Donald Trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Washington Monthly alum Kevin Drum responded to my earlier piece about the imminent danger Trump poses to democracy with the following well-considered observation:

As I mentioned the other day, I’m in non-panic mode right now. Still, there’s no question that things are getting worse. Republicans are in panic mode over the possibility that Robert Mueller is about to start plowing relentlessly through the White House like a bulldozer leveling an old shack. By the time he’s through, they’re understandably afraid there might not be much left standing.

At the risk of being too Pollyannaish, it’s almost good news that Republicans are acting this way. It means they realize their party is in existential trouble…

My take on this is pretty simple. For years it’s been obvious that Republicans are the party of whites and Democrats are the party of nonwhites. This worked fine for a while, but starting in the 90s it became an increasingly weighty albatross and Republicans became increasingly desperate to increase both white turnout and their share of the white vote. Fox News helped with this. Karl Rove’s focus on the “missing evangelicals” helped. Gerrymandering helped. Pack and crack helped. Photo ID laws helped. But these were just pellets in a war dominated by a disastrous decline in party ID in the Bush years that the party never recovered from…

So here’s the situation:

  • The Republican Party is screwed. Both their base and the conservative media-industrial complex are all-in on racial grievance-mongering, but it’s clear that this is a losing strategy nationwide that’s only going to get worse. The demographic argument for the GOP’s demise has been a Chicken Little prediction for years, but it’s pretty clear that the sky really is falling now.
  • By a fluke, they won anyway in 2016.
  • At the moment, it looks like they’re about to get squashed like bugs in the 2018 midterms.

There’s really only one possible reaction to all this: panic. And that’s what we’re getting. Just as working-class whites are in a panic over their loss of status, Republicans are in a panic over their loss of numbers. Now, with their doom finally staring them in the face, Republicans are doing anything they can to put it off—and that’s unmasked some pretty despicable behavior.

I think Drum is right about all of this. For Donald Trump, Trumpism is just another vapid projection of his own ego. For the rest of the country, it’s about mostly conservative, mostly white, mostly male panic–both over their declining status vis-a-vis women and minorities, and their declining economic status in rural areas and former factory towns vis-a-vis urban areas and white-collar jobs. These twin panics reinforce one another, which is why it’s often so difficult to disentangle their economic anxieties from their prejudices.

But panic it is. They know it cannot continue. The electoral college cannot save them forever, gerrymandering cannot save them forever, billionaire-funded advertising cannot save them forever, and not even the echo chamber of conservative media can save them forever. These are just temporary stop gaps against a rising demographic and ideological tide of millennials, women, people of color and the college educated.

But that’s what makes Republicans so particularly dangerous right now. A cornered animal is a dangerous one. They know their goose is cooked within the decade or sooner, and Donald Trump won them the White House in a fluke. The original game plan was to see Hillary Clinton elected with a divided government, blame all the problems on her administration, and count on a Republican resurgence in 2020. After all, no party tends to hold the White House more than three terms in a row.

But now they have Trump, and Democrats seem poised to storm back in 2018 and 2020. Trump would clearly prefer a dictatorship for himself, and Republicans seem totally willing to help him put one in place. They know their window is short and limited. Which means the next few years will be a trial by fire for our institutions as Republicans find themselves tempted to help Trump permanently subvert the electoral accountability they know is coming.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.