Last night’s emphatic win for Democrats across the country (highlights here) was a badly needed windfall for what looked like a broken party. It was also the best evidence yet that a Trump backlash is in full effect across America. That alone isn’t very remarkable—off-year and midterm backlashes against sitting presidents are practically a national tradition—it happened to Obama, it happened to Bush, it happened to Clinton. But it’s the nature and diversity of the victories, encompassing different regions, different candidates, and different leftist ideologies, that spells out a huge warning to Republicans. It may not be crystal clear to everyone yet, but the writing is on the wall—Donald Trump has unwittingly destroyed his party, and will go down as the greatest electoral gift to Democrats in our country’s history.
Trump’s toxicity to his own party can be broken down into three areas of permanent damage:
Ed Gillespie, Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, adopted Trump’s aggressive populist strategy, complete with racist attacks, in the final month of his race against Ralph Northam. Previously, he had enjoyed a reputation as a relative moderate in the GOP, but after a serious scare against an avowed Trumper in the primary and bad polling in the general, he rolled the dice and entered the dark side. In other words, he went full #MAGA. Trump threw his support behind Gillespie, but it didn’t work—Northam won by a higher margin than most expected. Here’s how Trump reacted to Gillespie’s loss:
So much for loyalty, huh? Trump threw him under the bus so fast and so hard that Gillespie will spend the rest of his life scraping the tire tracks off his face. But that’s our president in a nutshell; there’s nothing he hates more than a loser, and he’ll distance himself from anyone that threatens to sully his reputation in a heartbeat. HIs tweet about Gillespie should be instructive for Republican politicians hoping to gain his favor in the future—huddling under the Trump umbrella comes with an enormous price. Screw up, and you’ll be out in the cold before you can blink away the tears.
This is not the first indication of Trump’s fickle allegiances, of course—Congressional Republicans have long looked at Trump with wariness, and the leaks inside his own White House prove the point that fealty to the chief is not a quality anyone takes seriously. Why would they, when it comes with no reward?
Conversely, Trump has inspired tremendous loyalty in Democrats. And Democrats are not otherwise getting along very well! This is a party, you may have noticed, that is mired in internecine squabbles, and it seems as though animosity between the center and the left has only grown since 2016, with both sides blaming each other for Clinton’s loss. And yet, against all odds, there was almost total unity last night. The anti-Trump wave brought the warring factions together for a larger purpose—Democrats in diverse regions elected candidates up and down the spectrum, from progressive DSA pariahs to trans women to avowed white centrists to black progressives to brown-skinned children of immigrants to anti-death penalty DAs.
These same voters will go back to their infighting in a week, but for one night, they were galvanized by opposition to the Trump agenda—nothing mattered more. And this is an unmitigated disaster for Republicans, who count on Democratic divisions to win elections—it was critical, in fact, in Trump’s own victory against Clinton. The fact that progressives and centrists and everyone else managed to unite for a single cause proves that Trump has woken a sleeping giant in the American left.
Prior to the 2016 election, the vast majority of American liberals were content to stay on the periphery of the country’s politics, showing up in droves for presidential elections while ceding state and local elections to the GOP. This is why, even as they elected Barack Obama twice, Democrats suffered unimaginable losses in the House, in state legislatures, in governorships, and in various other down-ballot races. They had the numbers, but Republicans had the political savvy—even with a black man in the White House, the GOP had the country in a death grip.
It took a candidate like Donald Trump, who eschewed the norms of surface-level political civility and verbalized what his base was actually thinking, to scare the American Democrats into awareness. By defeating Hillary Clinton, he set an extraordinary process into motion. More Americans on the left are politically active today than ever before, and it’s because they sense a real and imminent danger to their country. Those mild-mannered liberals who felt content on the sidelines before 2016 have been energized (and, frankly, terrified) by Trump’s vision, and have begun to actually learn how the system works. The era of Republican control on the small scale is coming at an end, as last night’s unprecedented turnout proved—Democrats are taking problems like gerrymandering, voter suppression, and a variety of local issues seriously in a way they’ve never done before.
It is becoming tougher and tougher for Republicans to rig the system, for the simple fact that they depend on leftist ignorance. It’s hard to operate in the shadows when politics in America are under a constant, glaring spotlight. For the first time, liberals understand the parameters of the battle they face, and have also arrived at two important realizations: their policies are more popular, and they hold a numerical advantage. There’s power in that knowledge. This is a calamity for Republicans, and they have nobody to blame but Trump—where political ignorance was once considered irrelevant, now it’s viewed on the left as a civic failing. From national to state to local, the left understands the issues better than ever before, and the shroud of secrecy Republicans count on to pursue their agenda has been set aflame.
This is the biggest problem of all for the GOP—for decades, they’ve held together a disparate coalition of voters that have no business supporting the same party. By using dog whistle rhetoric to exploit racism and other polarizing issues in the country (see: abortion, gay marriage, immigration, Islamophobia), they’ve managed to hold onto a liberal-hating populist base while working against that base’s economic interests to serve corporations and the wealthy. But the “dog whistle” strategy requires subtlety, and Trump has forever destroyed subtlety. He has, in fact, bashed it to death with a meat tenderizer. As Paste’s Jake Weindling put it last night, he has “replaced Nixon’s dog whistles with bullhorns and now there’s nowhere for the Paul Ryans to hide.”
That’s just it—by bringing bigotry and racism and angry populism out into the open, Trump has ruined the fun for the dog whistlers. We no longer live in a world where a bloodless corporate player like Scott Walker or Mitt Romney has a prayer of winning a presidential primary, and even on the state and local levels, poor and hyper-partisan right-wing voters are demanding a blunt, unapologetic style that speaks to their core beliefs. Even in 2017, GOP primary results have shown that these voters are wising up to the corporate Republican establishment candidates who seek their vote and offer nothing in return—not even the visceral anger they’ve come to love. Even as their core beliefs get uglier, they become harder to fool. That’s a killer for the GOP, which relies on the appearance of respectability—with a wink to the fervent masses here and there—to win over suburban and middle class voters who skew more moderate.
The catch-22 here is evident—Trump threw blood to the sharks, and they won’t settle for plankton anymore. Republican politicians are now faced with an impossible choice. Do they cater to populist rage, and lose the suburban moderates, or present a respectable facade and lose the far right? Ed Gillespie made his choice in Virginia by kowtowing to the populists, and got absolutely decimated in the suburbs. It cost him the election. But if he had stayed “respectable,” polls showed that he was still going to lose, because he couldn’t energize the populist base. What’s a conservative to do?
Essentially, Republicans dominated for decades because they could have their cake and eat it too. By blowing the dog whistle to smithereens, Trump has ruined their fun and created a deep rift in the traditional base. If recent results are any indication, it will end up destroying the party.