I already talked about how the election results would presage more protectionist trade policies, but there’s a deeper dynamic at work here. As Kenneth Schultz noted last year in the Washington Quarterly, “partisanship colors the way people experience reality.... partisanship influences both the exposure to factual information and, more importantly, the way people interpret and use that information when evaluating candidates and policies.” Schultz was talking about how ordinary partisans view the real world, but in many ways President Trump acts just like a typical low-information voter whose primary source of information is the opinion shows on Fox News.
This matters in the ways that Trump processes negative or mixed feedback. Take the midterms, for example. It is undeniably true that Trump could point to some good news, in the form of GOP Senate gains and defending some key governor posts. But obviously, it was not unalloyed good news for the president. The GOP lost the House of Representatives, and as it turned out the House wave was pretty sizable. Furthermore, the GOP did very poorly in the key Rust Belt states that swept Trump to victory in 2016. There was little to no good news in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin last night for the president; Democrats won the contested Senate seat and governorships in all three states. If that foreshadows how those states vote in 2020, Trump is a one-term president.
The midterms offered a mixed verdict, but one that corresponds to ordinary politics and not the “Trump is Jesus Magic!” politics that his supporters might believe. As Nate Silver tweeted, “One obvious takeaway from last night is that Trump doesn’t defy gravity. His party got pretty much the result you’d expect from a president with a 42% approval rating, although with the benefit of most races being in very red states/districts.” All of this happened with an economy that should have made Trump far more popular than he actually is. Which bodes very ill for him if the economy slows down between now and 2020.
How did Trump actually react in the subsequent 24 hours? Not great, Bob! As Susan Glasser noted in the New Yorker, there is a time-honored script to how presidents handle bad news after a midterm: “Every President in recent times has suffered a midterm-election setback and responded by acknowledging the defeat and promising to work in a new and more bipartisan fashion.”
That is not how Trump handled it. Like a low-information partisan, his response did not jibe with the actual election facts. Slate’s Will Saletan accurately described the surreal nature of Trump’s post-midterm press conference:
Halfway through the press conference, a reporter told Trump, “Last night was not an absolute victory for you.” This was a laughably generous description, given the loss of the House. Instead, Trump protested that it wasn’t generous enough. “I thought it was a very close to complete victory,” he declared. Instead of thanking Republicans who had helped him on the trail, Trump complained that unlike Democrats, “I only had me, I didn’t have anybody else.” He told the press that his takeaway from the election was his own popularity: “That’s what I learned, [that] I was very well-received by this great country.”
Glasser concurred, noting, “Trump acted as if he actually believed his own overblown claims of a grand victory.” My Post colleagues Philip Rucker, Robert Costa, and Josh Dawsey report on Trump’s post-midterms mindset, and it does not seem all that different from his public face:
Trump has told advisers that he intends to exploit divisions among House Democrats, according to a senior White House official. He believes he can pit Pelosi and others who are interested in making deals with him on policies like infrastructure spending against those who rose to office intent on blocking his agenda and, perhaps, beginning impeachment proceedings....Trump also has said privately that he does not believe his administration should necessarily cooperate with Democratic investigations, and that he would be willing to fight subpoenas to the Supreme Court if necessary, according to the senior White House official and an outside adviser to the president, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal discussions.
Read the New York Times' account of how House Democrats and Republicans approached the midterms, and you’ll find that Trump is vastly overestimating the fractiousness of the Democrats under Pelosi. There is an argument to be made that Trump will find a useful foil in the House Democrats, but to be honest, his behavior the day after the midterms suggests he will not be disciplined enough to play that hand well.
What does any of this have to do with American foreign policy? Trump’s response to the midterms highlights two important pathologies in his decision-making calculus. First, he simply has no ability to process or respond to negative feedback. He simply chooses to ignore it if at all possible. Second, his perception of the actual strength of his bargaining position is usually wide of the mark.
This is a recipe for bad negotiating and more conflict on the global stage. Trump is like a gambler who keeps losing bluffs but is convinced that he’s just suckering his opponents into that big hand just around the corner. Actually, it’s worse than that, because Trump is the guy who thinks he is holding a flush because he’s just holding all red cards. This is a recipe for other international actors to stand their ground against Trump’s bluster, because they have a more accurate read of the balance of power.
Furthermore, astute foreign interlocutors could look at the midterm results and choose to wait Trump out, sensing that he may only be around for two more years. That will further stymie Trump, causing him to lash out at foreign partners just as much as Nancy Pelosi.
Haass is right: The Democrats controlling the House have little direct effect on American foreign policy. Trump’s reaction to this news, however, suggests why things there will be even more conflict to come in American foreign policy for the next two years.