Abroad in America: A Mixed-Results Election That Left Everyone Happy — Because It’s Over

Abroad in America: A Mixed-Results Election That Left Everyone Happy — Because It’s Over


This is the final edition of The New York Times’s international election newsletter, in which Sarah Lyall has tried to explain the U.S. midterms to readers outside the United States (and perhaps to herself).

It’s over now. I wish I could say that the midterms have made America feel better — that they have filled us with a song in our hearts and a spring in our steps.

But they have not. Even though things are O.K. — and by “O.K.” I mean that the earth has not opened up and sucked the country down into a fiery, fetid sinkhole — no one around here is feeling particularly happy just now. (Asked by the Opinion section to pick an emoji to sum themselves up on Tuesday, readers went most frequently with the one that meant, basically, “meh.”)

“Such has been the state of our politics, for a while now,” the commentator Matt Bai wrote, “that neither party’s base will enjoy a restful night’s sleep until the other has been entirely eradicated, its last adherents driven into the hills with nothing but goats and canteens.” (“Canteen,” for those of you who speak British English, means “water flask” in American.)

One problem is that the results defy easy narrative. The blue wave came, but it was on the small side, maybe a modest trickle rather than a tsunami. Democrats lost in rural and industrial areas, and Republicans lost in suburban areas, deepening national divisions. (My colleagues made this handsome interactive map to explain it all.)

President Trump was neither anointed emperor, as some of his supporters would have liked, nor given a one-way ticket to Elba, as his enemies might have hoped.

So there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance wafting around, and that is making us uneasy.

If you’ve ever watched an American political debate in the movies (or in real life) you’re probably familiar with the phenomenon of the spin room. This is the place where partisan pundits form chaotic scrums around reporters for the purpose of arguing, despite whatever evidence there is to the contrary, that their candidate has won.

That’s how the country feels right now, like a giant spin room. Each side is trying to impose its own narrative on Tuesday’s events. For the rest of us, it’s hard to think clearly with all those people yammering in our ears. Here’s my attempt to sort through the noise.

Why Democrats Should Be Happy

They won a majority in the House of Representatives. It wasn’t the all-out rout they’d hoped. But they ended Washington’s one-party rule. With some votes still to be counted, the Democrats so far have picked up 28 new seats, enough to give them a comfortable majority (225 seats, to the Republican’s 197, as of this morning) and plenty of opportunities to annoy President Trump in the coming two years.

They won some key governor’s races. Democrats had a net gain of seven governorships, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — swing states that voted Republican in 2016.

They did well with a key demographic: Moderate suburban voters, particularly women, broadly favored the Democrats.

• Some of their candidates did not win, but established themselves as bona fide national stars. Beto O’Rourke, who failed in his Senate bid in Texas; Andrew Gillum, who (maybe) lost the Florida governor’s race; and Stacey Abrams, who is still contesting the Georgia governor’s election — all helped electrify the election and are Democrats to watch in the future.

Why the Republicans Should Be Happy

• There was no anti-Republican blood bath. The thing they most feared — that the election would be a scorched-earth repudiation of a president whom most of the country (52 percent) currently disapproves of but whom the party base adores — did not come to pass.

They picked up important Senate seats. The Republicans appear to have strengthened their one-seat majority, although results in several races are still in dispute. That will put them in prime position to fulfill one of their dearest goals: appointing more conservative judges to the judiciary.

They saw their Kavanaugh strategy pay off. Most Democratic senators in battleground states who voted against confirming now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court — Claire McCaskill in Missouri; Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota; and Joe Donnelly in Indiana — lost. (One notable exception to this rule: Jon Tester in Montana.) This is a sign that social conservatism and pugilistic us-vs.-them politics are playing well among the Republican base.

• Their president has come out fighting. Practically the first thing Mr. Trump did after the election was force his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to resign, and put in his place (at least temporarily) a loyalist who might well try to curtail the investigation into the Trump team’s ties with Russia during the 2016 campaign.

Why the Country Should Be Happy

The election is over! A record number of people voted. Also, no one declared martial law, jailed all their political enemies, or plundered the banking system for their own personal gain. And Thanksgiving is just two weeks away.

President Trump, who often seems to live in his own private spin room, emerged after the election declaring to anyone within earshot that it had been a massive victory — mostly for him.

At a bad-tempered news conference on Wednesday, the president took credit for his party’s wins, dismissed Republican candidates who lost as having been insufficiently loyal to him, and declared that he would not release his tax returns, even in the face of potential subpoenas from the newly Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, because “people don’t understand tax returns.”

He also had a shockingly testy exchange with Jim Acosta, CNN’s White House correspondent, refusing to answer when Mr. Acosta tried to ask him about the charged rhetoric the president used to describe the caravan of Central American migrants heading north through Mexico.

The president — who at the same event told a black reporter that her question about white nationalism was “racist” — finally lost it, saying that Mr. Acosta, personally, was the “enemy of the people.”

“CNN should be ashamed of itself having you working for them,” the president said. “You are a rude, terrible person.”

Later, the White House revoked Mr. Acosta’s press pass, saying that he had “placed his hands” on a White House intern who was trying to take his microphone away from him.

Conservative news outlets sided with Mr. Trump in characterizing Mr. Acosta as obstructive and out of line.

“What we saw today in that press conference was a disgrace to this country,” said Mark Levin, a Fox News commentator. “These kamikaze journalists — obviously in a coordinated attack on this president — they’re trying to cripple this presidency. They’re trying to sabotage this presidency.”

But CNN defended its reporter and said that the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, had lied about whether Mr. Acosta had manhandled the White House intern. (The tape seems to support Mr. Acosta’s account of the exchange.)

“This unprecedented action is a threat to our democracy and our country deserves better,” the network said.

And the American Civil Liberties Union said that “it is unacceptable and un-American for the president to expel a reporter for doing his job aggressively,” and even Jeb Bush, who lost the Republican presidential nomination to Mr. Trump in 2016, stood up for the news media.

This election has been highly unpleasant, and I feel bruised and discouraged. What should I do?

—Sarah, Brooklyn, New York

This is the last newsletter in this series, and I am so grateful to everyone who signed up and stayed with me. Thank you, too, for all your thoughtful emails, good suggestions and provocative questions.

This particular question is my own. But it reflects what seems to be a prevailing mood. And so I’d suggest what I always suggest in these situations: Find some good things to read.

With that in mind, here are some recommendations for quintessentially American works that can take you out of your head and help restore your faith in a time of trouble.

It’s also useful to remember that the United States is young, compared with many other countries, but it has survived difficulties before and surely will again.

• “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2005). This wonder of a book, which describes how the 16th U.S. president appointed his most powerful political rivals to his cabinet before embarking on the profound business of running the country during the Civil War, is a reminder that even political enemies can learn to work together in mutual respect for a country that is far bigger than themselves.

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, delivered to a shattered nation at the end of the war, the gravest time in U.S. political history. Its last paragraph begins, “With malice toward none; with charity for all.”

Letter from Birmingham Jail, by Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King, the hero of the American Civil Rights movement, wrote this in longhand in his cell in August 1963 after being jailed for protesting segregation laws in Alabama. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he said.

My friend Dwight Garner, a stylish and thoughtful book critic for The Times, kindly offered these:

Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” (1957) lays bare, in ecstatic prose, unquenchable optimism about America, its sheer expanse and countless modulations, its people and the delights that can be seen from a car window.

In times of crisis and frayed feelings, my mind often turns for solace to America’s great food writers and books like Calvin Trillin’s “The Tummy Trilogy” (1994), Betty Fussell’s memoir “My Kitchen Wars” (1999), Jim Harrison’s “The Raw and the Cooked” (1992) and David Kamp’s high-stepping survey of American cuisine, “The United States of Arugula” (2006).

Rock criticism during bad times? In “Mystery Train” (1975) Greil Marcus turns his discussion of musicians like Randy Newman, The Band, Elvis and Sly Stone into a meditation on what it means to be American.

And I would add one more:

• “Stuart Little,” by E.B. White (1945). Strictly speaking, this is a children’s book, but it celebrates some of the great features of the American character: individualism, gentle good humor, tolerance, the kindness of strangers, the lure of the open road, and the optimistic sense that — despite everything — better things might be waiting around the corner.

It’s been a real pleasure. Please send any last questions or thoughts to [email protected]





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