The political class needed something to explain away the disorientations and discomforts they experienced during Donald Trump’s run for the presidency and his successful ascension to the White House. It retreated to a comforting mantra: “This is not normal.” They were right. The campaign and the presidency were dominated by unprecedented scandals both frivolous and weighty—and by the president’s often canny and creative, but more frequently offensive and destabilizing, contempt for staid convention.
But the liberal and leftist reaction was abnormal as well. Trump was pursued for three years by the media, Democrats, and an independent counsel on the basis of a ludicrous theory that he was the agent of a foreign power. Later, Trump would attempt to leverage American foreign-policy power to create trouble for the Democratic politician he correctly believed posed the greatest threat to his reelection. That misbehavior led to a norm-violating wild overreaction by his partisan rivals in the form of a pointless impeachment proceeding that itself proved so embarrassing that the Democrats who insisted on doing it spent the rest of 2020 pretending it had never taken place.
Finally, the time came for Trump and the Democrats to face the judgment of the electorate. And to quote the words spoken by the aghast Prince at the end of Romeo and Juliet, in the election of 2020, “all are punished.”
Trump lost. And so, astonishingly, did his pursuers. Joe Biden had a triumph. The Democratic Party has a disaster. How this came to be is the story of the single term of the Trump presidency.
TRUMP’S ELECTION in 2016 was an ominous portent for Democrats who thought they had their Republican rivals largely figured out. No longer. For here was a Republican president who ran against conservative orthodoxies and was well positioned to outflank Democrats by appropriating their populist economic program for himself. But Trump did not want to triangulate. He wanted to agitate. Rather than putting Democrats on the defensive by appropriating one of their favored causes—such as public spending on infrastructure—Trump went for the culture war. His first order of business was a bungled executive order banning travel from several predominantly Muslim countries. The chaos it unleashed shocked even the president’s supporters. American citizens were detained at airports. Families were separated by border officials. His first act as president fomented a rebellion in America’s streets and airports, showing in chrysalis the formidable block of grassroots opposition growing against him—and alienating Democrats who might have been tempted to work with him. Ultimately, a federal judge’s injunction ensured that this order wouldn’t even go into effect. This ill-considered sop to the president’s narrow base of committed supporters was no anomaly. It was a sign of things to come.
Another sign was the way in which Trump successfully engineered a revolution within the Republican Party. All presidents remake the party they control in their own image, but Trump was innovative. The GOP was in charge of both congressional chambers, and rather than use that fact to his policy advantage, he went in for scorched-earth civil war. He spent the first two years in office chasing his conservative critics out of Washington. He ensured that Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker would refuse to run for reelection by making clear his loathing for them and the fact that he would support a primary challenger who bent the knee for him. And his refusal to pursue long-standing conservative policy aims helped drive House Speaker Paul Ryan—a former vice-presidential nominee and the most respected Republican in Washington within his party—out of politics altogether.
In the process, veteran Republicans were rendered impotent, and insurgents who mirrored the president in affect and comportment took the lead. The GOP was no longer the party of the right but the party of Trump. Given the president’s relative unpopularity, this was always a risky bet electorally—although it did spare him having to deal with a party rump hostile to him, which Jimmy Carter had faced after his unconventional run and victory in 1976. Still, the electoral signals the GOP received from voters in the presidency’s first two years were bleak.
Special elections to replace the members of Congress now serving in the administration were often closer than the partisan dynamics of their respective regions should have allowed. A July 2017 election to replace then Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price in Georgia’s sixth congressional district—a dominion eight points more Republican than Democratic and that has no business being competitive—became the focus of national attention. The Democrat, Jon Ossoff, raised over $30 million and came within two points.
In the race to replace then Office of Budget and Management Director Mick Mulvaney in South Carolina’s fifth district, Democrat Archie Parnell came within three points of his Republican opponent despite the district’s nine-point GOP lean. Ultimately, Democrats enjoyed the most unlikely of successes in Alabama. A primary to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the U.S. Senate devolved into a contest to see which candidate could most convincingly mimic Trump’s irascibility, producing a truly unpalatable nominee: the notorious Roy Moore, who had chased teenage girls around malls in his 30s. Even in dark-red Alabama, this was a bridge too far, and the state elected its first Democrat to the Senate since 1992.
The Republican Party passed little in the way of transformative legislation in the 115th Congress that could have fomented a political backlash. Indeed, the Congress was remarkable more for what it couldn’t do—namely, repeal and replace Barack Obama’s health-care-reform law. Its most revolutionary act was to tinker with marginal income and corporate tax rates, a reform that voters were not especially enthusiastic about but that never generated the kind of white-hot, galvanizing passion that Obamacare produced in 2010. Things were going Trump’s way by conventional measures. By the late spring of 2018, the unemployment rate had declined to under 4 percent for the first time since 2000, the stock market surged at a pace unseen in seven years, and the GDP grew in the second quarter by a healthy 4.1 percent.
By rights, neither the fundamental nor the political conditions forecast a rebuke for the GOP. The only circumstance similar to the shellacking Democrats experienced in Barack Obama’s first midterm election in 2010 was Trump’s omnipresence in American life.
And that was all it took.
On Election Day 2018, 53 percent of the voting-age population turned out, the highest participation rate in a midterm election in percentage terms since 1914. Turnout skewed a staggering 8.6 percent more Republican than Democratic, and voters retired 42 House Republicans. It was the largest Democratic gain in the House in a single cycle since the 1974 elections, which took place in the shadow of Watergate.
The GOP retained control of the Senate, but two Republican incumbents lost, and the GOP was left with a mere two-seat majority. Democrats overperformed at the local level in the three states that gave Trump his presidency. They swept races in Michigan and Pennsylvania and denied Governor Scott Walker a third term in Wisconsin. The signs for the GOP ahead of the 2020 elections were dire.
But though 2018 produced a hollowed-out Republican Party, Trump’s limited appeal wasn’t the only signal that voters sent to Washington. It was just the only signal that was heeded. This would prove an oversight Democrats would come to regret.
THE NEW Democratic House majority was welcomed as a great progressive triumph—a sign that the public had at last warmed to a grand reimagining of the American social compact the left had been retailing for so long. The spotlight was fixed on the Democratic caucus’s freshman members, particularly its young progressive women: Repsresentatives Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But lost in the glare of their celebrity were the progressives who failed in 2018—and there were a lot of them.
Of the nine key races National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar and Data Progress Founder Sean McElwee compiled to gauge progressive strength at the polls, Democrats won only one in California’s Orange County—and just barely. In Arizona, gubernatorial candidate David Garcia ran on a statewide single-payer health-care scheme, “debt-free” college, and an energy plan that would “double down on solar.” He lost. In Maryland, former NAACP chief Ben Jealous sought the governor’s mansion on a similar platform, adding that he would end “the era of mass incarceration.” He lost, too. Scott Wallace, the grandson of Communist sympathizer Henry Wallace, whose own anti-Israel activism often crossed the line into unambiguous anti-Semitism, cost his party a key swing district in the Philadelphia suburbs. California House candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar, whose campaign had hinged on making access to health care “a right,” somehow managed to lose a race against a Republican incumbent facing a criminal indictment. And, most famously, Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke and Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams—two progressive darlings who raised absurd amounts of money and whose cultural footprints extended well beyond the borders of their states—fell short.
For anyone willing to hear it, the message couldn’t have been clearer: In swing districts and once rock-ribbed Republican states now trending a bit more Democratic, out-and-out progressivism just wasn’t a winning posture. But the Democratic Party was already too invested in its image makeover to give up on it.
Throughout 2019, Democrats continued to hold their own in the few off-year elections. They took control of the governor’s mansion in Kentucky and held on to one in Louisiana. But Donald Trump’s fortunes improved throughout the year as the economy grew at a steady pace, the jobless rate fell to a 50-year low, and the Democratic presidential primary race came into sharper focus.
Trump remained a deeply divisive figure, but the landscape Democrats would have to navigate in 2020 began to look increasingly challenging. Yet even as the political topography grew more rugged, most Democrats pitched their appeal to their voters and their voters alone—by promising them untenable and unpopular progressive policy changes. Throughout the year, Democrats devoted their presidential campaigns to an endless bidding war over who could champion both cultural and economic progressivism the loudest.
There were fanciful plans for redesigning all of American economic and social life to combat climate change. Democratic voters had dangled before their hungry eyes such things as taxpayer-funded college, a government-provided basic-income program, a federal employment guarantee, and the removal of almost all obstacles in the path of prospective illegal immigrants—including the dissolution of federal border-enforcement agencies. Democrats and their allies in the media spent weeks resurrecting the supposed virtues of forced school busing, a policy so wildly unpopular it had been largely abandoned four decades earlier. And, of course, almost all candidates promised to nationalize health insurance and replace private industry with a $32 trillion government program.
All, that is, except Joe Biden. The eventual Democratic Party standard-bearer refused to be drawn into this self-destructive contest. For every vote his circumspection might have cost him with progressives, Biden more than compensated by winning over the party’s less revolutionary constituencies—African Americans, most notably. His victory in the primary might eventually have convinced most Democrats to fall in line behind their nominee in his non-radicalism. But the demonic year of 2020 would have surprises and negative consequences for everyone.
DONALD TRUMP was a supremely lucky president throughout his first three years. The world did not visit any crises upon him the way it had on Barack Obama, who had an unexpected challenge every year—an oil spill, a hurricane, the rise of ISIS. But then his luck ran out, and spectacularly so, in the form of a once-in-a-century global pandemic.
Almost all American social and economic life was forced into suspended animation, and the strong economy descended into a deep recession. The conditions that had substantively improved American lives over the course of the Trump years disappeared in a flash, and Democrats suddenly had something to say to combat Trump’s advantage on the economy. But the progressives Biden had ejected in the primaries and who had never forgiven him for it were not done with their nominee yet. They got their chance to mount a counterattack when the earth shifted a second time in 2020.
In Minneapolis, the arrest-related killing of George Floyd at the hands of police set off a chain of events culminating in a nationwide outpouring of outrage at the perception that black Americans suffer unduly at the hands of authority figures. But that outpouring quickly evolved into an astonishingly violent expression of outrage at American institutions across the board. According to a Princeton University–backed study, the weeks that followed Floyd’s killing featured riots in at least 220 American municipalities. And in many of those cities and towns, especially progressive-dominated major urban centers, local authorities took a dangerously hands-off approach to policing this activity. In some cases, they even accommodated it. Peaceful demonstrations were peppered with subversives. Marchers adopted slogans attacking police in the crassest of terms and, at times, the United States itself (as was the case in places such as Oakland and Brooklyn, where demonstrators chanted “death to America”). Democrats elided the distinctions between the reformers and the insurgents in the streets, insisting that the protest movement was a wholly virtuous expression of patriotism.
Public and private interests around the country embraced the horrifying precepts of Critical Race Theory, calling for the re-education of America in the language of wokeness by stigmatizing such concepts as “rugged individualism,” “a can-do attitude,” “politeness,” “the nuclear family structure,” and “delayed gratification.” These, we were told, were the detestable attitudes associated with “whiteness.”
The liberals who governed major American cities sought to provide their aggrieved residents with relief by handcuffing and even liquidating their local police forces or, barring that, cordoning off sections of their cities and consigning them to anarchy.
The onset of the pandemic played into Biden’s negative strengths, the same ones that helped him win the nomination—once again, he could be what his rival was not. It allowed him to lay low, avoid the press, and let Donald Trump absorb all the negative attention he so often created for himself. Biden existed as a generic and hypothetical alternative to Trump—not a three-dimensional human being with strengths, faults, and policy preferences worthy of scrutiny. Thus, the Biden campaign transformed the election into an up-or-down referendum on the president at a time when the fundamentals of this race had turned against him.
With some fluctuations, the polling only got better for Biden as the instability surrounding the pandemic was compounded by the instability involving ongoing violence in American streets. There were few outward signs that the Democratic Party’s leftward drift over the course of 2020 was going to have any effect on the elections at any level. It was assumed, therefore, that voters had soured on Trump and everything in his orbit to such a degree that the electorate was no longer persuadable.
It wasn’t until Election Day that we saw precisely how wrong that assumption was.
On November 3, the “blue wave” that had long been forecast crashed over the American political landscape. That forecast completely missed the reciprocal and commensurate red wave—a pro-Republican tide that collided with and neutralized many of the advantages that Democrats supposedly enjoyed. The result was a most unanticipated set of events that left Republicans in a far better position than they could have honestly imagined.
In the end, and although it took several days to tally the votes, Donald Trump lost his bid for reelection. But it was not the blowout the polls had presaged. As of this writing, Biden has won by 3.7 points, well below the final Real Clear Politics average, which had shown the former vice president up by 7.2 points on Election Day. Trump beat expectations set by FiveThirtyEight’s averages of the polls in every swing state save Arizona. He improved on his 2016 performance with key demographics—notably urban voters, minorities, and particularly Hispanics, as evidenced by his surprisingly strong showing in places such as Miami and along the Rio Grande. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the highest vote share of any winning ticket since George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis, but that is attributable to record-setting turnout in places that were already in their Electoral College pockets. Much like Trump’s 2016 election, which had depended on his winning 77,000 perfectly distributed votes in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, Joe Biden will owe his presidency to 120,000 or so similarly well-allocated votes in Wisconsin, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia.
Despite his improved margins around the edges, Trump failed to re-create the coalition that sent him to the White House in 2016. He lost the three Upper Midwest states he had taken from Democrats four years ago (while retaining Ohio and Florida), and he gave up some traditionally Republican ground as well. The repudiation voters meted out to Trump was unmistakable.
But Democrats had little beyond that White House victory to celebrate. They began Election Day with the expectation they would easily pick up two Republican-held Senate seats—Cory Gardner’s in Colorado and Martha McSally’s in Arizona. Everyone believed that the GOP would take back the Senate seat in Alabama. Beyond that, seven GOP-leaning open seats or Republican incumbents were viewed as winnable by Democrats. For Republicans to preserve their majority, they would have to hold every single one. If you believed the polling, such an outcome was wildly improbable. But that is exactly what happened. In the end, Republicans held on to vulnerable seats in Maine, Montana, Iowa, North Carolina, and South Carolina, beating expectations almost across the board.
It didn’t get any better for Democrats further down the ballot. The GOP was expected to lose between 10 and 20 seats because, as the elections expert David Wasserman said, history has shown us that “toss-ups tend to break disproportionately towards the party on offense.” So much for history. On Election Day, the GOP ended the night with a net gain in the House.
As of this writing, Republicans control 203 House seats out of the 435 total. Republicans retained or are leading in all 27 of the races Cook Political Report rated as toss-ups prior to Election Day, and they made inroads in districts that were supposed to be outside their reach. Polling analyst Patrick Ruffini estimates that GOP House candidates ran an average of 3.1 points better than the president did in their districts. More tellingly, House Democrats managed to underperform Joe Biden’s raw vote totals across the country by a full 1.6 points. GOP candidates benefited from Trump’s ability to turn out the party’s base voters in rural areas, but Republican candidates also outperformed the president in the cities and suburbs.
No one saw it coming; the GOP didn’t make a significant effort to contest House races in South Florida, and even so, two Democratic members lost seats they had taken away from Republicans in 2018. Nor can progressives easily dismiss all this as the contemptuous last gasp of white, male grievance. If the exit polling is even close to right, Republican candidates owe their strengths to a diverse coalition of voters and the Democratic Party’s failure to re-create the anti-GOP suburban revolt of 2018. What’s more, as the Republican Leadership Fund’s Dan Conston observed, “every single seat Republicans flipped was won by a woman, a minority, or a veteran.” If the party’s candidates win in every race where they are currently ahead, the GOP will end up with a 214-seat minority—just shy of the 218 needed for a majority, when it had been thought they would begin the next Congress down at least 40 and maybe even as much 50. Ultimately, House Democrats may enter the 117th Congress with a majority of only three members.
The victory with the most practical significance, perhaps, was not about who will control Washington over the next couple of years. In 2021, the states will begin the decennial process of redrawing their legislative districts to comport with the findings of the 2020 census. After the Republican Party’s stunning rebound from its post-2008 nadir in the 2010 midterms, their dominance at the state level helped the GOP cement its victories into lasting majorities. The Democrats were expected to turn the tables on the Republican Party in 2020, win races across the board, and redraw America’s maps to ensure that the ’20s would be a Democratic decade. “Ominously for Republicans,” wrote Cook Political Report’s Louis Jacobson in late October, “the GOP holds 14 of the 19 vulnerable chambers on our list. This suggests that the Democrats are well-positioned to net up to a half-dozen new chambers this fall.”
Once again, Republicans shattered expectations. Across the country, Republicans increased their legislative majorities. As it stands, the GOP netted 79 new seats in state Houses and Assemblies. In state Senates, Republicans earned a net gain of three seats over their Democratic counterparts. Far from losing up to 19 legislative chambers, the GOP actually gained control in places such as New Hampshire—a state Donald Trump lost by seven points.
On the eve of reapportionment, Republicans are now in a better position than they were after 2010. Following those elections, Republicans controlled 54 of 99 state legislative chambers (Nebraska’s legislature is unicameral). They now control 61. After 2010, Republicans had total control over state-level government in 23 states to the Democrats’ 15. A decade later, little is changed. Once again, Republicans have total control over state government in 23 states to the Democrats’ 15.
The race for control of the U.S. Senate now falls to Georgia, where both of that state’s Senate seats will be contested in runoff elections in January. Those races will become referenda on whether Democrats in the House and in the White House should be checked by a Republican-led Senate. That is likely to be a resonant message in a Republican-leaning state where Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff underperformed Joe Biden by 1.5 points.
What can be said of a race in which the incumbent president is defenestrated but voters also see fit to reward his party with increased political influence? Simply this: The voters executed a precision strike. This was not a repudiation of Trumpism or, more accurately, populist nationalism. It was not a vote of confidence in the Democratic program as an alternative to Republican governance. Voters with wildly different political philosophies turned out to excise Donald Trump surgically from the American political scene while doing as little collateral damage to his surroundings as possible.
To Democrats who are willing to understand what voters were telling them, this election—one in which their party held the House and won the White House—seems to feel a bit like a loss. There’s a reason for that.
Pending the results of Georgia’s runoff elections, Biden will enter office as the first president since 1988 without his party in control of the Senate. With the understanding that the Senate Republican conference wields a veto over who serves in this administration, Biden’s team has reportedly been forced to retool their transition plans. According to Axios’s reporting, they know they must appoint nominees that Republican Senate leader “Mitch McConnell can live with.” Joe Biden will be a weak president without a well-defined agenda and no coattails, so his party’s loyalties to him will be shallow. Any legislative accomplishments in Biden’s first 100 days (or after, for that matter) will be leavened with compromise.
All this is to say that progressives are going to be deeply unsatisfied with the Biden administration. Indeed, they already are. “It’s good that Donald Trump lost,” the far-left opinion journal Jacobin conceded. “But the Left now needs to pivot immediately to opposition to the Joe Biden administration.” It is revealing that their resolve to deny Biden a honeymoon ignores the real obstacles before their agenda: the voters who returned Republican incumbents to office in unanticipated numbers.
The left’s frustration is understandable. Their hopes for a radical transformation of the institutions and conventions that govern American life are dashed. There will be no end to the filibuster, no packing of the Supreme Court, and no leveraging of the crisis brought about by the pandemic to reinvent the American civic compact. Say goodbye to the Green New Deal, a Universal Basic Income, “debt-free” college, single-payer health care, or half a dozen other big ideas that loomed ominously over American heads.
Donald Trump is gone, but so, too, is the myth of progressive ascendancy. With all this in mind, conventional Democrats seem prepared to prosecute the case against the radicals in their midst whose celebrity they once found so useful. In a post-election call with members of the House Democratic caucus, Virginia Representative Abigail Spanberger set the tone: “Don’t say socialism ever again,” she yelled, according to Washington Post congressional reporter Erica Werner. Spanberger, who barely survived in a Republican-leaning district, added that progressive activists who demanded the defunding of local police forces almost cost the party her seat, and “if we run this race again, we will get f***ing torn apart again in 2022.”
Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, later confirmed these sentiments in an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press. Slogans like “defund the police,” he admitted, were effectively wielded against Democrats across the country, and progressives who salve their wounds by insisting that only moderate Democrats lost were deluding themselves. “I believe that it’s good to be conservative at times and in many ways, but it’s also good to be liberal at times, in many ways,” Clyburn conceded. “And so, you have to balance all of this out.”
This is going to be hard for party activists. After Trump’s unexpected strength with Hispanics and the Republican House successes in South Florida, one forlorn constituent asked Democratic Representative Ruben Gallego, “How do we as a party improve our work with the Latinx community?” He replied, “First, start by not using the term ‘Latinx.’” Gallego’s prescription constitutes a repudiation of a host of effete progressive shibboleths about racial and social politics that overwhelmed the party’s pocketbook messages.
In a post-election appearance on CNN, former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang elaborated on the problem. In the minds of the average exurban or rural voters he spoke with on the campaign trail, Yang said, “the Democratic Party, unfortunately, has taken on this role of the coastal urban elites who are more concerned about policing various cultural issues than improving their way of life that has been declining for years.”
Donald Trump’s opponents committed themselves to the notion that he had won only by tapping into dark forces of race hatred and white supremacy. Trump himself believed he had won because he was Donald Trump, and Donald Trump is a winner, and everyone was supposed to fall into line as a result. Over the course of his presidency, both Trump and the anti-Trump forces lost touch with the American people, and the feeling was mutual. The people made them both pay. All are punished.
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