Dean Baker
The Hankyoreh, October 21, 2018

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Usually the elections for federal and state offices that take place between the US presidential elections get considerably less attention than those taking place in the same year as the presidential race. This is not likely to be true in 2018.

As is always the case, the entire House of Representatives will be up for reelection. There will be elections for a third of the Senate (actually 35 of 100 senators because of a resignation) and state governors races in 36 of the 50 states, including nine of the ten largest. In addition, most state legislatures will be up for grabs in the election as well.

The main reason this election is so important is that Donald Trump has demonstrated an unprecedented level of disrespect for basic norms of democracy and the rule of law. Republicans in Congress, with almost no exceptions, have been willing to go along in his abuses of power. If the Republicans manage to maintain control of both houses of Congress, there will be little ability to block Trump’s attack on the basic institutions of democracy.

Trump’s contempt for long-standing norms is perhaps best demonstrated by his personal finances. For almost half a century it has been a standard practice for presidents and presidential candidates to release their income tax returns. This demonstrated that they paid their taxes and also indicated where potential conflicts of interest could arise.

Trump had promised to release his tax returns during the campaign but said that he was waiting for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to finish an audit. While it is not clear that Trump was ever being audited (he never produced an audit letter from the IRS), since the election he has indicated that he has no intention of ever disclosing his tax returns.

It also had been the practice of past presidents to put their assets in a blind trust or in a portfolio with assets like Treasury bonds, where there would be little question of potential financial conflicts. Trump has instead turned over the operation of his businesses to his children. He has also directly handed government money to his resorts with his frequent visits, which require payments not only for his family and friends but also accompanying officials and security, as well as visiting foreign dignitaries.

The sums involved in these resort visits are trivial relative to the federal budget, but they do show Trump’s disdain for democratic norms and the rule of law. In other areas, they are of much greater consequence.

For example, he has repeatedly complained about his attorney general, at one point saying that, “I have no attorney general.” His specific complaint is that Jeff Sessions, the person he appointed as attorney general, has allowed an independent prosecutor to continue to investigate the ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. He has also complained that Sessions has not used the Justice Department to harass his political enemies.

Trump has indicated that he will likely fire Sessions at some point in the not distant future and look to replace him with someone who will use the Justice Department to advance his political agenda. If the Republicans maintain control of both houses of Congress, they will likely not object to this blatant abuse of power.

Trump and the Republican party are also looking for ways to disenfranchise voters to maintain their grip on power. It is important to recognize that the Republicans depend on being able to rule as a minority.

In 2016 Trump lost the nationwide popular vote by almost 3 million votes, or 2.1 percentage points. He nonetheless won the election because the presidential race is decided by the Electoral College in which most states the winner takes all. While electoral votes are partially proportionate to population (each state gets at least three votes regardless of its size), Trump won several large states by tiny margins, allowing him to get a majority in the Electoral College.

There is a similar story in the US Senate. Each state has two senators, which means that Wyoming, with less than 600,000 people, has the same number of senators as California with almost 40 million. With Republicans winning most of the small states’ senators, they are able to have a majority of the Senate even when they get much less than half of the vote for senators.

The House of Representatives awards seats to states based on the population. But because the Republicans controlled the last redistricting processes following the 2010 Census, they drew districts in a way that will require the Democrats to win the overall vote by 6 to 8 percentage points to retake the House. With a new Census in 2020, the governors who are elected this year will preside over the redistricting that takes place in 2021. This will be an opportunity for either party to lock in favorable districts for a decade.

There is also a basic issue of whether people are able to vote. Republicans have pursued a variety of measures intended to make it difficult for minorities to vote. In prior years, courts have overruled many of these measures since the right to vote is a fundamental right guaranteed by the constitution. In more recent years, Republican-appointed judges have approved many blatant acts of disenfranchisement. If they can maintain control of both houses of Congress, Republicans at both the federal and state level are likely to move more aggressively in implementing obstacles to minority voting.

For these reasons, there any many basic issues about democracy that will be at stake with the outcome of the 2018 election. While the US government has a long-standing democratic tradition and respect for the rule of law, these are very much up for grabs this year. We have a president and a major political party that care about neither.

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