Out in the streets, young people in several cities have returned to the streets to become part of the viral social-media moment celebrating Donald Trump’s defeat in the election. For them the result was simple.
For almost every faction in Washington, however, it is not so simple. Donald Trump will eventually concede. His defeat is heart-rending for his most passionate supporters, and it will result in real reversals for conservatives. But Republicans almost pulled even in the House. Liberals and progressives, contemplating a new Democratic administration that could be severely restrained by Republicans in the Senate, are now engaging in fratricide. Traditional Republicans and Trumpers are already jockeying for the future of a party that needs them both, but with no clear message from the electoral result about who should be in the driver’s seat.
Every talking point emerging from the election is a half-truth. Every faction finds itself idled. This was a reality check.
Die-hard Trumpers: Trump’s rise was so psychologically and politically invigorating to a certain segment of the electorate, it’s not a surprise that they find his defeat hard to swallow or even to accept. Trump’s brief and fascinating political career proved his doubters wrong, and his critics correct. He could rise beyond their expectations, but he was overmatched by the institutions of Washington, D.C., including his own party. A charismatic personality can run against these institutions, but one person cannot sustain full-on war with them. Trumpian revolution would require institutionalization.
Republicans anti-Trumpers left disappointed: Donald Trump did not drag the party down to the ultimate humiliation they wanted. There is no “burning it down” the Republican Party to save it. And Trump’s “enablers” from Susan Collins to Lindsey Graham probably found their re-electoral prospects slightly enhanced by having him at the top of the ticket. Some of the Republican anti-Trumpers will just drift into the Democratic coalition, insisting that the Trump family owns the party forever, and finding any signs of “Trumpiness” in the GOP too much to bear. Others, having decided to break with the GOP in disgust over Trump, now proceed to break up with an American electorate who almost rehired him; they will leave politics. Of them it might be said, “They came to hate their party and this president. They have finished by hating their country.”
The Revenge of the Establishment is deferred indefinitely: There was an urge to purge Trump gathering itself in politics. It wasn’t quite announced, but its spirit lay behind every single piece fantasizing about a toppling of the Trump “regime” and restoring the pristine “liberal world order” that Barack Obama left behind. It still exists, behind those warning darkly about the “next authoritarian.” Some of them are even proceeding by making “lists” of Trump supporters, as if they were about to proceed with de-Baathification after the fall of Saddam Hussein, or lustration after the end of the Soviet Union. But those dreaming of full “de-Trumpification” cannot plausibly argue that the electoral results give a mandate for cleaning the Augean stables. They will have to satisfy themselves by lobbying Facebook and Twitter to do the work that can’t be done with tools of law, or social sanction.
The anti-racist Left and the racist Right made similar errors: Those arguing that Trump’s embrace of the white working class would result only in the GOP becoming a giant Southernized party of white resentment must be chastened by results showing a surge of non-white votes among Republicans, and the defection of white voters to the party criticizing white supremacy. Similarly, those arguing that immigrants would not adopt Americanism as a political creed are rebuked by Trump’s expanded support in Hispanic communities. The anti-racist Left has a definition of anti-racism that is not intuitive to most people and appeals primarily to affluent whites. And the racist Right’s theory that American nationalism cannot appeal to non-whites is demonstrated to be wrong.
The multi-racial working-class party is only half-alive: Some commentators saw the increased turnout among Hispanic voters and black men as an opportunity to declare the GOP a “multi-racial working-class party.” This may be premature. Democrats did dramatically increase their vote share with college-educated whites, particularly in the affluent suburbs around major metro areas. We see hints of the shift in the ever-declining Republican vote in wealthy suburban redoubts such as the lily-white Darien, Conn., and increases in the Republican share of depressed, multi-racial Waterbury. But Republicans are still winning among households with six-figure incomes. There are also reasons to suspect that Republican Hispanics have more educational attainment and income than their Democratic counterparts.
Populist nationalists: Was Trumpism tried at all? Trump did not accomplish major reform of the immigration system. Trump only slightly augmented the trading arrangements that he found upon taking office. And yet, Trump’s cultural and political populism seemed to attract non-white voters, and hold others. We got an ambiguous answer on what exactly the GOP needs to be and do to hold its coalition together. Can its new voters survive on rhetoric alone? Or does the party need to find a way, through law and policy, to redistribute economic opportunities to them?
The 2020 election gave everyone unsatisfying answers. The future is still wide open.