Charles Dickens wrote this about the French Revolution: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair ... ”
There’s no better way to describe America on the morning after the midterms.
There is wisdom and hope: Democrats took back the House - knocking off Republicans in states like Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, and Texas - and thus positioned themselves to hold Donald Trump accountable and halt the Republican legislative agenda. When the votes are finally tallied, Democrats will have trounced the Trumpist GOP in the House by roughly eight percentage points nationwide - a solid rebuke of the president who lost the popular vote in 2016 and has debased this nation ever since.
But there is also darkness and despair: Republicans, blessed with a Senate map that gave them red-turf home-field advantage, expanded their control of the upper chamber - and gave them new impetus to stack the federal judiciary with conservatives who will reign for decades. Millions of voters clearly embrace his racist demagoguery. In states where Democrats were once competitive, his lies and detestable rhetoric have leached into the Republican mainstream. He is now the face and fist of the GOP.
Beginning in January, when Democrats take control of the House, the Trump-Republican agenda will be officially dead. No more massive tax cuts that skew the goodies to the richest Americans. No more idiotic assaults on Obamacare. No more crackpot schemes to spend on a border wall that Mexico was supposedly going to pay for. Meanwhile, on the Senate side, Mitch McConnell can talk all he wants about slashing Social Security and Medicaid, because now it ain’t happening.
And Democrats will now have the opportunity to craft an alternative agenda - with bills to combat climate change, expand background checks of gun buyers, raise the federal minimum wage, protect Robert Mueller, toughen ethics laws, protect voting rights and curb campaign finance abuses. Granted, the Republican Senate will block whatever they pass. But, at minimum, Democrats can use the House as a policy incubator – with 2020 in mind – to show the voters what they stand for. And who knows, maybe Trump will make occasional attempts to find some common ground, perhaps agreeing to spend what’s needed to finally repair the nation’s roads and bridges.
But I’m skeptical, for two reasons: (1) Trump can’t breathe without an enemy, and the temptation to assail the Democratic House, for the next two years of his permanent campaign, will likely consume him. (2) The Democratic base, which is justifiably furious about Trump’s serial scandals, and about the servile GOP’s failure to hold him accountable, will demand that the Democratic-run committees drill down into his family business deals (which allegedly violate the Constitution’s ban on monetizing public office), his myriad security abuses, his porn star payments that broke the campaign finance laws (according to his ex-lawyer, confessed felon Michael Cohen), and there’s much much more.
Adam Schiff, the articulate Trump critic and ranking minority member of the Intelligence Committee, is slated to become the panel’s chairman - and he’ll be armed with subpoena power. “There are serious and credible allegations that the Russians may possess financial leverage over the president, including perhaps the laundering of Russian money through his businesses,” Shiff said last month. “It would be negligent to our national security not to find out.”
That’s precisely what a responsible Congress is supposed to do. Trump has run rampant during the two years of all-Republican rule, and Tuesday night Americans nationwide - most notably, college-educated women - voted for checks and balances. That’s the good news, the best of times.
But it’s likely we haven’t yet seen the worst of times. The odds are overwhelming that Trump, faced with strong congressional pushback, will behave like a cornered rat. His base will duly applaud his defiance, as will his allies on Capitol Hill - not just in the GOP-strengthened Senate, but also in the House, where those who survived the blue wave are mostly denizens of the reddest Trumpist districts. He may do whatever he feels is necessary to save his skin, at the expense of the national interest - hopefully without starting a war.
As Dickens wrote of the French Revolution, “we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” What, pray tell, is our destiny during the next two years of divided government? As our corrupt imperial Leader likes to say, “Stay tuned!”
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at WHYY in Philadelphia and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.