In April 2016, with Donald Trump on the cusp of clinching the Republican nomination, the Boston Globe published an editorial denouncing the demagogue in the form of a fake front page. To illustrate the horrors that a Trump presidency would bring, the newspaper offered readers this glimpse into their nation’s dystopian near-term future:
Scan the actual front page of any major newspaper — from any day in the past two weeks — and you’ll likely find a portrait of the Trump presidency far darker than the Globe’s speculative fictions.
The final chapter of America’s experiment in kakistocracy has witnessed the 400,000th U.S. death from a pandemic disease whose spread the president actively abetted; an insurrectionary mob storming the Capitol in an attempt to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power (at the president’s behest); a majority of House Republicans proceeding to object to the certification of election results, with some telling reporters that they feared for their families’ safety if they did not do as the mob demanded; state capitals across the country fortifying themselves against a potential Trumpist insurgency; and mass unemployment, small-business bankruptcies, and rates of child hunger unprecedented in America’s modern history.
Even before Trump failed to muster a federal response to the COVID pandemic and incited an insurrection, he had already done much to make 2016’s anti-Trump alarmists look like optimists. By the end of 2019, Trump had proved that the president can, in fact, openly monetize his public power, make personal loyalty to the president an official requirement for leading the Justice Department, promise his lackeys presidential pardons if they refuse to cooperate with investigations that threaten his interests, withhold congressionally approved funds in order to coerce foreign governments into smearing his domestic rivals, commandeer U.S. troops and federal property as campaign props, funnel billions of dollars in relief payments to favored constituencies without congressional authorization, declare the press an “enemy of the people,” accuse the opposition party of orchestrating an invasion of the United States, and dispossess hundreds of thousands of longtime legal U.S. residents, among other things — all without suffering removal from office or criminal indictment.
And yet: For all of the mass death and democratic backsliding we’ve suffered these past four years, America is in far better shape than it might have been. Entrusting an authoritarian con man with the world’s most powerful elective office brought the United States catastrophe, but it has also left us with a historic opportunity for democratic renewal.
We are lucky that Donald Trump started no major wars (thanks, in no small part, to Iranian restraint). We’re lucky that Republicans came a few votes short of throwing millions off of Medicaid. We’re lucky that the GOP’s internal divisions on immigration prevented Trump from inscribing his most xenophobic policies into legislative statute, and, thus, that his nativist legacy is almost entirely revocable by executive fiat. Above all, we are lucky that Trump did not win reelection and that the incoming Democratic government will actually have the power to implement reform.
These last points are worth emphasizing. What Trump’s 2020 coalition lacked in size, it nearly made up for in geographic efficiency. Joe Biden’s 4.4-point margin in the popular vote — and narrow victories in historically red Arizona and Georgia — has obscured just how close the president came to winning a second term. In November, Biden won the tipping-point state of Wisconsin by 0.6 percent, or a little over 20,000 votes. Which means that, had the Democrat won the national vote by “only” 3.7 points, Trump quite likely would have won reelection.
That Biden will actually be able to implement a legislative agenda is even more fortuitous. Thanks to Trump’s consolidation of the white rural vote, the median U.S. state is now roughly 6.6 percent more Republican than the nation as a whole, which gives the GOP a massive advantage in the battle for Senate control. It took one of the largest midterm landslides in history to keep Democrats in contention for the upper chamber this year. In 2018, the party won the House popular vote by over 8 percent, yet lost seats in the Senate, while longtime red-state incumbents like Joe Manchin and Jon Tester barely eked out reelection on the strength of the national environment. Even after salvaging these seats in hostile territory, it took a minor miracle for the party to secure a bare majority in 2020: Had David Perdue received 0.3 percent more votes against Jon Ossoff in November, he would have won more than 50 percent of the vote and thereby averted the runoff that his Democratic challenger won in Georgia earlier this month.
Of course, getting lucky often takes hard work. The Democrats’ triumphs in November 2018 and January 2021 were authored by diligent organizers who sacrificed their nights and weekends to voter-registration drives and to the humbler efforts of Democratic voters who did their civic duty in extraordinary numbers. But, in a perverse way, Trump himself may deserve some credit for the Democrats’ present claim on power.
It’s impossible to know whether a more conventional Republican would have prevailed over Hillary Clinton in 2016, much less how a Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz would have governed had they done so. But it’s worth remembering that the American right was already slouching toward authoritarianism back when “President Trump” was still a Simpsons gag. Before the Capitol Hill insurrection came the Brooks Brothers riot. Before Trump’s ravings about rigged voting machines came George W. Bush’s yearslong quest to drum up evidence of mass voter fraud. Before Trump lauded the “very fine” neo-Nazis of Charlottesville, the congressional GOP fought to stop the Department of Homeland Security from turning its attention to white-nationalist terrorism. Republicans didn’t need Trump’s help to dispute the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s election, drum up xenophobic paranoia about the nation’s burgeoning diversity, adopt voter suppression as a cornerstone of their electoral strategy, or bring the U.S. economy to the brink of debt default in the name of demagogic lies.
No serious contender in the 2016 GOP primary disavowed their party’s illiberal elements. In November 2015, Rubio called for barring further Syrian refugees from the United States, arguing (mendaciously) that crypto-jihadists were smuggling themselves into Western countries by posing as displaced Syrians. By March 2016, Cruz was promising to “empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods.” One could argue that Rubio and Cruz were merely pandering to a base that Trump had riled up. But the conservative movement radicalized Donald Trump before he radicalized it. Two decades ago, the mogul was publicly decrying the demagoguery of Pat Buchanan. He did not introduce illiberalism to the Republican Party. He absorbed its revanchist rage through Fox News binge-watching, then regurgitated it in a more bilious form.
All of which is to say: The American republic would have been in a precarious place by November 2016, even if Trump had remained in the private sector. By winning the GOP nomination — and thereby putting the ugliest possible face on the conservative project — Trump may have ultimately undermined the far right’s long-term prospects. Mainstream news outlets and moderate suburbanites were willing to overlook the GOP’s extremism when the party’s standard-bearers were still buttoned-up country-club worthies well versed in middle-class decorum. Trump made what the party actually stood for impossible for these power centers to ignore. Meanwhile, his celebrity and singular gift for generating sensational controversies helped fuel record-setting Democrat turnout in both 2018 and 2020. Had an authoritarian egotist with a similar feel for the GOP base’s id — but with better manners and self-discipline — conquered the party in 2016, a radically right-wing, anti-democratic party might well boast full control of the federal government today.
My point in raising this counterfactual is not to minimize the unique harms that Trump introduced to our polity, of which there are many (the above considerations notwithstanding, if I had the power to go back in time and make Marco Rubio the 2016 GOP nominee, I would). Rather, the point is that (1) the Republican Party was a threat to multiracial democracy in the U.S. before Trump took office and will remain so after he leaves, and (2) we are very lucky that the mogul’s unique gift for demagoguery, and uniquely shameless contempt for liberal democracy, were paired with equally superlative political liabilities.
We cannot count on remaining so fortunate in the future.
The GOP controls more states than Democrats do and thus will be able to engineer a heavily gerrymandered House map following the 2020 census. According to Democratic pollster David Shor’s projections, the GOP’s advantage in the Electoral College is likely to grow even steeper by 2024. If Democrats do not use their tenuous grip on power to rebalance this playing field — by making our electoral institutions more small-d democratic — they will clear the way for a coalition of would-be oligarchs and QAnon LARPers to reconquer the capital by 2024.
The package of electoral reforms that Democrats introduced this week — which includes a variety of measures that would facilitate higher levels of voter registration, make it easier for voters to cast ballots, and combat partisan-gerrymandering and voter disenfranchisement — is a fine start. But Democrats must also provide statehood to D.C., Puerto Rico, and any other U.S. territory that desires it, so as to mitigate the underrepresentation of nonwhite voters in the Senate. The point of these reforms is not to bar the GOP from power; even if Democrats admit Puerto Rico and D.C. to the union, Republicans will retain a structural advantage in the upper chamber. Rather, the point is to make it harder for the Republican Party to cater to a reactionary minority of the U.S. public and still compete in national elections.
But Joe Biden will not be able to bring majority rule to the United States if his party does not first bring it to the U.S. Senate. Mitch McConnell is currently pushing for Democrats to commit to maintaining the legislative filibuster, a malign institution that effectively establishes a 60-vote threshold for all major, non-budgetary legislation. This would effectively prevent the Democratic Party from passing any democracy reforms. There are not ten Republican votes in the Senate for making the GOP less electorally competitive for the sake of making the U.S. government more majoritarian.
Democrats must not make such a concession. Given the party’s razor-thin margins in both chambers, the GOP’s structural advantages, and the tendency of out-of-power parties to overperform in midterms, Democrats are vastly more likely to lose control of Congress than win a larger Senate majority in 2022. The party’s leadership may not have the leverage to make Joe Manchin, Jon Tester, Kyrsten Sinema, or other Senate moderates do anything they don’t wish to. But Chuck Schumer must at least make every member of his caucus aware of the stakes of inaction. Perhaps moderates can be made comfortable with eroding the filibuster instead of outright ending it. Maybe a special exception can be made for democracy-expanding measures, akin to the Byrd rule’s exemption for budget-reconciliation bills. Or maybe Democrats can simply restore the talking filibuster — which is to say, revive rather than repeal Senate tradition — by requiring those who wish to obstruct legislation to speak continuously from the Senate floor. Regardless, if the party does not find some way of using its fortuitous trifecta to fortify U.S. democracy against the threat of minority rule, it will squander the Trump presidency’s silver linings.
The past four years could be remembered as our republic’s rock bottom — the period when our polity debased itself too thoroughly to deny that it had a problem. Or it could be a farcical preview of the illiberal right’s tragic triumph. Whether the Trump presidency will be the end of a dark chapter in American history or the beginning of one is something that Senate Democrats have a great deal of power to decide. They must not leave our democracy’s future up to chance.