There is always one issue that comes to dominate and define the election cycle. President Donald Trump thinks that, in 2020, The Issue will be immigration. That’s certainly what he intends to build his campaign around. Just as he did in 2016 – when he won. And with the midterm elections of 2018 – when his party lost.
While polls show that most Americans disagree with Trump on immigration – particularly the wall on the Mexican frontier – that’s true of most issues. It nevertheless seems to work for Trump something like Room 101 in George Orwell’s 1984: It represents whatever you fear most (rapists? drug dealers? job-stealers? Islamic terrorists? Mexican gangs? additional welfare recipients? a less white America?) and in that seems to compel many who don’t like Trump or agree with him to vote for him, anyway.
During the 2018 midterms, and over his advisors’ objections, Trump doubled down on his “American carnage” theme – with a (dare we say) trumped-up immigrant “caravan” as its centerpiece – and polls showed it working effectively and propelling the midterms in the Republicans’ direction. That is, at least, until a spate of murders whose perpetrators pointed expressly at Trump as their inspiration repelled suburban voters even more than the fears that Trump successfully conjured. We have a pretty good idea what to expect, though, from Trump, a man who relies on endless repetition of a limited number of tropes.
Democrats believe they have been handed an equally volatile hot-button issue as a potential silver bullet next year: abortion. Trump’s cementing of a conservative majority on the Supreme Court has emboldened abortion activists in several states to enact what are effectively total bans. The Court had been expected to narrow Roe v. Wade, the decision that constitutionally enshrined abortion rights, into oblivion without overtly overruling it, but grassroots enthusiasts are intent on pushing the Justices to do the Full Monty. The only question is whether this issue will reach the Court before the elections – unlikely, in that the Justices appear to be more judicious than conservative activists – but the pro-life rush to enact the most extreme statutes possible as soon as Republicans got Brett Kavanaugh confirmed to the High Bench makes this the nation’s likely future under Republican rule. Since, again, as on virtually every issue, the vast majority of Americans disagree with the Republicans’ (and Trump’s) position, Democrats feel this may be The Issue for 2020.
But Democrats have a full slate of similar cultural issues on which the majority of Americans side with them: Climate change. Race. Gender. Gay marriage. Even taxing the rich. If they had to pick just one, it’s hard to know which Democrats would pick. But it’s safe to say that, as with immigration, the majority of Americans will be with the Democrats – and yet The Issue will mostly work to the President’s advantage, because any issue, in Trump’s hands, becomes the sum of all fears.
We must ask, Why?
For a number of cycles in the 1990s and early 2000s, The Issue was one or another different aspect of health care – pre-existing conditions, prescription drug costs, access to coverage. But these recurrent concerns about health care in fact were expressions of broader and deeper concerns: the growing inability of middleclass Americans to pay for what most had come to expect to be central incidents of middleclass life and, then, after 2008, the growing anger of that middleclass at their leaders’ apparent inability to stave off the increasing – and increasingly apparent – crumbling of the post-war order (for some, exacerbated and personified by the presence of a black man in the White House).
Most political commentary around Trump nowadays centers on the fact that an economy this strong ought to guarantee a president’s re-election, while polls show that an historically large percentage of voters who believe the economy is good also say they don’t support the President. This is interpreted as showing that Trump’s personality is driving off happy voters who would otherwise support him. But that has things backwards: People don’t support Trump to begin with if they’re happy. They support him because they’re not. That’s true even though Trump supporters overall are better off than those who voted for Hillary Clinton, or Americans generally – most of them simply believe nonetheless that they’re under siege.
And that’s the fundamental divide in this election, whether it ultimately manifests itself in fears over immigration, or terrorism, or white identity, or male identity, or any of a host of other social issues – or, as it did in the many early-warning tremors pre-Trump, in fears as to health insurance costs, or drug costs, or insurance coverage, or the financial meltdown, or supposed threats to entitlement programs under Obamacare. The sum of all these fears is an inchoate terror at the fading of an entire world and the advent of an unrecognizable chaos replacing it. The reaction is not dissimilar to that of those who saw the whole of European history, and their own personal identities, dissolving before their very eyes in the years after World War I – or who saw village life and all its religious certainties and social hierarchies and eons-long stability upheaved by the arrival of the factory economy and the “job” (whose appearance 200 years ago seemed as unnatural and disruptive as the disappearance of “jobs” seems to us now).
Not everyone sees themselves on the losing end of that transition. In fact, most Americans don’t. And most of them – except for the plutocratic few rewarded by his tax cuts – aren’t voting for Trump. Meanwhile, the “Economy of the Past” can always be counted upon over time to make up a smaller and smaller percentage of the economy, and the population, than the “Economy of the Future”.
That may mean that the days of Trump – and, more importantly, Trumpism – are numbered. But don’t count on it. After all, Trump won in 2016 with a decided minority of the vote due to America’s electoral college system. This political imbalance will only grow, not shrink: By mid-century, states encompassing 30% of the population – and an even lesser share of the economy – will hold 70% of the seats in the Senate (and with that, a disproportionate weight in electing a president).
At the same time, the march of the New Economy isn’t likely to be an unmitigated triumph: Today, it is factory workers and coal miners being displaced; tomorrow, it will be not just truck drivers and Uber operators, but also white-collar workers ranging from most accountants and lawyers to radiologists and diagnosticians, journalists and hit-songwriters – anyone whose expertise can be (and, in many cases, already is) better performed by a computer algorithm. In fact, while technological change may have historically created more jobs than it destroyed, there are now fewer and fewer human attributes that machines can’t displace. What happens when this growing army of the dispossessed joins the ranks of angry Trump voters?
This disruptive economic transition may ultimately, after several decades of tension and political dysfunction, find a more-or-less peaceful political solution. If the breakdown of democratic government and threats of armed insurrection this past month in Oregon – over, of all things, climate legislation – are any indication, however, it won’t any time soon.
And that’s the real Issue.