By 10:30 in the morning on the first workday of 2018, the Troll-in-Chief had already used his Twitter account to lash out at Iran, Hillary Clinton, Huma Abedin, Kim Jong Un, the New York Times, Democrats, and his own Justice Department. He had also claimed credit for the fact that there had been no fatalities anywhere in the world on commercial jets in 2017. (“Since taking office I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation.”) On Tuesday night, he posted what may have been his nuttiest tweet yet, boasting that his “Nuclear Button” was bigger and more effective than the one Kim claimed to have on his desk.
Is Trump ever going to zip it in 2018? Of course not. He lives in his own febrile and self-centered world, where the traditional rules of political discourse don’t apply. Since any thought of him changing is fanciful, we are in for another year of enervating acrimony at home and unnerving jitters on the international front. As the Russia investigation continues, Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill and in the conservative media will step up their efforts to discredit Robert Mueller, the special counsel, and his team. As the controversy about professional football players kneeling during the national anthem fades, Trump will also be on the lookout for new racial issues that he can use to rile up his base. And, as long as he follows the G.O.P. line on policy issues, the Party’s leaders on Capitol Hill will continue to support him and make excuses for his behavior.
That isn’t a complete tour of the 2018 horizon, however. In addition to lamenting Trump, the more important (and more rewarding) thing will be to respond to him politically. Last year, large numbers of Americans did just that—marching in protests, lobbying their elected representatives, making whatever financial contributions they could, and campaigning in local political elections. Come January 20th, many of these Trump antagonists will be back on the streets, taking part in this year’s Women’s March. (More than two hundred and fifty marches and events are planned.)
Although some commentators have lamented the opposition to Trump as evidence of growing political polarization, it actually indicates healthy democratic resistance to a rogue President, who, in the words of Martin Wolf, of the Financial Times, “violates the behaviour and attitudes the world expects of a US president” on a daily basis. And this year, unlike 2017, will provide an opportunity to deliver a rebuke of Trump where it counts most: at the ballot box, in nationwide elections. If Republicans lose control of Congress in November’s midterms, Trump will become a lame duck, and the chances of his being impeached may rise sharply. For Trump’s foes, the prospect of such an outcome should provide sufficient motivation to overcome @realDonaldTrump fatigue.
The possibility of Democrats surging politically in 2018 is real. In the Senate, the Democrats need to pick up two seats—their most hopeful target states seem to be Arizona, Nevada, and Tennessee. In the House, some political experts think that the Democrats will have to win the popular vote by about eight percentage points to gain the twenty-four seats they need, because of Republican gerrymandering. But that also seems possible. According to a CNN poll that was released just before Christmas, the minority party has an eighteen-point lead among registered voters on the generic congressional ballot. The FiveThirtyEight poll average which combines the results of numerous surveys, shows the Democrats with a lead of twelve percentage points. Based on the recent polls, the G.O.P. is “in worse shape right now than any other majority party at this point in the midterm cycle since at least the 1938 election,” Harry Enten, FiveThirtyEight’s senior political writer, pointed out.
Republicans will be hoping that tax cuts give a further boost to the economy, which is already doing well, and that this translates into more votes for them. In a normal electoral cycle, that might be a reasonable supposition. But this is the Trump cycle. So far, healthy job growth and a rising stock market haven’t prevented Trump from dragging his Party down with him. According to the Real Clear Politics poll average, the President’s approval rating is now 39.8 per cent. That figure shows a slight improvement since the middle of last month, but Trump’s popularity numbers continue to languish at record lows compared to those of his modern predecessors. And even if the tax bill does stoke the economy generally, it could create problems for Republicans in places like California, New Jersey, and New York, where some high earners and property owners will end up facing higher tax bills. In California, the Republicans hold fourteen congressional seats, and the Sabato Crystal Ball Web site now ranks seven of them as competitive. It’s hardly surprising that of the twelve Republican members of Congress who voted against the tax bill, two are from California, four are from New Jersey, and five are from New York.
At some point in the ten months between now and the midterms, Trump may be tempted to try to break out of the political box he is in by firing Mueller. The fact that he hasn’t done this already is another reflection of how, so far, the American political system has largely managed to contain him. Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, recused himself from the Russia investigation, and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, recently told Congress that he believes Mueller is abiding by the terms of his appointment. To get rid of Mueller, Trump would have to get rid of Rosenstein, too, and then find somebody else at the Justice Department to carry out the firing order. If he did that, there would be a huge outcry, and members of Congress facing reëlection in November would face a great deal of pressure to appoint another special prosecutor. For now, Trump has held his fire, and the Republican leadership, or most of it, has supported Mueller. However, as Jack Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard Law School, recently pointed out at the Lawfare blog, “The ultimate check here, as always, is the American people. … At the end of the day, the voice of the people is what ensures that Congress does the right thing and that the president does not defy the law.”
This is yet another argument for engaging in the political process in 2018. But staying engaged isn’t the same thing as being permanently addled, obsessing over every offensive Trump tweet, or lumping everyone who voted for him in with alt-right activists and neo-Nazis. It means exercising patience, ignoring some of his verbal provocations (many of which are attempts at distraction), pointing out that his policies are hurting the very people he is claiming to represent, and, above all, committing to beating him and his allies politically. As the recent elections in Alabama and Virginia demonstrated, Trump and the Republicans can be defeated at the ballot box. Surely, the best way to survive the second year of the Trump era is to work calmly and deliberately toward that objective.