A post mortem on the American body politic

4:53 pm on 10 November 2016

Opinion - In the aftermath of an electoral bloodbath, what happens now for the two major American political parties? Can the fractious Republicans govern and can the Democrats recover?

The Republican Civil War

Most predictions saw defeated Republicans fighting a bitter civil war. Instead they are cock-a-hoop. The civil war will continue, but more gently.

Republicans now hold the trifecta, controlling the House, the Senate and the Presidency. It is a concentration of power that they enjoyed under six of George W Bush's years, but prior to that not since Herbert Hoover's first two years, in the late '20s.

It gives the party the ability to achieve their 'grand plan for America', except that for a while now, the party has not had a grand plan, or possibly any plan. At least, not one they agree on.

This combination of photos shows Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump(R) on October 10, 2016 and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-WI, on June 22, 2016

Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, left, has won re-election but his relationship with President-elect Donald Trump is likely to be shaky. Photo: AFP

They do all agree that 'Obamacare' is a dreadful thing, despite it being based on a Republican blueprint drawn up as a riposte to Hillary Clinton's strong push for healthcare reform as first lady in 1993. The Affordable Care Act is likely to go down in flames quickly. So much for Barack Obama's legacy of healthcare and civility. However, to achieve this, the Republican leadership will first need to agree about what to do about the 16 million previously uninsured Americans who lose healthcare without it.

And there's the rub. What leadership? The Republican Party is by no means unified, and this has been an historically divisive election for them.

The current Republican honchos in the House (Paul Ryan) and Senate (Mitch McConnell) both cut Donald Trump off at the knees during the campaign. Many other GOP leaders have been even more antagonistic, calling him an unhinged disgrace.

Like everyone else, Republican leaders expected Mr Trump to go down in flames and were busy positioning themselves as the non-Trump or post-Trump, ready to step up, unify the horribly split party and remould it in their own image (not that anyone has a Messiah complex you understand).

Senator Ted Cruz was ready to lead for the Christian right, Mr Ryan for the fiscal conservatives, Senator Jeff Session for the tea party populists, Governor John Kasich for the moderates, etc. Mr Kasich was so sure Mr Trump was done, that with polling still under way he announced a major speech about the future of the Republican Party. Expect a quiet cancellation.

Last night, in his meandering largely unscripted victory speech, Donald Trump particularly praised his staunchest surrogates, including sitting Senator Jeff Session. This may indicate his personal preference for a new Senate Majority Leader. Mr Trump may be the party leader but the Senate and House vote on their own leadership. There will be much lobbying and bargaining. Paul Ryan's standing and career have been sorely damaged by this election and he will struggle to retain his role as Speaker unless he does a deal with House Democrats.

Mr Trump could suffer an early wound himself. He is due in court next month on fraud charges relating to Trump University. What happens if a sitting president is convicted of fraud? A Republican House isn't about to indict him, nor the Senate convict.

Whoever gets to be the figureheads, the party will still be hugely divided on many basic policies including trade, education and immigration. They have enemies in common but very few agreed alternatives. They do agree on gun rights, abortion, military enlargement and fossil fuels. But running a country is more complex than a handful of bumper sticker policies.

Still, it all feels better when you're on top.

The Democratic Party and the Social Dichotomy

The Democrats are where the Republicans were expected to be: shell-shocked, and wondering what to do next. They are not as badly divided though, being a spectrum between progressives and moderates rather than the GOP's bitterly opposed factions.

They get two advantages from this total loss. First, being entirely in opposition, they are safe from any blame for the next two years. Recession, war, terrorism…? Whatever happens, the Republicans get to carry the can for it.

Second, the 2018 mid-term elections will be slightly easier for them than if Mrs Clinton was president because the party in the White House tends to suffer in mid-terms.

2018 is going to be tough for the Democrats regardless. A number of Democratic senators are up for 2018 re-election in Republican states (Missouri, Montana, Indiana) and a few more are in states the Democrats lost just yesterday, so they will lose some of their 48 seats.

The House is so heavily gerrymandered that only a tidal wave would win it for the Democrats. And without the Supreme Court they have less chance of electoral reform.

This will be a time of reassessment. In retrospect it seems that rural America really wasn't ready for a black president. The resentment it caused has been viscerally displayed. What's more, they seem even less ready for a woman.

US Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton waves at supporters as she arrives at a campaign rally in Tempe, Arizona, on November 2, 2016.

Hillary Clinton at a campaign rally in Arizona on 2 November. Photo: AFP

Urban American society has shifted radically in the last two decades on sexuality, religion, guns, the death penalty, abortion, gender equality… the list goes on. In the cities where politicians and the media live, you don't notice whether you have brought the countryside along for the philosophical ride.

The American rural/urban dichotomy is dangerously wide. In some states, the cities vote 70/30 Democratic while the countryside votes 70/30 Republican. That's not healthy for society as a whole, and work needs to be done on closing the 'us and them' divide.

If they want to regain rural support, the Democrats may need to find a figurehead that is less confrontational. Yes, it may be pandering but it's necessary for the America that is still in the 1980s, if not the 1950s. You can bring them with you, but that is easier achieved from amidst, not from above.

That person is not Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren, or Chuck Schumer; the Democratic Party needs to find a standard bearer who isn't such an obvious East Coast intellectual. They forget that most people follow a grin more often than a manifesto, voting emotionally, not intellectually.

The easy down-home charm of Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton are something that no amount of marketing can make up for.

The Longest Grudge

And one more thing. As Donald Trump left his victory stage last night the music that came up in the room was the choral opening of The Rolling Stones' 'You Can't Always Get What You Want?'

It's possible this was a random choice, but is it possible that it was play-listed with a concession speech in mind, or an ironic dig at his own party leadership?

Music at these events is seldom random. It felt to me like it might have been a private and personal slap at The Rolling Stones, with whom Donald Trump had a fight, back in 1989 in Atlantic City when they banned Trump from their venue but he muscled in anyway looking for publicity. It ended with Trump and his heavies being seen off the premises by 40 members of the Stones crew armed with makeshift weapons.

Would it surprise you to find the president-elect holds a grudge for 25 years?

Phil Smith is an award-winning journalist who has reported for RNZ from China, India and Australia. For the past nine months he has been RNZ's guru and guide on the byzantine minutiae of American politics.

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