History will probably log the 2012 election as the last time Republicans presented voters with anything resembling an honest statement of its post-Reagan era governing priorities. Defeat that year confronted them with what most observers interpreted as a choice between offering less reactionary economic policies (fewer tax cuts for the rich, less anti-welfare nihilism) or softening their hostility to immigrants (legalization of immigrants, no more self-deportation).
Instead, they embraced Trumpism, which aims to smuggle the Chamber of Commerce’s policy agenda into law beneath an overlay of toxic racism and xenophobia.
That the ploy “worked,” and Donald Trump became president of the United States, amounts to a national error that can’t be erased, but not necessarily one that can’t be corrected.
The Democratic Party’s off-year election wave Tuesday night could come to represent the moment when the political world awoke to the idea that the Trump experiment can’t be easily replicated. Democrats swept races statewide in Virginia and flipped the governorship of New Jersey. They expanded Medicaid by ballot initiative to tens of thousands of citizens in Maine and, if the Virginia legislature turns blue, they might ultimately expand Medicaid to hundreds of thousands more as well.
Ralph Northam’s decisive victory in the Virginia governor’s race over Ed Gillespie—a corporate lobbyist whose race-baiting campaign embodied Trump’s Republicanism—is the test case that should truly trouble the GOP. His nine point margin in that contest, larger than any Democrat has enjoyed there in decades, represents the most straightforward and consequential rejection of Trumpism we’ve seen all year. The magnitude of the Democrats’ success represents a windfall not just for liberal politics and the Democratic Party, but for social cohesion and the ideal of pluralism that Trump has tried to stamp out. The only question now is whether Democrats replicate this showing in subsequent elections, or grow complacent and let Trumpism regain its footing.
In the article I wrote previewing Tuesday’s election, I noted that for all its historical significance Trump’s victory one year ago was ambiguous as a referendum on grievance-driven, white-ethnonationalist politics. Trump lost the popular vote by a significant margin, and only won the presidency thanks to the assistance of the Russian government and the FBI director. He ran against a weakened Democratic candidate who carried decades worth of political baggage, and managed to exploit the fact that his liabilities (boorishness, corruption, ignorance, racism, sex crimes) were too numerous for any one of them to define him.
There’s only one Donald Trump, of course, and even after his election last year, few Republicans behaved quite as disgracefully as he does. But Gillespie tried. In worshiping confederate monuments and vilifying non-whites generally, he did his best to approximate the politics of his party’s president.
Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, the keeper of the Trumpist flame, praised Gillepsie earlier this week for “clos[ing] an enthusiasm gap by rallying around the Trump agenda.”
“In Gillespie’s case,” Bannon added, “Trumpism without Trump can show the way forward. If that’s the case, Democrats better be very, very worried.”
It was not the case. To the contrary, Gillespie’s failure was comprehensive. The nativist controversies he fabricated and injected into the campaign did little but rile the passions of a shrinking base of aggrieved whites. The economic and social issues that have animated Republican politics since Trump won (uninsuring millions of working class people, pro-gun absolutism) galvanized Democrats to vote for their candidate in far greater numbers, dealing Republicans a historic defeat.
Trumpism with Trump may have been a fluke, but Trumpism without Trump was a total dud.
To the extent that Tuesday’s results deter Republicans from replicating Gillespie’s game plan, it will have saved the country from another crisis in which whistlestop racism sweeps the country and poisons our civic culture all over again. If Republicans continue to resign from Congress, and Democrats repeat their Tuesday night performance a year from now, Trump will face real accountability and the tide of illiberalism he unleashed will be halfway reversed. What Republicans choose to do if and when they realize the Reaganite and the Trumpist pathways are closed to them is anyone’s guess.
But Tuesday’s show of force guarantees nothing. Political passions ebb and flow. And if Democrats now satisfy themselves with the notion that 2016 was a fluke, and the hard work of discrediting Trumpism is done, those passions will not favor Democrats so clearly a year from now.