Trump Made the Midterms About Him. Now Comes the Hard Part

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A performance artist at heart, President Donald Trump successfully made the U.S. midterm elections all about himself, sprinting across eight states in six days and presiding over a series of 11 rallies that played to his core themes for a violent and anxious political season: fear, bigotry, racism and division.

“Democrats are inviting caravan after caravan. Isn’t that right?” he propagandized before supporters at a rally in Cleveland on Monday, invoking a large group of Central American migrants several hundred miles from the southern border whom he has repeatedly tried to paint as a threat to national security. “Illegal aliens to flood into our country and overwhelm our communities.”

He brushed off criticism about a campaign advertisement that was broadly criticized as racist and that most media organizations refused to run. “We have a lot of ads. And they certainly are effective, based on the numbers that we’re seeing,” he told reporters in Washington. But was he concerned that some people found it offensive? “Well, a lot of things are offensive,” he replied.

“In a certain way, I am on the ballot,” Trump also told more than 200,000 supporters in a conference call earlier this week, according to the Washington Post. “Whether we consider it or not, the press is very much considering it a referendum on me and us as a movement.”

Trump, of course, was most certainly on the ballot. He put himself there, his party lost control of the House of Representatives and key governorships, and now he’ll have to live with that.

Had Trump been a different man — less self-consumed, less needy, less of a demagogue — he might have hedged his bets as the midterms neared and not have made the election about himself. Polls indicated that Democrats had a very strong chance of taking back the House, after all. Remember, though, that Trump’s victorious presidential bid also turned on his ability to endure for the very same reasons he clung to the hustings during the midterms’ home stretch. You can understand, then, why he couldn’t help but plow ahead in recent weeks. The stage beckoned.

But politicians who want to stay in the game for any length of time also have to adapt and evolve. Back in 1994, Bill Clinton and the Democrats took a beating in the midterms, suffering an epic political setback that left Newt Gingrich and his Republican insurgents in charge of the House. Chastened, Clinton promised to do his “dead level best” to work with Republicans (who also won control of the Senate). The drubbing forced Clinton to sacrifice plenty of his policy goals, but he also eventually used his flexibility to outmaneuver Gingrich on some fronts.

Trump has inherited and capitalized on the tribalism and vicious partisanship that Gingrich injected into Washington’s bloodstream 24 years ago. But Trump also now confronts a hostile House, as my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Albert Hunt notes, that will be populated by Nancy Pelosi, Elijah Cummings, Adam Schiff, Jerry Nadler, Maxine Waters and other Democrats who have been chomping at the bit to take on the president and his agenda. The White House, which is likely to see an exodus of senior officials ready to jump off of the track-jumping Trump Train, can expect a wave of House subpoenas aimed at corralling the most financially and ethically compromised administration of the post-World War II era.

People can debate whether Trump’s best strategic option would be to work with or against the Democrats taking charge of the House and its various, powerful committees. Trump, however, has never been a disciplined strategic operator. He’s an egotist, hungry for the limelight and eager to say he’s “winning.” He operates emotionally and narcissistically. Opposition will be his default response (at least initially).

To be sure, there is some small part of Trump that recognizes he might have gone about all of this differently. “I would like to have a much softer tone,” he told an ABC News station in southern California this week, when asked if he had any regrets about his White House tenure. “I feel, to a certain extent, I have no choice. But maybe I do. And maybe I could’ve been softer from that standpoint.”

When you’re trafficking in things like racism and violence, though, “softer” doesn’t really capture the strides you need to take to retrieve your soul and chart a new direction in politics and life. Trump will invariably tilt far, far away from soft.

At a rally in Indiana on Tuesday, for example, he was defiant. If Democrats take control of the House, he was reminded by reporters, legislators will be empowered to do things like pursue his personal income tax returns. “I don’t care,” he responded. “They can do whatever they want and I can do whatever I want.”

It’s not that simple, however.

Trump certainly cares whether his taxes are made public, which is why he has refused to make them available thus far. They contain information about how he funds his business, how robust his business actually is, and what sort of outside financial pressure might be coming to bear upon him in the Oval Office.

He also certainly cares about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion and obstruction of justice involving Trump, his presidential campaign, Russia and the 2016 election — which is why he spends so much time talking about it and trying to disrupt it. Mueller has been busy, and with the midterms behind us he is likely to make public waves again. Devin Nunes, a Republican who used the House Intelligence Committee to run interference for Trump around the Mueller probe, won’t be in charge of that body anymore. Nunes’s replacement, likely to be Schiff, will be made of sterner stuff and can use the committee to trip up Trump and his White House.

Trump will also care about being impeached if the House Judiciary Committee decides to use its powers in that fashion. Pelosi, who is likely to become House speaker, has said she currently considers impeachment to be off limits. Should circumstances change, Nadler, who may run the judiciary committee, knows his way around the impeachment process; he filed a preliminary impeachment inquiry against Trump last year, citing the president’s business and financial activities.

Trump will retain great latitude around trade policies and foreign affairs, but the House will throw roadblocks in front of deeper tax cuts, an Obamacare repeal, greater financial deregulation and more rapid growth in defense spending — all things that the president has prized.

For as much as Trump derides career politicians, his record in Washington is dependent on them. Republicans helped him muscle through two significant Supreme Court appointments and engineer a massive tax cut. He lacked the experience, insight and talent to push any of that along on his own or to even devise a plan for doing so. He’s now about to get a second round of schooling, this time from Democrats, who are going to educate him on how miserable life can be when the other guys have power.

Trump and his party added seats in the Senate, and the president may take comfort in the fact that many of the Republican candidates who fared well on the campaign trail embraced Trumpian vitriol and racism in their own messaging. That’s the kind of fodder that allows Trump to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative and not mess with Mister In-Between — as he did in the wake of losing the House last night:

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”

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