The news is this: Everything has changed and nothing has changed.
In his upset victory four years ago, Donald Trump plowed through the nation’s political terrain. He tapped into deep-seated rage and anguish among a large swath of Americans that the establishment of both parties had failed to recognize, let alone address.
Since then, Trump has changed Washington, not by “draining the swamp” as he promised, but by taking over the Republican Party, by turning GOP lawmakers into rubber stamps and squelching or crushing them if they didn’t comply.
Few put up a fight, and the reason became clear this week: Trump is good for them. Not just for their policy goals, such as cutting taxes and packing federal courts with conservatives, though that is undeniable. But for the lawmakers themselves.
He is particularly good for those who cling to him. Take Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Graham harshly criticized Trump – and briefly ran against him — in 2016. But the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee now embraces Trump, and Tuesday, he trounced a Democrat who had polled strongly in recent weeks. Likewise, Sen. Thom Tillis once earned Trump’s wrath by offering a bill to prevent the administration from firing the special counsel in the Russia investigation. After that, he cleaved to the president and appears to have survived a close reelection contest in North Carolina. Republican senators who chided the president, including Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, found it easier to leave the chamber than face brutal MAGA-fueled primaries. Members of Congress who took shots at Trump, such as Barbara Comstock of Virginia or Carlos Curbelo of Florida, lost their seats in 2018.
When Trump’s name is on the top of the ballot, Republicans down the line do better.
It feels strange to write that sentence since Trump himself might lose the presidency in this nail-biter of an election.
But it remains true that both times he topped the ticket, Republicans down the ballot out-performed expectations. This year, they appear poised to gain seats in the House – an unwelcome surprise to the reigning Democrats – and to retain control of the Senate, which few expected. Compare that to 2018, when Trump was not running for office and Democrats gained an astounding 40 seats to take control of the House. And while the party of the incumbent president often sheds congressional seats in midterm elections, the numbers generally are less mind-boggling than they were two years ago.
Throughout 2020, Democrats had hoped for a “blue wave” reminiscent of 2018, but this time with an even loftier goal: control of the White House and both chambers of Congress. They adhered to the belief that a big turnout, in and of itself, would be good for the people’s party.
They also longed to flip some statehouses in time for this decade’s redistricting. That didn’t happen. Currently, Republicans control both chambers in 29 state legislatures, and Democrats control both chambers in 19. Minnesota is the only statehouse in which each party controls one chamber, and Nebraska’s legislature is nonpartisan. As of Wednesday afternoon, the National Conference of State Legislatures said few changes were in the offing, and none had been called. In fact, the conference reported, this year could see the smallest number of changes in legislative control since 1944, when four chambers switched hands.
Further, partisan control will shift in only one governor’s mansion; Montana elected Republican Greg Gianforte to fill the position vacated by Democrat Steve Bullock, who lost his bid for the Senate. Gianforte may best be known nationally for slugging a reporter.
So it remains conceivable that Trump will have led just about everyone in his party to win – except perhaps himself.
But Trump did something else, too.
He has kept the rage alive. His cult of personality has generated countless diehards who question nothing their leader says, no matter how divorced from reality. Conversely, Trump’s affronts to tradition, decorum, and, often, civility have enraged others who not only don’t understand his appeal but are revolted by it.
The result is that the nation remains at least as divided in 2020 as it was in 2016. The too-close-to-call election has assured that win or lose, Trump will continue to stoke that division, to demand the spotlight, to foment and employ that rage. A few weeks ago, many political observers were asking if Trumpism would outlast Trump. That’s not the question anymore. Trump is going to be a behemoth on the national landscape, inside the White House or out.
The ranks of his supporters, in this year of high turnout, have grown since 2016. They stuck with him through impeachment, the pandemic, the turned-down economy. They are the foot soldiers of Trumpism and are likely to remain so. Their MAGA hats will not suddenly vanish.
As the ballot counters forged ahead Wednesday afternoon, former Vice President Joe Biden took to the microphones in Delaware and attempted to set a more calibrated tone for the nation he still expected to lead.
“It’s time for us to do what we have always done as Americans – to put the harsh rhetoric of the campaign behind us…To unite, to heal, to come together as a nation,” Biden said.
Earlier Wednesday morning, Trump audaciously tried to declare victory, threatening to ask the Supreme Court to put a stop to vote counting. His false proclamation – “Frankly, we did win this election” – served only to further divide the nation. The rage had not subsided.
Everything might change. And nothing.