Belt and braces: have the midterms restored checks and balances?

Event at Amerika-Zentrum Hamburg e.V.

Ever since Trump’s election in 2016, a US journalist’s immediate reaction has stuck in my mind: that checks and balances will see the US through hard times. In other words, “belt and braces”.

At first glance, on 6th November 2018 the belt was loosened by an increased Republican majority in the Senate while the braces – a Democrat majority in the House of Congress – were reattached.

But when the man wearing the trousers is wildly trying to take them off in public and shows no signs of giving up, can the belt and braces withstand the onslaught?

Prof Stephan Bierling and Metin Hakverdi MP

On the evening of 7th November, I went to the Amerika Zentrum Hamburg e.V.  to get a better understanding. German Bundestagsabgeordnete (MP) Metin Hakverdi and Stephan Bierling, Professor of International Relations at the University of Regensburg, were on the stage.  The discussion was chaired by journalist David Patrician.

Each speaker gave a quite comprehensive introduction to the topic – a lot of which revolved around whether Trump will now be hamstrung by losing control of the legislature. As ever, the answer is, “it depends” – to a considerable degree on whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist.

The bad

Generally, there are some areas where Trump will continue to do damage (or make progress, depending on your outlook).

First, as a large part of his agenda is judicial appointments – flooding the courts with judges who support conservative views such as his anti-abortion stance – the majority in the Senate will enable him to continue. This is because the Senate is responsible for appointing judges. We saw how contentious this can be with the appointment of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Second, the President has wide-ranging powers in foreign policy. There was some discussion about this: yes, Congress controls the budget but they would be unlikely to win an impasse where Trump could pull out all the stops, accusing them of throttling the armed forces. With someone like Trump, you have to expect them to go all the way.

Third, because the Democrats are not necessarily full-blooded free-trade advocates, it could be too much to expect them to pull Trump back from his trade war.

The not so bad

In one respect, a Democratic House of Representatives could frustrate Trump’s foreign-policy wrecking tactics: the Supreme Court was recently rather equivocal on whether congressional approval is required for the US to leave NATO, so look out for Congress putting down a law to change that.

The wrangle for committee chairs could determine whether the heat is turned up on Trump in terms of investigation of his alleged misdeeds. Impeachment could be on the agenda, but that would have to go through the Senate, making it unlikely. Also, it would perhaps be counterproductive: Prof. Bierling said the Trump phenomenon is a political problem, which needs a political solution – not administrative.

2020 Presidential Elections

There were some general points about Trump’s chances in the next presidential election. Prof. Bierling described Trump’s “ingenious” strategy in the previous election, picking the exact states that he needed to win and targeting them. These were swing states such as, if my memory serves correctly, Ohio. He really needs to chart this exact course at the next election, and the figures from the midterms suggest he might have trouble.

It’s also the case that both parties – Democrats and Republicans – differ hugely across the country. So there are those Republicans that support Trump, and those that don’t. As a very divisive figure, local politicians across the country might just abandon him when necessary. Hakverdi said many Republican politicians had been at pains to show that they thought long and hard before supporting the Kavanaugh nomination. This was in order to leave no doubt that they are keeping their options open in future.

Weak but stable – Trump’s popularity

Trump’s popularity ratings are 44% – “weak but stable”, to bastardise a Theresa May tagline. Weak, yes; but stable because he hasn’t been haemorrhaging support. His for-us-or-against-us approach means that he doesn’t need to be popular with large swathes of the voting public: instead, he has proven very adept at mobilising people who didn’t vote before, rather than persuading Democrats. This exacerbates the “echo chamber” effect, because communication isn’t about talking to people who (currently) are of a different opinion.

Hakverdi (who generally came across as a cautious optimist) said this can’t be sustained: after all, eventually demographic change will see the “grumpy old white men” replaced by young people who feel more at home with the newly diverse cohort of Democrats. And that was one of the big stories of this intake: the sheer diversity. (Although of course this could be frustrated in 2020 by the electoral college system: a vote in a metropolitan area does not necessarily carry the same weight as a vote in a large rural state. A change to that system would require a constitutional amendment, so forget it.)

Democratic presidential nominee

That diversity will provide a challenge in finding a nominee for the next Democratic presidential candidate. They’ll have to find one common denominator that will be attractive to everyone.

There are three schools of thought on who would be suitable, if I remember correctly:

  1. a Vietnam veteran with a family background in industry, e.g. a grandfather who was a steelworker. This person shouldn’t be too dogmatic on gun control.
  2. An unapologetically liberal candidate; e.g. a cosmopolitan person of colour.
  3. It doesn’t matter about background, but someone who can appeal to the middle ground (“soccer moms”). One person commented – Prof. Bierling, I think – that the single biggest mistake they could make would be to have someone who matches Trump’s Feindbild, i.e. image of the enemy. This would just fan his flames and give him someone to project onto.


One criticism of the US system often levelled from a European perspective is the role of money. However, the pair of speakers appeared rather laid back about this. There are about six to eight billionaires in the US who fund the two parties, and neither party has problems getting enough money. Prof. Bierling said the law of diminishing returns means there’s a limit to how much you can swing with political funding alone. Money is also very targeted towards swing states and those who stand a chance of winning, meaning it’s not how big your budget is, but what you do with it that counts.

Don’t freak out quite yet

All in all, the message seemed to be rather sanguine. Yes, Trump is a dangerous man, but the checks and balances – in reality more like a straitjacket with a complex system of padlocks that would challenge Houdini – seem to be keeping him from even reaching for his flies.

Throughout the evening, there was a palpable sense of respect for the US’ long democratic tradition and a certain confidence that the US would get through this in one piece.

If I had to conclude in one sentence it would be: the US system of checks and balances are robust enough to withstand Trump regardless of the midterms’ outcome, but having a balanced Congress will ameliorate the pain.

Let’s hope that Donald Trump is all mouth but not no trousers!