The midterms could destroy Donald Trump — or cripple his enemies. Pic: AP
The midterms could destroy Donald Trump — or cripple his enemies. Pic: AP

Donald Trump’s enemies on the brink

REMEMBER the date November 6.

It will probably be the most important day of Donald Trump's presidency.

Some of you are undoubtedly snorting derisively at that rather grand pronouncement, and fair enough, because you've heard it before.

Barely a day goes by without some jerk on the internet declaring we have just witnessed the incredibly consequential Thing that will finally destroy Mr Trump or humiliate his enemies.

But the November midterm elections really are that big. They could fatally cripple Mr Trump's administration - or potentially send his political opponents, the Democrats, spiralling into an existential crisis.

The US Capitol Building, where Congress sits. Pic: AP
The US Capitol Building, where Congress sits. Pic: AP


America's system of government is split into three branches, each designed to be a check on the others' power. For the purpose of this discussion, we only need to worry about two: the executive (Mr Trump) and legislature (Congress).

Like our own parliament, Congress is split into the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Every four years, about halfway through the president's time in office, the midterms are held, putting the entire House and a third of the Senate up for re-election.

Mr Trump's Republican Party currently controls both chambers of Congress. And in the upcoming elections, both could fall to the Democrats.

That would leave Mr Trump unable to pass legislation without his opponents' help.


"It's all on the table now. If they (the Democrats) take the House, the Trump presidency will grind to a halt," Mr Trump's former campaign chairman and senior White House strategist, Steve Bannon, told Four Corners last night.

How likely is that scenario?

Mr Trump's approval rating is hovering around 40 per cent. His two immediate predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, had slightly higher ratings going into the 2006 and 2010 midterms - and suffered crushing defeats.

Based on that history, and polls showing them easily ahead, the Democrats are expected to do well in November. Statistics site FiveThirtyEight projects they have about a 75 per cent chance of claiming the House. The Senate is more of an outside shot.

The Democrats' confidence has been bolstered by strong showings in some recent special elections - the equivalent of our by-elections - which suggested their core voters were more motivated to show up at the polls. In a system where voting is not compulsory, that is a critical factor.

But high expectations come with a humungous element of risk. The Democrats' supporters may not accept an unexpected failure.

FiveThirtyEight's map of Congressional seats. They’re all up for grabs. Pic: FiveThirtyEight
FiveThirtyEight's map of Congressional seats. They’re all up for grabs. Pic: FiveThirtyEight


Mr Bannon believes the Democrats will panic and descend into a "civil war" if they fail to sweep the Republicans aside in the midterms.

"By early October, if it looks like it's not going to be a blue wave, the Democrats are going to turn on their establishment," he told Four Corners.

"If they lose this November, the civil war inside the Democratic Party is going to consume them for years and is going to make Donald Trump's re-election in 2020 a forgone conclusion."

There is an undeniable rift in the Democratic Party. It was on full display in 2016, when left-wing senator Bernie Sanders sustained a surprisingly stubborn challenge to Hillary Clinton for the party's nomination.

Ms Clinton, the "establishment" candidate, eventually prevailed - only to lose to Mr Trump.

Should the party again fail to hand Mr Trump the drubbing its supporters feel he deserves, Mr Bannon thinks a left-wing insurgency could grow in strength and transform the Democrats, much like the populist Tea Party did to the Republicans when Mr Obama was president.

It could even lead to the same conclusion - a celebrity candidate (like Oprah Winfrey or The Rock) in the next presidential election.

"The grassroots of the Democratic left are doing exactly what the Tea Party movement did in 2010," Mr Bannon said.

Steve Bannon on Four Corners. Pic: ABC
Steve Bannon on Four Corners. Pic: ABC


Of course, Mr Bannon could be dead wrong. He no longer works at the White House, but as a leading voice on the alt-right, he has skin in the game.

"I think what Bannon's saying is an exaggeration," Associate Professor Brendon O'Connor, from the US Studies Centre, tells

"He's trying to suggest that he's turned the Republicans into a different beast. That they've had their war against their party's establishment and now the Democrats are going to have theirs.

"It's kind of wishful thinking."

Prof O'Connor believes whatever happens, there will still be an "establishment arm" in the Democratic Party, as there is with Republicans now.

"Both parties have these kind of insurgent elements, and there will be this uneasy tension between them into the future," he says.

It will be something of a moot point if Republicans fail to outperform expectations in the midterms - and on that front, Mr Bannon might be too optimistic.

"I think there's 25 per cent of the Bernie (Sanders) movement that can be taken over to the Trump movement," Mr Bannon said on Four Corners.

"There's a small number, not a big number," Prof O'Connor counters.

"That's Bannon's big hope, that you unite the kind of white, working class. But there's not an appeal among younger people for the kind of candidate Bannon is putting forward."

He says turnout is notoriously difficult to judge in midterm elections, but with just a third of eligible voters showing up, Republicans will likely struggle.

"Some of the Trump voters from 2016 just aren't going to turn up."


Should they take control of Congress, the Democrats will gain the power to launch congressional investigations into Mr Trump and his associates. They could even start impeachment proceedings against the president.

"Trump is going to be in a hell of a lot of trouble if the Democrats win the House," Prof O'Connor says.

But say Mr Trump survives, and decides to run for re-election in 2020. That is when the tension between the different wings of the Democratic Party will rise again.

"The Democrats are going to be wracked with fear and nightmares throughout the whole of the campaign, if Trump does go up for re-election," Prof O'Connor says.

"Running against him isn't easy. He is prepared to go so low in his tactics and name-calling. How do you counter that? It's very hard to fight against someone who doesn't want to fight you on any traditional grounds.

"So, who can actually beat Trump? Who would be effective against his disruptive style?"

There will be a large field of candidates for the nomination, each representing a different mix of views and tactics.

Voters will need to decide which kind of party they want the Democrats to be.

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