On 6 November, Americans will head to the polls in congressional elections widely seen as a test of Donald Trump's presidency. The stakes are high for Trump - will he become unleashed or unhinged?
In both the United States and Europe, there is intense focus on whether the Democrats will win control of the US Congress in the November midterm elections. As always under the Trump presidency, the affair has all the elements of a great drama: compelling characters, a strong storyline, and elaborate sets. But beyond the must-see TV, what is really at stake for Europe in the vote?
Unfortunately, the midterms will reveal little of what we really want to know: whether the Trump presidency will endure into a second term. But they will tell us something about the Trump administration’s foreign policy in the next two years. In short, the midterms election will either unleash Trump or leave him unhinged.
The US has national elections every two years – whether it needs them or not. Most democracies wait four or five years between such votes, but America’s founders wanted its legislature to remain close to the people, so they established a rapid rhythm of consultation with the public. In modern times, however, it unclear whether the American people have anything new to say after only two years. The vast majority of the seats up for election (at least 345 out of 470) are in safe districts and just 11 percent of the public express confidence in Congress. Accordingly, turnout has been low: only 37 percent of eligible voters in 2014. This combination of indifference to and contempt for Congress means that midterm elections are widely interpreted as an interim report card on the incumbent president.
But that doesn’t lessen their appeal abroad. The whole world is desperately interested in whether Donald Trump’s surprise election was an aberration – a moment of madness in American politics – or represented a permanent shift towards a more nationalist and insular US. Europeans who see Trump as an anomaly want to wait him out and count on the so-called adults in the room, his more sober advisers, to temper his worst impulses. Those who see Trump as a symptom of a more profound change in American politics believe that Europe now needs to adjust to the idea of an America that will not commit itself to the transatlantic alliance for much longer.
It is unclear whether the American people have anything new to say
The 2018 midterms will provide the first piece of compelling evidence in the debate. If the Republicans retain control of Congress, this will lend credence to the idea that the US is inexorably drifting away from the internationalist values that have long underpinned its close relationship with the nations of Europe. If the Democrats seize control of even one chamber of Congress, betting parlours will raise the odds on a Democrat taking the White House in 2020 and Europeans will continue to wait for the Trump moment to pass.
In fact, either conclusion would be a mistake: the midterms do not foreshadow the presidential vote. In the midterms, the electorate is not just smaller than in the presidential election but has different characteristics. Midterm voters are generally more engaged and more informed than the wider electorate. And fewer swing voters participate in the midterms than the presidential contest. Therefore, the November elections will give us little sense of how the mushy middle will vote – and, more importantly, who will turn out – in 2020.
Fundamentally, the midterms are not a good predictor of the 2020 vote because a lot can happen in two years. American presidencies seem to have a certain pattern to them, in which new presidents lose their new sheen after the first year or so, suffer something of a drubbing the midterms, and then recover in time for re-election. Indeed, presidents such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have effectively used the presence of an opposition Congress to deflect blame and to support their re-election bids. One suspects that President Trump would take to blaming a Democratic Congress for all manner of ills with alacrity and flair.
Divided government and foreign policy
Even if the midterms won’t answer the big questions about America’s alliances, they will matter for Europe through their likely effect on US foreign policy. Congress no longer has much of a direct role in foreign policy, but intense partisanship and America’s lack of pressing security threats mean that US foreign policy has become mostly an outgrowth of competition between the Democrats and the Republicans. And the midterm elections will shift domestic politics onto one of two trajectories for at least a couple of years.
If the Republicans maintain control of Congress, Trump will, as David Leonhardt of the New York Times notes, likely view the victory as a validation of his personal popularity and his approach to government. This would prompt him to pay even less attention to conventional wisdom, the mainstream media, his advisers, and the dictates of reality. In domestic policy, Leonhardt imagines that this will mean the end of the Mueller investigation, more tax cuts for the wealthy, and a renewed attack on Obamacare.
Research shows that divided government in the US correlates with an increased likelihood that the president will use force abroad
In foreign policy, one suspects that Trump will increasingly marginalise the adults in the room, including defence secretary and chief grownup James Mattis. The president will probably return to the core foreign policy ideas of his campaign: eradicating America’s trade deficit and distancing the country from its traditional allies. For Europe, this probably means a new flare-up in the fight over US punitive tariffs and perhaps a reversal of the trend towards growing US military deployments in eastern Europe and Afghanistan.
If the Republicans lose control of Congress, Trump will be more constrained but also angrier – even unhinged. His already apparent sense of victimhood will only become more acute, finding a new outlet in condemnation of a Democratic Congress that will spend most of its time investigating and possibly impeaching him.
The last few US presidents have entered office intent on making their mark on domestic policy. But, after a year or two, they have discovered that the domestic powers of the presidency are limited (particularly when the opposing party controls Congress). They generally end up retreating into foreign policy, where their influence is vast and they can hope to achieve clear-cut “wins”.
In his search for foreign policy bragging rights, Trump will aim not so much for consistency with his past positions as for unequivocal, television-friendly victories. Like many presidents before him, he will likely see foreign military adventures as political opportunities. Research shows that divided government in the US – particularly when the House but not the Senate is in opposition hands – correlates with an increased likelihood that the president will use force abroad. This generally means not a major war but rather a small, discreet intervention likely to achieve a rapid victory. Reagan’s politically successful invasion of Grenada in 1983 provides a model example of this kind of operation.
Of course, an unhinged Trump would likely find other, unpredictable ways to demonstrate his foreign policy chops. In any case, with a divided government, Trump would feel the need to throw his toys about in the foreign policy playground. And Europe is one of his shiniest toys. Whether the midterms unleash the president or leave him unhinged, the next two years should be at least as interesting as the last two.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.