A spoiler alert at the end of yet another teeth-grinding, needle-watching, soul-sucking election full of pre-apocalyptic tension, with everything done now but the counting: Donald Trump is back as the anti-hero that Democrats need, hitting the same old fan-service beats to squeeze the last dollars and votes out of a steaming service reboot of a semi-nostalgic piece of worn-out and thin-to-start-with intellectual property.
Trump, shame of New York City, very accidentally helped save it in 2020. His post-defeat ravings and encouragement of his angriest and most unbalanced supporters are what led Democrats to win two upsets in Georgia’s 2020 runoffs — and with them control of the Senate that allowed Democrats to pour billions into New York City and see it through the worst of the pandemic and its shutdown.
It’s happening again in another aimless sequel, with Republicans poised to lose another Georgia runoff as voters there have time to fully absorb the election-defining coverage by the Beast’s Roger Sollenberger about their “family values” candidate, with a history of domestic violence, paying for abortions, and fathering secret children whose lives he’s been absent from.
Trump’s favored candidates—an addled mix of nuts, creeps and liars—are why the fundamentals didn’t apply this year and an unpopular Democratic president, with his party in control of both houses of Congress at a moment when inflation and pessimism are through the roof, wasn’t enough for Republicans to pick up big gains.
If “Democrat” control is such an immediate and existential threat to American values, would Herschel Walker really be your party’s avatar of change?
It is in Trump’s GOP, which just gets deeper into conspiracies and civil war talk with each new self-inflicted disaster.
And that’s what’s propping up a Democratic party led by a past-his-prime, no-longer-ready-for-primetime president not to mention a (winning) Senate candidate who did his best to hide a stroke until after it was too late for voters to go in another direction in a general election against an Oprah-made health fraud who doesn’t even live in the state.
That’s quite the prelude to a prospective 2024 presidential rubber match between two addled octogenarians who in very different ways don’t seem fully in control of what comes out of their respective mouths.
But elections are all about alternatives, and just consider the alternatives these days as even local races seem like thunderdome death matches, less and less about the candidates and more and more about nationalizing, totalizing choices between two parties with radically different visions of what America is for, and who.
That, in turn, should allow the parties, if they still were worth a damn, to put up more moderate candidates in line with what most American voters actually want. When everyone is fired up about the threat the other side poses to America as we‘ve known it, it doesn’t matter how fired up (or ready to form firing squads) your side is — they still only get one vote each, and the people on the other side are also going to turn out.
That’s part of why this red wave fell short. And part of why there are some signs that this long national fever may finally be breaking.
People who voted for Democrats may not be in love with all of their candidates, but they can see what the alternative would be.
“How much worse could I be” may have sounded like a fairly harmless pitch to some voters in 2016. But after four years of finding out, and now that every election feels like it could be the last one, it’s a terrifying proposition to contemplate.
As Trump keeps giving his blessing to a rotating cast of the worst of the worst, he’s costing his party winnable races and even what seem to be “safe” seats like the one unashamed and unhinged idiot Lauren Boebert is on the cusp of losing.
In New York, Trump-backed Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin used his best inside voice to insist it didn’t matter that he’s against abortion since the Democrats who control the legislature wouldn’t let him change anything anyway.
And voters rejected him, despite Kathy Hochul running a hideous non-campaign—and an incredible fearmongering campaign from Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, which served in effect as a vastly valuable independent expenditure for the Zeldin campaign as it openly tried to make the news by crusading to elect a Republican challenger to statewide office in New York for the first time this century—even telling two different crime victims I know of that their stories could make the cover if they’d say they were Democrats voting for Zeldin because the city is pretty much a hellhole now.
In the event that Republicans do re-claim the House, odds are they’ll lean further into the nasty and crazy under weak “leader” Kevin McCarthy. With no need to actually pass laws without control of the Senate, the lawmakers will spend the next two years on smeary investigations and even impeachment proceedings as “fan service” that will assuredly make the cover of the Post.
(The Post thinks that because it won its bet on Trump in 2016 and was right in 2020 that Hunter Biden was a newsworthy target that everything is permitted. But that doesn’t follow and, it turns out, no number of inflammatory front pages can change fundamental political realities.)
If Democrats, the party of America’s out-groups as Michael Barone has often observed, have to deliver to prove that they can make government work for people, Republicans now seem to think they can get away with calls to drown the administrative state in the bathtub (except of course for cops and a legal apparatus to punish abortion providers and seekers) rather than any actual agenda of their own.
What the last two cycles have made clear is that Republicans can’t get by on that weak stuff—“look what a menace THOSE people are”—if they’re led by an emotionally unhinged, personally troubled, and frequently repugnant weirdo elevating candidates like himself.
What 2022 showed is that given a choice between a party struggling to reconcile its left and its center and its liberal and illiberal instincts, or a Trumpy collection of angry and often incoherent characters, the “Democrat Party” looks pretty good to a lot of voters.
Hell, the Deep State seems more appealing than an endless Peronist purge of anything that could conceivably be defined as part of that Deep State.
But that shouldn’t be the choice! It’s sure as hell not the choice most American voters are after.
Even as primaries in gerrymandered districts and perverse social media incentives help elevate ever more marginal and addled characters, actual voters are about as steady as ever. Human nature doesn’t really change.
What has changed in America isn’t the people but the gerrymandered and jury-rigged systems through which Americans make consequential decisions about who represents them and how What’s changed is how the discourse about those decisions is filtered or, these days, just poured out like water from an untreated sewage line.
All that as Trump is champing at the bit to announce his 2024 run and reportedly getting talked out of doing so at his last pre-election rally so he could claim credit—which worked out given what an embarrassing night he had. “His” Republicans across the country mostly underperformed while prospective primary rival Ron DeSanctimonious cruised toward a nickname-worthy victory.
But Donald also promised a “very big announcement” on Tuesday, a week after Election Day. Democrats are cynically salivating, and it’s not because they missed Trump Steak.
It’s because they think, having learned little from 2016, that Trump could be their accidental hero for a third time, like he ended up being in 2020 and 2022.
That would mean at least one more apocalypse election—another half-knowing and fundamentally terrible superhero flick about alien invasions and urban ruin—looming ahead before there’s any real chance of changing channels (look it up, kids) or putting in the effort of any serious self-examination.