US elections, especially the low-wattage midterms, don’t generally hinge on foreign policy issues but the world did intrude in some ways on some of the 470 federal and 36 gubernatorial contests of November 6 and it was US President Donald Trump who invited it in.
The “America First” president made his take on international affairs central to his campaign. Trump used immigration from the Middle East and Central America as two subtly different tropes to trigger fear and loathing and gin up support for his Republican Party.
The spectre of “unknown Middle Easterners” entering the United States revived memories of 9/11 and despairing thoughts of terrorist attacks. Trump’s portrayal of Central American asylum seekers as “thugs” and minor criminals created the hateful sense of invading hordes.
The third clear use of foreign policy for domestic politics was the Trump administration’s decision to set the reimposition of Iranian sanctions for the day before elections. It conveyed the impression of steely resolve and a strategic long game.
Altogether, the message to voters coincided with Trump’s rhetorical swagger in his nearly two years as president. The narrative went as follows: Despite being under attack from murderous Arabs and larcenous Central Americans, Trump’s America is strong and respected, bestrides the world stage and can force international obedience.
Unsurprisingly, the message was received as intended by Trump’s core base. As they left polling stations, some voters acknowledged that immigration and terrorist threats had been on their minds. Others said they wanted impenetrable borders and Trump’s promised wall. Many expressed satisfaction with Trump’s claim that the United States was projecting righteous strength overseas.
The international dimensions of this election — revolving around a fear of foreigners and faux respect from foreign capitals — were extraordinary for an America at a time of relative peace. Though the 17-year engagement in Afghanistan drags on, it is not a hot war in the way of Vietnam and a couple thousand US troops in Syria don’t qualify as a declared war and certainly nothing like the military deployment to Iraq after the 2003 invasion.
In fact, the Iraq and Vietnam wars are arguably the only foreign policy issues to have substantially affected US midterms.
In 1966, halfway through his first full term as president, Lyndon Johnson’s Democratic Party suffered the electoral blowback of his and assassinated predecessor John F. Kennedy’s 6-year troop surge in Vietnam. Though they retained control of both Houses of Congress, the Democrats lost seats and several governors’ mansions.
In the 1970 midterms, Vietnam featured again, with President Richard Nixon encouraging voters to repudiate anti-war protesters by supporting his Republican Party. The electorate did not oblige and the results that year, somewhat as in the 2018 midterms, revealed a polarised polity, with deep divisions over a foreign issue
So too, Iraq. In 2006, midway through his second term, President George W. Bush’s Republican Party was devastated by a tsunami of voter discontent partly because of his administration’s mishandling of Iraq. The Democrats took control of both Houses of Congress and most governorships up for election, losing nothing of what they already held. Just as with Vietnam, American voters made known their opinions about an urgent and very real foreign issue that took US blood and treasure.
Unsurprisingly, two of those three midterms — 1966 and 2006 — resulted in a wave against the president’s party, a phenomenon generally defined as the opposition picking up at least 20 congressional seats. It’s significant that two of the eight times there’s been a wave in the past 70 years have been for reasons to do with foreign wars with real consequences for Americans and others.
In the 2018 election, however, voters were directed by Trump to consider a faux foreign war, one that must be waged against Middle Easterners and others stealthily making their way to the United States. It was political pantomime masquerading as Shakespearean drama.