With a mixture of relief and disappointment everyone examining the midterm elections agreed that there was no ‘Blue Wave’. Democrats did gain the majority in the House, and history was made across the country at all levels of the electoral process in terms of increased diversity amongst new members of Congress, state governors, and local representatives. But they also lost ground to the Republicans in the Senate, and there certainly did not seem to be a large general uprising amongst the electorate against Trump and the country’s current conservative leadership. No one saw a Blue Wave, but that’s because they were looking for the wrong thing. What is coming, what is happening at this very moment, is a Blue Tsunami. And as is the case with real tsunamis, it will transform the landscape of American politics.
Stage I: Initiation
All tsunamis begin with a massive explosion of energy, many times more powerful than the wind that is responsible for their smaller cousins the wave. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was not just one of these massive explosions, it was largest earthquake in American politics since the resignation of Richard Nixon. Everything about the 2016 presidential election was exponentially larger and more impactful. From race and gender to the growing tribalism in American politics, issues that were often secondary in mid-term elections were now front and center in ways that they had not been since the 1960s. Similarly, personalities on both sides of the aisle suddenly had the ability to have a significant and immediate impact on the entire political landscape with a single tweet. For one side it seemed all the rules and customs that had ensured at least a veneer of civility in DC politics were being destroyed by the earthquake that was Trump’s MAGA movement. For the other side, those same rules symbolized by everything from environmental regulation to political correctness needed to be torn down long ago. So, some people hid under tables and others threw the party of their lives. But everyone recognized that the election of Donald Trump as President represented a political earthquake several levels higher in magnitude than even the election of Barack Obama.
Stage II: Split
In 2011 there was a massive 9.1 magnitude earthquake off the east coast of Japan. It immediately spawned tsunami waves that raced at hundreds of miles an hour across the Pacific eventually devastating the lives of millions of people. This stage of tsunami formation is called “split” because most underwater earthquakes are linear spawning two dominant waves that move in opposite directions, one heading further out to sea while the other heads towards the nearest shore. In terms of the 2016 election the concept is even more appropriate because of the chasm that has developed between the right and left in America. Where there had been some room for debate and negotiation in the past, there was now only partisanship. Any attempt at moderation or compromise was traitorous behavior as loyalty became more important than morality.
The amount of energy released by the election of Donald Trump activated other fault lines in American political culture that led to continued aftershocks. The country was reeling from the earthquake and its immediate aftermath as everyone dealt with the raw emotions that the election process had exposed. Not only was the split between Democrats and Republicans wider than it had ever been, members of both groups were more willing to engage incendiary and even violent behavior as self-proclaimed defenders of their cause. But the secondary shocks revealed significant fractures and open wounds within both parties as well with ‘traditional’ Republicans questioning the viability of their new leader, and a new generation of Democrats questioning the viability of their last leader.
During an actual tsunami event it is during this stage that communities in the path of destruction begin preparing themselves. For the Japanese in 2011 it took the form of long practiced evacuation drills and enormous seawalls designed to withstand the tsunamis of the past. For Americans who were becoming aware of both Russian interference in the election and the potential of collusion with the Russians by the Trump campaign it was as if somebody had purposely left the seawalls open. At exactly the time that America needed strong defenses of its political and legal systems, it seemed that the new President had deliberately sabotaged them in order to gain from the destructive aftermath. All of this ensured that when the country needed to recover from the earthquake and prepare for the coming tsunami, it’s defenses and very foundations were being neglected.
Stage III: Amplification
As a tsunami barrels towards the nearest shore the most important factor to consider is the geography of the coastline it is approaching. It is the underwater features and shape of the coastline itself that most directly affects the size and shape of the tsunami when it hits land. In the case of Trump’s election, the political geography of America was perfectly shaped to amplify the tsunami, maximizing its impact on just about every part of society. Long existing racial tensions have erupted over the last two years covering everything from white nationalist marches in Charlottesville, Virginia to bitter fights over Muslim and Latin American immigrants. America has been forced to come to grips with a culture of paternalism and misogyny as the ‘Me Too Movement’ found in Donald Trump the tallest lightning rod it could’ve asked for.
The Cold War between environmental and business interests in America became a massacre as decades of regulations and protections were overturned now that corporate interests had the greatest presidential advocate since Herbert Hoover. Everywhere one looked political change that normally accompanied a shift in which party controlled the White House had become the complete eradication of previous norms and policies. And underlying all this was the reality that the new president was also the most polarizing personality in the modern history of American politics. The practical result was that while the water has been steadily receding from “the swamp”, everyone has missed it as the indicator of something much larger than a Blue Wave.
What Trump referred to as the “draining of the swamp” has taken place, just not as a result of his own misguided beliefs. American politics has never really been affected by waves, it has always been the tsunamis that define our history. The swamp is indeed draining, in much the same way it has in the years preceding other midterm elections. There is always a struggle for new presidents as they uncover or adjust for the mistakes of the previous president, while simultaneously making their own. This is accompanied by some release of noxious odor as Americans discover the political processes that guide the country, and Trump is certainly not the first president to blame that odor on his predecessor. President’s don’t drain the swamp, especially not with some master plan to turn it into a grassy meadow of ethics and rationality. When the swampy flats of Washington DC are exposed it is because the tsunami of another political change is coming. And just like with a real tsunami, the more the water recedes exposing areas that no one ever sees the bigger the actual tsunami and its potential destruction will be. Unfortunately, this is also the point at which some people become victims because they are caught standing on exposed flats looking for waves when they should be running from the impending tsunami.
Stage IV: Run-up
The final stage of a tsunami is called run-up and is defined as the point on land at which the tsunami wave peaks. Tsunamis are comprised of several large waves with the first one often not being the largest. The most critical difference between tsunamis and regular waves are there dimensions. The ratio between a normal wave’s height and width is small so that once a wave crests most of its force has been spent. Tsunamis on the other hand are much wider with upwards of a half of kilometer of water pushing an individual tsunami wave. There was in fact a blue wave of sorts during the midterm election, but it must be recognized as the approaching face of a Blue Tsunami.
There were indeed some significant changes and new opportunities for Democrats and liberals that resulted from the midterms. But Trump’s subsequent news conferences, firing of Jeff sessions, and appointment of Matthew Whitaker as the interim Attorney General only confirm just how much of the swamp is still exposed. It also confirms that there are still larger tsunami waves to come. The midterms represented that first return of water to the exposed salt flats, the one that creates excitement and anxiety amongst those that came to see what was going on. The next wave however will be much larger and will take the form of the Mueller Report.
The one constant of the Trump administration has been a ceaseless news cycle that provides white noise to drown out longer-term perspectives and analyses. It has worked in this way to divert the attention away from the fact that Robert Mueller’s investigation of potential Russian collusion will impact American political culture to an even greater degree than the Pentagon Papers did. The difference this time will be that the resulting wave of anger will be channeled and focused at one individual instead of at the entire government. It will be based upon an in-depth investigation of his behaviors, behaviors we have all experienced in real-time, instead of an analysis of broad historical decisions and policies made by a web of different administrations. And just like a tsunami, there will still be more waves after that one. Income tax returns, subpoenas from the House of Representatives, and testimony in the Stormy Daniels case are just a few of the tsunamis building on the horizon. And all of them will blue.
Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.