Without question, January 20 was a depressing day for left-of-center Americans generally, and Democrats in particular. It’s a mistake to sugarcoat that fact, or to minimize the potentially disastrous implications of a President Trump and a radically conservative Republican Congress.
But there is a silver lining for the Donkey Party that could be a lot shinier than depressed Democrats realized when Donald Trump took the oath of office: At that moment, they handed off the terrible political burden of being held responsible for a status quo in Washington and in national life that sizable majorities of citizens simply don’t like.
Even as some Clinton supporters probably could not help thinking of the Inauguration Day they had imagined and expected, they should remember that what they failed to secure was hardly a bowl of cherries. Consider this election-eve tableau from one of the many Doomed Democrats pieces floating around since November 8:
Standing with some 30,000 people in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia the night before the election watching Hillary Clinton speak, exhausted aides were already worrying about what would come next. They expected her to win, of course, but they knew President Clinton was going to get thrashed in the 2018 midterms — the races were tilted in Republicans’ favor, and that’s when they thought the backlash would really hit.
The backlash, that is, to a decade of Democratic control of the White House. The control is gone, and with it, more than likely, the backlash.
For the first time since 2006, Democrats can look forward to midterm elections without a sense of foreboding, given the long history of poor showings in nonpresidential contests for the presidential party. And 2006 itself should offer solace. After all, George W. Bush brought a Republican Congress in with him in 2004 after a campaign in which he barely bothered to appeal to voters beyond his party’s base. Within two years, Karl Rove’s plans for an enduring GOP majority were in shambles, control of Congress was gone, and Bush’s approval ratings were at 40 percent and headed down.
Given the already low popularity of Trump and the GOP — and for that matter, of much of their common agenda — a bad midterm is not at all hard to envision. Yes, the GOP will benefit from a ridiculously positive Senate landscape in 2018. And yes, it will also continue to benefit, at both the U.S. House and state-legislative levels, from the effects of its overwhelming control of the last decennial redistricting cycle (though it’s worth noting the GOP was supposed to have had a “lock” on the House in the last decade, too, until it ended in 2006).
But even if there are factors that might limit Democratic gains in 2018, significant gains are likely. Indeed, the anti–White House sentiment that usually fuels out-party performance in midterms may be compounded two years from now by an underlying anti-Washington mood that could turn on Donald Trump with a special intensity. As one Democratic strategist recently suggested: “All those people who voted for both Obama and Trump look like reliable anti-Washington voters primed to boomerang against the GOP now that the other guys are in charge.”
There is, however, one structural handicap Democrats have recently had in midterms. Their coalition now depends heavily on precisely those voters who have been, since time immemorial, least likely to participate in nonpresidential elections: young and minority voters. Conversely, the Republican base skews older and whiter, and older and whiter voters are disproportionately more likely to show up for midterms. As President Obama recently said: “What I was able to do during my campaigns, I wasn’t able to do during midterms. I didn’t crack the code on that.”
For Democrats, cracking the midterm code more than likely means generating the kind of serious grassroots mojo that will help motivate and then mobilize turnout. And that’s where Inauguration Day and the day just after it offered another bit of potential good news for Democrats: The massive marches and protests we are seeing make the progressive uprising against George W. Bush look like a sandbox temper tantrum. That is only more true after this past weekend and the massive backlash against Trump’s temporary travel ban against seven Muslim countries.
There is nothing about Donald Trump (or Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell) that suggests these protests will go away any time soon. And already, some Democratic thinkers can envision a passionate, if diffuse, grassroots movement emulating the tea party’s success eight years ago in channeling public fear and frustration into pressure on officeholders in both parties and into preparation for the midterms.
Indeed, this could be just what the donkey ordered: a relentless grassroots campaign of resistance to Trump and his allies, combined with a strategically and tactically flexible cadre of Democrats in Congress prepared to wage guerrilla warfare against GOP plans while staying alert to opportunities to exploit GOP divisions. Such divisions (not to mention confusion and disarray) are popping up everywhere, on issues ranging from defense spending to taxes to Obamacare. And the leadership of a lone-wolf eccentric like Donald Trump means they will probably continue to erupt. But even if total partisan war consumes Washington, a campaign of progressive resistance could not but help Democrats turn out their vote in 2018.
Some Democrats worry about the lack of any one national leader. Obviously enough, Republicans didn’t have one either in 2010 or 2014. And in fact, the effectiveness of Democratic resistance to the new regime both in Washington and around the country almost certainly depends on no longer wasting energy on replaying 2016’s contest for national leadership. They should not transfer those divisions into a DNC-chair fight, which is far more damaging than anything that could be gained from having an ideal person in that essentially marginal job (as Theodore White once put it, party chairs are “the fool’s gold of American politics”).
So donkeys would be well advised not to look back, but to realize in this dark hour for their cause, things actually are looking up. If the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency represent not the high point of his strange appeal but the beginning of some sort of pro-right-wing realignment, then progressives have bigger problems than how they do in the next few months or years. But more likely, the turbulent reign of Trump will undo either him or his party, or both, and the next midterms — and perhaps even the off-year elections of 2017, in Virginia and New Jersey — will show that all the obituaries for the doomed Democratic Party are vastly premature. If Americans continue to have a jaundiced view of politics and 21st-century life, the guy who promised to make America great again is probably going to get a healthy portion of the blame.