The story line coming out of Tuesday’s midterm elections will be: The two Americas drift further apart. Republicans expanded their majority in the Senate by cleaning out Democrats in states that voted for Donald Trump. Democrats won the House by cleaning out Republicans in districts that voted for Hillary Clinton. In the next Congress, Democrats will be even more liberal. Republicans will be even more conservative. Most of the members of Congress who expressed any ambivalence about Trump will be gone.
But it’s important to remember that although the country is deeply and closely divided, it’s not divided between similar things. Because the Democrats ran more African Americans and women candidates this year, and because many Republicans campaigned on immigration and Brett Kavanaugh, it’s tempting to describe both parties as waging a culture war. That’s misleading. The culture war was waged mostly by one side. Democratic candidates embodied racial and gender diversity, but they didn’t generally campaign on it. Their message, overwhelmingly, was that they would protect the middle-class safety net. They realized, early on, that absent Barack Obama, Obamacare was extremely popular. As The New York Times’ Alex Burns noted, the Democrats’ campaign could be summed up as: “a noun, verb and preexisting conditions.”
To a remarkable degree, Republicans ceded the terrain. A party that in 2010 made opposition to Obamacare its defining message this year tried to pretend that it supported Obamacare’s key provisions. In Arizona, Republican Senate candidate Martha McSally said she’s “leading the fight” to “force insurance companies to cover preexisting conditions.” In Missouri, Republican Josh Hawley said the same thing.
Once upon a time, when Democrats campaigned on economic security, Republicans countered with economic opportunity. Democrats promised protection by government; Republicans promised liberation from government. But the libertarian, anti-government rhetoric of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan in 2012 is long gone. Despite a booming economy, Republicans didn’t even campaign heavily on tax cuts.
In the Trump era, Republicans counter economic security with cultural security. Trump promised to protect Americans from Latino murderers and women who destroy men’s lives by alleging sexual assault. And, to a significant extent, it worked. By mobilizing his white, rural base, Trump matched Democratic enthusiasm in purple states such as Florida and Ohio and overwhelmed Democratic incumbents in red states such as North Dakota, Indiana, and Missouri. It’s an old game: W. E. B. Du Bois famously called it the “psychological wage.” Instead of protecting white people from economic hardship, you protect them from the racial demons you’ve stirred up in their minds. And Trump is this era’s undisputed master of that game. He understood that as frightened as many Americans are of losing their health care, he—with the help of Fox News—could make them even more frightened of Honduran asylum-seekers. Now that the election is over, I suspect the caravan will disappear from Fox’s screens and Trump’s Twitter feed—until something like it is needed again.
The harsh truth is this: Racism often works. Cross-racial coalitions for economic justice are the exception in American history. Mobilizing white people to protect their racial dominance is the norm. The lesson of 2018 is that American politics is not reverting to “normal.” In many ways, Trumpism is normal. It’s not Trump who is running uphill against American tradition, it’s the people who are trying—bravely but with mixed success—to stop him.