The best hope for US democracy in the short term rests with former President Donald Trump.
Venture capitalist, Hillbilly Elegy author, and Ohio Senate wannabe J.D. Vance illustrated this uncomfortable and unfortunate truth again this week. Back in 2016, Vance, in a rare display of insight, tweeted that Trump was “reprehensible” and promised to vote for Never Trump independent candidate Evan McMullin. Five years later, though, Vance is trying to win a primary dominated by Trump-loving conservatives. So he flip-flopped, deleting the old posts. “I regret being wrong about the guy,” he said, in a full-fledged mea culpa for his apostasy. “I think he [Trump] was a good president.”
Republicans, in short, are tripping over themselves to kiss Trump’s orange appendages. That in itself is not hopeful. Trump is still falsely claiming the 2020 election was illegitimate, and most Republicans still believe the lie. The ex-president’s paranoid delegitimization of democracy has already led local election officials to try to pass laws giving local Republicans greater power to overturn election results. It’s not hard to imagine a Trumpist GOP in 2024 engaging in another coup attempt like that of January 6th.
But the thing about Trump is that he is not selectively destructive. He is doing his best to knock out the guardrails that safeguard democracy from authoritarianism. But as he careens erratically about the political arena, he’s also a threat to those who are nominally on his side. Especially now that he’s no longer president, Trump’s easiest opportunity targets are other Republicans. And if we’re very lucky, he will damage his supposed allies enough in 2022 and 2024 that progressives will be able to shore up democracy before the GOP is able to launch their next assault.
It may seem wildly overoptimistic to hope that Trump will damage Republicans enough to allow Democrats time to rebuild. But this is exactly what happened in Georgia at the beginning of this year.
Democrats hadn’t won a Senate race in Georgia for two decades when Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff forced run-offs in both Georgia Senate races in November 2020. Usually, after a Democratic presidential win, the electorate moves right. There was plenty of reason for Republicans to hope they could eke out victories for the second-round elections in January.
But rather than devoting his efforts to helping Republican candidates David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler to victory, Trump did what Trump does, and spread chaos. He refused to concede, and blasted state Republican officials in Georgia for certifying their state’s vote for Democratic president-elect Joe Biden.
When Trump held a Georgia rally in early January, he ranted about how he’d been robbed rather than boosting the Republican Senate hopefuls. As the electorate polarized further, Loeffler and Perdue were put in the impossible position of trying to appease Trump to keep the base on board and distance themselves from him to compete in a general election. Black Democratic organizers capitalized on the chaos and gave Georgia two Senate victories. That balanced the Senate 50-50, with Vice President Harris as the tie-breaking vote. Biden was able to pass the $2 trillion, extremely popular American Rescue Plan. By providing money to fight Covid, and funds to shore up state and local governments, the legislation has helped to stabilize the economy, and gives Democrats at least a fighting chance at retaining control of Congress in 2022.
There are signs that Trump may be gearing up to repeat this thumb-fingered, bumble-brained exercise in self-injury. He’s already begun to interfere in the 2022 Republican primary process. He endorsed his former staffer Max Miller for an Ohio seat currently held by incumbent Republican Representative Anthony Gonzalez, leading to tension and recriminations in the Republican caucus.
Trump might be a force for division in the Ohio Republican contest as well. The race for retiring Republican Senator Rob Portman’s seat is already contentious and confused, with former state treasurer Josh Mandel, party chair Jane Timken, and others vying for state party endorsements and for Trump’s blessing. Vance’s waffling is a preview of contortions to come. Imagine Trump endorsing Candidate A, becoming enraged when Candidate B wins, and spending the general election denouncing his own party’s nominee. Ohio is very conservative, but a dynamic like that might simultaneously depress the GOP base and turn off white suburban Republican voters who dislike Trump, allowing a Democrat to sneak through.
Trump also could complicate the governor’s race in Texas where radical Trumpy Republican Allen West just declared a primary challenge to fairly Trumpy Republican incumbent Greg Abbott, or in Pennsylvania where incumbent Senate Republican Pat Toomey is stepping down. And the prospect of another Trump run for president in 2024 has already immensely complicated the nomination process for other would-be Republican leaders.
Trump exacerbates divisions animosities and chaos wherever he goes. It’s hard to say how his influence will affect any given race, but both the House and Senate contests are likely to be very close in 2022. If Trump damages Republican chances in a seat or three, he could easily shift the national balance of power left, as he did when he dragged Perdue and Loeffler down with him in Georgia.
Of course, you can’t trust Trump to save democracy, even inadvertently. It’s ultimately up to activists and voters to demand, and Democrats to institute, changes that will help protect our democracy. We have to abolish gerrymandering, institute nationwide AVR, pass a new voting rights act, enfranchise DC, expand the Supreme Court, and more. Trump’s incompetence may, ironically, end up giving us slightly more time to do what needs to be done.
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