November 6th was a bad night for President Trump, no matter what he says. He now has to deal with a newly empowered opposition party with a mandate to check his myriad abuses and scandals. The rebuke wasn’t as harsh as it needed to be, though.
Trumpism, which is essentially short for “espousing racism,” continued to score well with the president’s base. Paired with the flaws in our democracy that help maintain white political power, it diluted a Democratic victory that should have been more absolute. Trumpism likely helped some Republicans hold off insurgent candidacies that would have otherwise taken them down.
Ron DeSantis, who articulated no real platform other than “I’m with Trump,” warned Florida voters not to “monkey this up” by electing his African-American opponent, Andrew Gillum, as governor. In Georgia, Republican gubernatorial nominee Brian Kemp shamelessly used his powers as the state’s top elections official to suppress the black vote. The day before the election, he tweeted a false story about armed New Black Panther Party members intimidating voters on opponent Stacey Abrams’ behalf. Those outcome of those elections are still up in the air, but California GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter, whose August indictment should have doomed his incumbency, turned to openly Islamophobic slander against his half-Mexican/half-Palestinian opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar. It worked.
Catering to bigotry gave these candidates something to run on in lieu of a policy platform. That approach may work for Trump heading into 2020, because he’s Trump and there’s an unshakable cult of personality around him. But is his brand of racism a sustainable strategy for the Republican Party?
“I think it was a 55-45 night in the direction of the Democrats,” says Anand Giridharadas, journalist and author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. “A sizable part of the country repudiated racism, demagogy, sexism, corruption, the abuse of power and demi-competent authoritarianism. The other way to read the results is that 45 percent is too damn high. A wanna-be tyrant like Donald Trump should not poll in the double digits in American life, and we’re not safe until he doesn’t anymore.”
Trump, who probably feels that he should poll in the triple digits, openly mocked the newly ousted Carlos Curbelo, a Republican congressman from Miami, for not running with Trumpism — “You had some who decided, ‘Let’s stay away, let’s stay away.’ They did very poorly,” Trump taunted. The midterms showed the GOP is still beholden to the president, but whether or not Trumpism will ultimately serve the party well is up for debate.
“It worked, I suppose, but not really better than the more mainstream Republican campaigns that worked before it,” Princeton historian Kevin Kruse tells Rolling Stone. “Meanwhile, look at all the candidates who were incredibly Trumpist and had horrible nights.”
Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state known for cloaking voter suppression in quests to root out nonexistent voter fraud, lost his race for governor. Scott Walker lost the governor’s seat in Wisconsin. Longtime Iowa Congressman Steve King, who has repeatedly been associated with groups with white-nationalist sympathies, was almost too bigoted to get reelected. Almost.
But as we move toward 2020, the vitriol and discriminatory policies are likely to get worse before they get better.
“One of the fundamental lurches taken toward the far right was the deployment of the military in a domestic election,” says law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw of Trump gratuitously sending troops to defend the border from an immigrant caravan hundreds of miles away. “His ability to do it without significant political costs — and with virtual silence from Republicans — is a terrifying development. What happens when the inevitable unrest and protest against Trumpism grow? There’s little question in my mind that the lines between legitimate uses of force for security and the use to suppress dissent has been crossed.”
Pairing corrosive politics with a presidency that will now see its policies blockaded and its officials investigated by Congress means that we are likely to see Trump lash out with even more cruelty. So what do Democrats do?
While there were a litany of firsts on Election Day worth celebrating — more than 100 women elected to Congress for the first time, including the youngest woman, the first two Muslim women and the first two Native American women — this is a country that maintains antipathy toward leadership that isn’t white and male. “This is race-conscious political realignment,” Crenshaw says, “and if our institutions don’t learn how to resist it, then the Democrats won’t be able to marshal the forces needed to fight back.” Crenshaw added that Democrats will need to mobilize the marginalized more effectively, as candidates like Stacey Abrams have worked purposefully to do. “This will be hard to do, but the handwriting is on the wall.”
One thing is for sure: Democrats in this era need leaders who can pave a path for America to march past — or through — Trumpism. Shine a light in states like Texas, Florida and Georgia, even if your headliner candidates lose. If Abrams and Gillum inspire the Democratic Party to run more candidates of color who have lived experience with the consequences of a racist state, then all the better. If Beto O’Rourke’s loss to Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas can be seen as an exercise in building the party in a purpling conservative heartland, then all the better.
By taking the House, the Democrats should be able to mitigate the damage Trump can do legislatively. Whether they have an effective message to counter the bigotry that helped put him in the Oval Office is the question that may decide the presidency. As Crenshaw says, “Trumpism is no longer a dog whistle. It is a bullhorn.” We cannot afford to plug our ears.