The Central Challenge of the Fight Against Trumpism

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U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi reacts to the results of the U.S. midterm elections at a Democratic election night rally in Washington, U.S. November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Al Drago - RC136AF93ED0

The midterms showed that the president has a real political constituency—one that gerrymandering and voter suppression make it hard to defeat.

Contributing writer at The Atlanticand managing editor of Lawfare
Jeff Sessions lasted in his post as attorney general for 18 hours after the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives on Election Day. His ouster, anticipated for months, may finally allow the president to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller without consequence. Even for a country now accustomed to whiplash, it was a head-spinning day: the promise of national civic renewal followed by yet another potentially catastrophic threat to the health of American democracy.

The juxtaposition revealed the central challenge of this political moment. Despite the Democrats’ victory on Tuesday, the midterms showed that Trumpism has a real political constituency—and that the geographic distribution of that constituency combines with the structure of American government to provide the president with protection from a friendly Senate. The struggle to uphold the rule of law and to call Trump to account is ultimately a political fight with no easy shortcuts. It’s a hard, bitter slog, with a long way yet to travel.

Continued Republican control of the Senate was widely expected going into Election Day, but for the GOP to keep its hold on the House would have risked plunging the United States further into a crisis of democracy, emboldening a president already given relatively free rein by a friendly Congress. Trump would have no need to worry about being held in check, and a unified Republican legislature could have attacked the ongoing investigations into the president and his associates even more aggressively than it already has. The Democrats avoided this disaster on Election Day, and more: The party picked up 29 House seats and counting, with a wide margin in the popular vote.

This may fit the criteria for a “blue wave,” but the air of deflation and disappointment among opponents of the president in the hours after the Democrats clinched control of the House points to something real. Trumpism was not resoundingly rejected on Tuesday night. If some candidates affiliated with the president lost their races—like Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and former head of the Trump administration’s voter-fraud commission, who failed to win his state’s governor’s seat—others who adopted his tactics were successful. Whatever defines Trump’s political movement, it has a constituency in the voters who turned out to vote for Florida Republican Ron DeSantis, who emphasized his support for Trump and whose gubernatorial campaign against Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum was consistently tinged with racism. And though Trump’s particular flavor of authoritarianism is something new, Tuesday night also showed that older, all-American threats to democracy are alive and well in this country: Georgia Republican Brian Kemp may well have eked out a victory the state governor’s race over his Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams, who would have been the nation’s first black female governor, through a systematic program of voter suppression enabled by Kemp’s role as Georgia’s secretary of state.

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