All presidents suffer defeats and setbacks, whether through elections, legislative battles, international events or scandals. Most learn from them and adapt. Will President Trump be an exception?
That’s the question ahead for the president: Will the second two years of his first term be any different from the first two years? His actions and words in the days following the midterm elections indicate things actually could get worse rather than better. He has never been a gracious winner. In defeat, he has shown worse: ill-tempered, withdrawn, even more unpredictable.
Trump was elected in 2016 to lead a divided country. The midterm results, however, make clear the degree to which he has widened those divisions. He has driven suburban voters, especially college-educated women, away from the Republican Party. His hold on rural America remains strong, but the midterms suggest possible slippage.
He was elected to lead a world in transition and under stress. He has added to that stress by weakening traditional alliances and embracing authoritarian leaders, while offering no clear strategy for key areas of the world. He has sought to dismantle or redraw global trade deals and other arrangements that his predecessors helped to construct.
It may be premature to draw a conclusion about what lessons he has learned, but rather than moving to mitigate the damage done to his party in the midterms or to assert international leadership, Trump has done the opposite in the days since the elections. He has reinforced what his presidency has wrought, domestically and internationally, and left others to worry about what comes next.
At home, Trump claimed that the midterms were “close to complete victory” for his party and especially for himself. It was an extravagant assertion at the time he made it — the day after the elections — and even more so today. Other presidents have accepted some responsibility for the losses of their party in midterm elections, or at least acknowledged the reality of defeat. Trump is having none of that.
Yet the scope of the Nov. 6 defeat is now undeniable. The president is correct that Republicans gained ground in the Senate, reinforcing their narrow majority, but equally incorrect is his saying the media haven’t highlighted those gains. The media also have noted that Republicans enjoyed the most favorable Senate election map in generations.
Republicans defeated three red-state Democratic senators. GOP candidates also won or are leading in four high-profile statewide races — gubernatorial elections in Florida and Georgia and Senate races in Florida and in Texas. But the party surrendered GOP-held Senate seats in Nevada and Arizona and lost senatorial or gubernatorial contests in three presidential battlegrounds in the Midwest.
The House results produced a string of defeats that have left the GOP weaker in key parts of the country, states such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania, for example. In New England, other than Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Republicans will have no congressional representation. In California, Orange (as in County) is the new blue, after several victories by Democrats in competitive House districts in a county that once was the symbolic and real heartland of American conservatism.
Jubilant Democrats will face a reckoning two years from now, however, when their newly minted House members stand for reelection. Many of the winners (in both parties, actually) carried their districts with slender margins. The 2020 elections will test the resilience of these new members, whose races will enjoy less prominence and potentially less money than they had this year, given the overriding attention the presidential race will receive.
But this year’s elections laid a foundation, thanks in large part to voters’ negative reactions to the president. Young voters supported Democrats by margins well beyond those rung up even by Barack Obama in his two presidential campaigns. Voters under age 30 supported Democrats by 44 points, according to a post-election analysis by the Democratic firm Catalist.
The suburban defeats are potentially the most damaging to the GOP, if Trump or other GOP leaders do not act to reverse them. Orange County is one example but not the only suburban area that produced gains for Democrats. DuPage County, outside Chicago, has been a Republican stronghold for years, though the GOP’s grip had been weakening. Now, not a single House member in the new Congress whose district includes a part of DuPage County will be a Republican.
Suburban voters in red states also showed increased support for Democratic candidates, whether it was Texas or Georgia, Utah or Oklahoma.
Republicans now hold a strong base in rural America. But in this election, their margins were not as big as Trump rolled up in 2016. The president’s advisers argue, fairly, that people should be cautious about projecting forward as to how those rural areas will vote in 2020, when Trump’s name is again on the ballot. But if the suburbs are trending away, he will need all the rural ground he had in 2016 and perhaps more.
Internationally, the president’s trip to Paris to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the armistice of World War I brought a reminder of the degree to which he has chosen to stand apart from traditional U.S. allies. He was absent physically at key moments, and absent intellectually in providing the leadership that long has come with being the American president.
The armistice of World War I is an event marked yearly with ceremonies throughout Europe, in small towns and the great capitals. The centenary was meant to be the biggest such commemoration in decades. Yet Trump did not go, as scheduled, to pay respects at an American cemetery outside Paris, where more than 2,000 American troops are buried. Weather was blamed for the decision, but he later vented at his staff for making him look bad.
The next day he chose not to march in the rain with other global leaders on the Champs-Elysees, choosing instead to be driven to the Arc de Triomphe for the later ceremony. Another leader who skipped the solidarity march was Russian President Vladimir Putin. Later, Trump engaged in a Twitter spat with French President Emmanuel Macron, after Macron in his ceremony speech sharply rebuked the concept of nationalism that Trump has embraced.
Nicholas Burns, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO who served Republican and Democratic presidents as a career diplomat, said of the trip, “It was one of the most ineffective presidential trips I’ve ever seen.”
After returning to the United States last Sunday night, Trump chose not to make the traditional presidential trip to Arlington Cemetery the following morning to observe Veterans Day. Later in the week, apparently seeking to make amends, he went to the Marine Barracks in Washington for a lunchtime visit. On Friday, he acknowledged he had made a mistake by not going to Arlington Cemetery. He said he was busy making “calls for the country.”
Since returning from Paris, Trump has embraced bipartisan legislation on criminal justice restructuring. Is that a sign of the future or a one-off by the president? At home and abroad, he is being closely watched for signs of how the election defeats have affected him. He has plodded through the days after the election, seeming mostly unhappy in what was “close to compete victory.” He now must know what was lost in the midterms, but he seems lost in knowing how to respond.