices, Republicans will realize that Hurd’s retirement is not an isolated incident. A second iceberg has formed: Republicans now trail Democrats by an average of 8 points on generic Congressional ballot surveys for 2020 — a number that would easily deliver the House back to Democrats and would likely wipe out the GOP’s Senate majority on a much less friendly map than the one Republicans used to pick up two seats in spite of a blue wave in 2018. So much attention has been focused on the Democrats’ 20-something-person scrum for the party’s nomination that few are talking about the GOP’s struggles in the race for Congress. But when everyone gets back from vacation, more than a few people in the GOP are going to look at these numbers and palm the panic button.
The long-term political disaster of Trumpism is actually most apparent in Hurd’s Texas — the third iceberg. In early August, two different polls showed the president trailing prospective Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the Lone Star State — the third poll this year to show the president in trouble in a must-win state for Republicans. In the University of Texas at Tyler poll, Trump also trailed former Rep. Beto O’Rourke by a jaw-dropping six points. Ever since the publication of John Judis and Ruy Texeira’s The Emerging Democratic Majority in 2004, Democrats have been waiting in vain for the state to turn blue, or at least purple. And as hard as it might seem to believe after all these years of misplaced hope, the moment may finally be upon us. Hillary Clinton lost Texas to Trump by single digits in 2016 — seven points better than Obama did against Mitt Romney — before O’Rourke came within three points of unseating incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz last year.
While there is remarkable stability in state-level results from one presidential election to the next, states can flip from one team to another quickly and decisively. In 2004, Bush beat John Kerry in Virginia by more than eight points. Just four years later, Virginia went to Barack Obama and the Democrats by six, a stunning 14-point swing that turned out to be anything but a fluke as Virginia is now barely a battleground state at all. Often these dramatic swings are the result of long-building demographic and political trends. In 1996, Bill Clinton beat Republican Bob Dole in West Virginia by almost 15 points. In 2000, Democratic nominee Al Gore lost to George W. Bush there by five points, and by 2016, the state had become one of the reddest states in the union, going for Trump by 41.
The GOP’s fortunes in Texas have long been propped up by low voter turnout. But the party’s troubles in major metro areas finally showed up in Texas during the past two cycles, with Trump and Cruz saved only by incredible margins in rural, white areas. As Texas continues to grow exponentially, it has drawn migrants from more liberal states like New York and Illinois. These transplants aren’t just snowbirds either, as a burgeoning tech industry has attracted the kind of socially liberal, college-educated young people who are most repelled by President Trump’s racist antics. The state’s 18-34 population grew at one of the highest rates in the country this decade, and Latinos are outpacing the white population in growth by a factor of 9-to-1. These are demographics that now vote decisively against Republicans, and they may very well tip the state to Democrats in 2020.
Losing Texas would be an extinction-level event for the national Republican Party. If the state experiences a runaway Democratification like California, it would be virtually impossible for a Republican to win the presidency. Even if Texas doesn’t go blue in 2020, the GOP will be forced to spend considerable resources defending the president and vulnerable Sen. John Cornyn.
The last iceberg is the economy. On August 14, the Dow plunged 800 points — the fourth-largest points drop in history, only to recover again this week. This time, though, there are a number of other warning indicators that a recession may be on the horizon. The president’s casual braggadocio about how “trade wars are good, and easy to win” may come back to haunt him when the market turmoil he has deliberately unleashed proves more difficult to control than he and his advisers imagined. The president has almost nothing to campaign on except the economy, and even a modest slowdown would make his re-election vanishingly unlikely.
The signature miscalculation here seems to be the blithe assumption that the Chinese government would quickly crumple under the administration’s withering onslaught of tariffs and bellicose rhetoric and agree to massive structural changes. Instead, President Xi Jinping is dug in and prepared for a long standoff. Unlike the president, he has no campaign to worry about, regards Trump’s re-election as contrary to China’s best interests and is willing to absorb economic losses indefinitely. The fact that this did not occur to anyone in Trumpworld is just the latest indictment of an administration that scorns expertise and hard-gained, country-specific knowledge in international politics.
The escalating trade confrontation with China, which has rattled markets, increased prices and wrecked sectors of the American economy, isn’t the only problem out there. The British government is game-planning for total chaos if Prime Minister Boris Johnson follows through with his no-deal Brexit threats — another needless calamity egged on by the dunderheaded chaos agents in the White House. Several of the world’s largest economies, including Brazil and Germany, are facing recessions. Economic turmoil, like the flu, is contagious. And the president and his allies have thrown away their hospital masks.
In an administration as chaotic and persistently mismanaged as the Trump administration, it is hard to point to a single unifying factor to explain the troubles. But nearly a year after Republicans lost the House of Representatives to Democrats, it has become ever clearer that President Trump lacks any semblance of a plan for the back end of his first term. His half-baked forays into North Korea negotiations, Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, and Iranian arm-twisting have collapsed under the weight of their own flimsiness.
Lacking the Congressional majorities to pursue even a single legislative priority and bereft of the magnanimity or imagination to work with still-pliant Democrats, the president appears to be at a loss about what to do with his time. In his former life, he could careen from one busted investment to another, moving into reality TV or steaks or ketchup or fake universities, and then walk away when his endeavors blew up in someone else’s face. Yet this hufflepuff approach to decision-making and planning, while it might have kept his family business floating for years on laundered money, wage theft, and sorcery, is proving to be a lousy fit for presidenting.
Here’s how things might look for Trump early next year — the House is holding nationally televised impeachment hearings, in the process obtaining documents and testimony that have thus far been denied to them by the administration’s total stonewalling of congressional oversight. The president melts down reliably every few hours on Twitter, issuing ALL CAPS denunciations of allies and adversaries and ratcheting up racist attacks on Democrats. No-deal Brexit has pushed the Eurozone into a recession, and the U.S. stock market has bled out thousands of points as the economy teeters on the brink. Meanwhile, Republicans have essentially conceded the House to Democrats and are playing defense in Texas as opinion polls continue to show a close race for the presidency and Cornyn’s critical Senate seat.
How will all of this look to voters? Imagine if the passengers on the Titanic had all watched the captain steer the ship into its fatal iceberg encounter.
David Faris is an associate professor of political science at Roosevelt University and the author of It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics.