“The end of the republic has never looked better”, Barack Obama joked at his last White House Correspondent’s Dinner. That was back in 2016, the year that saw Donald Trump win the presidency despite what seemed like insurmountable odds.
Early 2017 saw a flurry of gloomy predictions. David Frum wrote hypothetically in his piece in The Atlantic, ‘How to Build An Autocracy’, of an easy Trump re-election victory in 2021 due to a popular presidency that has brought tax cuts, rising wages, restrictive immigration policies and a big-spending infrastructure program. Trump’s popularity kept both the House and Senate in Republican hands in 2018, and his self-enrichment was largely overlooked by the public and an acquiescent Congress.
Some aspects of that scenario have come to pass. The Trump economy is indeed booming, with low unemployment and strong levels of growth continuing from the Obama era. Tax cuts were indeed passed. But most of Frum’s predictions turned out too pessimistic. Trump is a historically unpopular president due to frequent scandals, divisive rhetoric and suspicion that he is a Putin puppet. Two years of unified government yielded dividends for the GOP not because of but despite Trump’s leadership. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell worked diligently to push forward an unpopular conservative agenda while ignoring the daily fires in the White House; at the same time, they protected the president from investigations into his finances, Russian ties and the visible corruption in his administration.
Most importantly, however, the 2018 midterm victory by the Republicans that Frum had theorized did not happen. Although this week saw the Democrats lost seats in the Senate due to a highly unfavorable map, they also won the largest victory in the House since Watergate. The Blue Wave might not have matched the most fevered desires of Democrats, but make no mistake: it was a victory.
The most significant implication is that the autocracy-building efforts of Donald Trump has now hit a significant roadblock. No longer can Republicans act with impunity; Adam Schiff will now be investigating everything. Ending the Russian investigation will no longer be as simple as simply firing Mueller. Trump’s tax returns may be subpoenaed. Questions we have been wondering about for the past two years may finally get answers.
Westminster-style parliamentarians would chafe at the idea of American-style divided government. Divided government, after all, means gridlock, but in this case, gridlock is a gift. A parallel I like to use is Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, a populist who won majorities with massive popular support but who then used his tenure to erode democratic institutions. A parliamentary system meant that Thaksin, similarly to Trump, could do anything; only a military coup in 2006 was able to end his rule.
Luckily, Trump does not enjoy the same majorities afforded to governments that come with a parliamentary system. Americans voted for a divided government. Divided government is exactly the roadblock that was needed.