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16 November 2022

The coming Republican civil war

The US midterms were a setback for Donald Trump. Will his 2024 White House bid survive a brutal round of primaries and a changing world order?

By Katie Stallard

When he first ran for the governorship of Florida in 2018, Ron DeSantis was so grateful for Donald Trump’s endorsement, and so desperate to appeal to his supporters, that he filmed a campaign ad showing him reading aloud to his infant son from Trump: The Art of the Deal and demonstrating how to “build the wall” using toy blocks. The video then showed him putting his son to bed wearing a “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) sleep suit, with a Donald Trump flag draped over the side of the cot. At one point a message on the screen flashed up: “RON DESANTIS: PITBULL TRUMP DEFENDER”.

Four years later, celebrating his re-election as governor by an almost 20-percentage point margin in the US midterms on 8 November, DeSantis did not even mention Trump’s name. Walking out on to the stage with his family to deliver his victory speech in Tampa, he called it “a win for the ages” and claimed to have “rewritten the political map”. During this campaign, it was not Trump who was depicted as DeSantis’s benefactor, but God. “And on the eighth day, God looked down at his planned paradise and said, I need a protector,” intoned the narrator during one television commercial as it cut to footage of the Florida governor. “So God made a fighter.”

[See also: The midterms: a fight for America’s soul]

Yet Trump’s brand of grievance politics endures. In his victory speech DeSantis lashed out at “skyrocketing” crime in cities governed by “leftist politicians”, along with “medical authoritarianism” (DeSantis-speak for mask and vaccine mandates) and the “woke agenda”. DeSantis presents himself as a tireless warrior battling a tyrannical woke elite hell-bent on abolishing America’s cherished freedoms. With a camera-ready smile and frequent references to his Ivy League education (he holds degrees from Harvard and Yale), he projects a more conventional image than Trump. His wife, Casey DeSantis, a former TV news anchor, advises him on his media appearances. But his underlying message is the same: America is threatened, and only a “fighter” like him can save it. “We fight the woke in the legislature, we fight the woke in the schools, we fight the woke in the corporations,” he proclaimed in a wannabe Churchillian register. “We will never ever surrender to the woke mob.”

Over at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, Trump sat beneath a giant screen playing Fox News at an election-night party. There wasn’t much to celebrate. With the exception of JD Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, who won the Senate race in Ohio, many of the candidates the former president had endorsed were having a bad night. Mehmet Oz – a TV personality known as Dr Oz who Trump had feted at a rally just before the election – was defeated by his Democratic opponent, John Fetterman, in Pennsylvania (in a Senate race that revealed much about the current challenges of US politics, as Harry Lambert reported in the 11 November New Statesman). The far-right Trump supporter Doug Mastriano lost the race to become the state’s governor by 14 points. Having arrived at the party to applause and expectations of a “red wave”, Trump made only a few brief remarks to reporters, calling it an “interesting evening” before leaving.

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The next day, the Murdoch-owned New York Post published a large photograph of DeSantis on its front page with the headline “DeFUTURE”. Fox News’s website declared Trump the “biggest loser”. The recriminations within the Republican Party were also under way, with the retiring Pennsylvania senator Pat Toomey blaming Trump for the disappointing results as his own seat flipped to the Democrats.

[See also: US midterm elections 2022]

Speaking at the White House on 9 November, Joe Biden declared it a “good day for democracy” and said the midterm results had prompted a “sigh of relief” across America. But the threat to the republic posed by the Trumpified GOP is far from over.

Trump himself was already effectively campaigning to be the Republican nominee for the presidency in 2024 ahead of these elections, even before he announced his formal candidacy on 15 November. He has staged huge rallies in key battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Arizona to energise his base. He will not quietly cede the limelight to DeSantis, or anyone else. The struggle for control of the Republican Party will be ugly. But so will the presidential election in 2024. Regardless of who the final contenders are, the US political system faces a profound test, with two years of bitterly divided government and the far-right wing of the GOP determined to make its presence felt if the Republicans secure control of the House.

The consequences of America’s domestic reckoning will be felt around the world. The US is, of course, not the only great power where politics is becoming less predictable and authoritarian figures hold sway. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has reached what the scholar Andrei Kolesnikov calls his “Stalin phase” – reportedly isolated, paranoid, and convinced of his own omnipotence in the manner of the late Soviet dictator – as he wages war on Ukraine. In China, too, Xi Jinping has removed his rivals and surrounded himself with acolytes at the start of his third term in power, ordering his military to “prepare for war” as he restates his country’s claim to the self-governing island of Taiwan. Putin will be counting on political dysfunction in the US to undermine support for Ukraine. Xi will be watching, and perhaps hoping that Trumpian isolationism will triumph again in 2024.

[See also: US midterms: what red wave?]

During his post-midterms speech, Biden recounted how he had travelled to the G7 summit in Cornwall in June 2021 for his first in-person meeting with fellow leaders of major democracies. There, he had one clear message for his counterparts, which he delivered repeatedly in public and in private: “America is back.” Where his predecessor had threatened to withdraw from Nato and to take US troops out of Germany and South Korea, Biden insisted that the Trump presidency had been an aberration and America’s leading role in the world and support for its allies was assured.

“For how long?” he recalled the G7 leaders responding. The key questions that had recurred over the 17 months since, he said, were: “Is the United States stable?… Are we the same democracy we’ve always been?” While some of the most extreme Trump-backed candidates were rejected by the electorate on 8 November, at least 125 Republicans who have cast doubt on the results of the 2020 presidential election won their races. This includes far-right figures such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, a congresswoman from Georgia who has repeatedly claimed that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and once helped to spread the conspiracy theories of the political movement QAnon (which claims that a global cabal of Satanic paedophiles has secretly taken power).

If the Republicans win a majority in the House, senior figures have already vowed to use congressional committees to investigate Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden – over his alleged links to Chinese and Ukrainian companies while his father was vice-president – and to scrutinise the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Greene has called for Congress to impeach Biden, although this unlikely to happen.

Photo by Getty Images

As well as the prospect of endless partisan investigations and legislative deadlock if the GOP regains the House, the next two years would see further brinkmanship over the federal debt limit, which must be raised in 2023 for the US to avoid defaulting on its debt. Failure to do so could plunge the country into a recession and risk millions of jobs, as well as destabilising global markets.

The resurgence of “America First” politics and the Trumpian wing of the Republican Party also matters for the war in Ukraine. At a campaign rally before the midterm elections, Greene vowed that if the Republicans won, “not another penny” would go to Ukraine. “Our country comes first,” she told the cheering crowd. JD Vance, the Peter Thiel-funded senator-elect from Ohio, has made similar demands. “We’ve got to stop the money spigot to Ukraine eventually,” he said in September. “I think we’re at the point where we’ve given enough money in Ukraine, I really do.”

This is not just a fringe view. Kevin McCarthy, who hopes to become the new speaker of the House, has warned that a Republican-controlled House will not “write a blank cheque” for Ukraine. Tucker Carlson, who hosts one of the country’s most-watched cable news shows on Fox News and has been touted as a future presidential contender, has repeatedly criticised Volodymyr Zelensky’s government and questioned the US approach to the war.

The return of an even more embittered Trump to national politics before the 2024 election will only aggravate this debate. He has interfered with past aid packages to Ukraine, holding up almost $400m in military aid in 2019 when he was president, as he pressed Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden – action which resulted in Trump’s first impeachment. His admiration for Putin, whom he has continued to praise as “smart” even after Russia’s invasion, has raised concerns about long-term US support for Ukraine if Trump – or a Trump-like figure – enters the White House after the next election.

[See also: Get ready for Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential run]

Despite Joe Biden’s assurances, there are some areas in which America is not coming back, no matter who is in power. Economic policy has shifted away from absolute globalisation towards protectionism. Biden has shown no interest in rejoining the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a 12-nation free-trade agreement that was meant to be the centrepiece of US engagement in the Asia-Pacific before Trump withdrew the US from it. Similarly, Trump’s approach to China has become the consensus. While Biden has put more emphasis than his predecessor on working with US allies, there is striking continuity in their approaches to Beijing. Biden has declined to roll back Trump-era tariffs on Chinese imports. Instead, he has introduced sweeping new restrictions on exports of advanced semiconductor technology, warning that the contest with China has entered a “decisive decade”, in language that could just as easily have come from the Trump administration.

This plays well at home. According to polling by the Pew Research Center earlier this year, 82 per cent of US voters surveyed had an unfavourable view of China, up from 47 per cent in 2018. It found that both Democrats and Republicans supported a more assertive stance against Beijing, with almost two-thirds of Republicans stating that limiting China’s power and influence should be a top political priority.

As the race for the White House in 2024 intensifies, the parties will try to surpass one another in the potency of their anti-China rhetoric, which will also mean signalling their support for Taiwan’s security.

[See also: What the US midterm results mean for the war in Ukraine]

Since coming to power, Biden has stated publicly on four separate occasions that the US military would defend Taiwan if the island was attacked, appearing to depart from the previous approach of “strategic ambiguity”. This has prompted fury from Beijing and contributed to rising tensions between the two powers. When Nancy Pelosi, as US House speaker, travelled to Taiwan with a congressional delegation in August, China responded by conducting live-fire drills around the island and firing missiles over the capital, Taipei. McCarthy plans to make his own visit if he becomes speaker, no doubt flanked by Republicans eager to prove their toughness on China and determined to be even more hawkish than the Democrats.

The tension will only increase as Taiwan enters its own presidential election cycle, with the current leader, Tsai Ing-wen, who has been careful to avoid antagonising Beijing, due to step down in 2024. The new US Congress will undoubtedly approve more arms sales to Taiwan and could soon designate it a major non-Nato ally, a status given to Israel, Japan and South Korea, among others. Beijing will retaliate. On the morning after the midterms, Xi was pictured on the front page of the People’s Daily newspaper visiting a command centre in military uniform. He has no intention of backing down in the face of any perceived threat to China’s claim to Taiwan.

Trump has already activated battle mode. On 10 November, he released a furious statement berating Ron DeSantis – or as he has begun calling him, Ron DeSanctimonious – as an “average REPUBLICAN Governor” who had come to him in “desperate shape” and only won in 2018 because of his endorsement. He is trying to intimidate DeSantis into not challenging him for the Republican nomination, threatening to release damaging information on the governor if he does.

The possibility of a DeSantis victory in the Republican presidential primaries should provide no relief. DeSantis has said little about his views on foreign policy, beyond promising to be the “most pro-Israel governor in America”. But his reactionary politics are clear. He has signed a law banning classroom instruction on sexual orientation in early school years and has pitted himself against so-called critical race theory. He has belittled children for wearing masks during the Covid-19 pandemic, helped to fuel vaccine scepticism and refused to say publicly whether he accepts that Biden won the 2020 election. Instead, he has established a new state agency – the office of election crimes and security – to tackle the negligible issue of voter fraud. In short, he has demonstrated that he will do whatever is necessary to get and keep power within the Republican Party, including riling up the far-right base.

“The global order is nearing a tipping point,” warned Freedom House, a non-profit organisation that monitors the status of freedom and democracy around the world, earlier this year. “If democracy’s defenders do not work together to help guarantee freedom for all people, the authoritarian model will prevail.” For the US, that work must start at home in repairing its own democracy, where trust in institutions has reached an all-time low and an estimated 70 per cent of Republican voters do not believe that Biden was legitimately elected president. And that was before the re-emergence of Donald Trump and the prospect of a return to deadlocked government.

When Joe Biden asked on 9 November whether the US was stable and its allies could depend on it, he surely intended those questions to be rhetorical. But the next two years and the battle for political control in 2024 will determine the answer. We are about to find out whether it was Trump or Biden that was the aberration after all.

This is an updated version of an article that appears in the 18 November issue of the New Statesman magazine

[See also: The US: whose country, ’tis of thee? | Nationalism Reimagined]

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This article appears in the 16 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in