The Case for Extreme Pessimism After a Good Election Night

by Neil H. Buchanan

How long will our luck last?  On Tuesday, Democrats regained the majority in the House of Representatives, but even though that is exactly the outcome for which I most dearly hoped, the world seems even scarier now than it was on Monday, when I published a call to young people (and everyone else) to vote against Donald Trump and his eager enablers.

On Tuesday morning, I wrote about the likely chaos that would ensue even if Democrats ended up having a good night.  Although the specifics that I offered there might not come to pass (including a prediction of a wave of Republican election challenges, although some such challenges are still possible), the big message was that Trump and his minions would not be gracious losers -- the safest prediction in the history of political commentary.

So I was plenty scared before, when it was still possible that Republicans could have held the House and won other key races.  Why am I more scared now that what seemed to be the worst outcome has not come to pass?

Before exploring that question, it is important to spend some time accentuating the positive.  This is, in part, because my chronic cynicism derives in some part from an underlying sense of optimism.  I remain, for example, among the only people who remembers and emphasizes that 2016 was not a wipe-out for Democrats.  Even while losing the presidency to a dangerous lunatic, Democrats picked up two seats in the Senate (which ended up being essential to doom Republicans' last effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act), and they picked up six seats in the House (gains on which they built in this week's midterms).

I am, therefore, more than capable of seeing the glass half full -- or at least not pretending that a non-empty glass is bone dry.  And there has already been plenty of commentary emphasizing just how good Tuesday was for Democrats.  The best, and most fact-laden, came from The Washington Post's Paul Waldman, who went into detail about state-level elections, showing that Democrats broke Republican legislative strangleholds in many states and picked up in only one night almost one third of the one thousand seats that Democrats lost at the state level during the white backlash to Barack Obama's presidency.

Moreover, the Democrats' multiple pickups of governorships provided some truly glorious moments, including Scott Walker's overdue defeat in Wisconsin and maybe-even-more-bigoted-than-Trump Kris Kobach's loss in bright-red Kansas. Some things are simply pure joy.

Even the lost seats in the U.S. Senate need not be seen as an overall defeat for Democrats, because this year's map was stacked so massively against them.  They picked up one seat and saved six of the ten seats that Democrats held in states that had voted for Trump in 2016.  Yes, there were times this year when it was possible to hope for better outcomes, but if someone had told us in December of 2016 that there would even be a chance for a progressive Democrat to compete in Texas this year, we would have had them committed.

(As an aside, one benefit of a 54-vote Republican majority is that we will never need to speculate about whether Trump will lose a vote on anything in the Senate.  This further means that frauds like Susan Collins will no longer be able to preen in the spotlight, claiming to be reasonable centrists and dangling the possibility of casting a decisive vote for sanity.  The downside, of course, is that the Republicans' court packing will accelerate.)

And speaking of how quickly our expectations have changed, remember how recently the Republicans' gerrymandered House majority seemed to be permanent?  That it is possible now to feel disappointment that Democrats could have won by an even larger margin is nothing short of astonishing.

However ...

The biggest reason to worry as we digest this week's results is not that Trump is taking things badly or that Republicans are in lockstep -- although he is (threatening to become "war-like" if  House Democrats investigate him) and they are (with Mitch McConnell saying that Democrats would be engaged in "presidential harassment").  It is not even the rumblings that cause people like Professor Steven Vladeck to warn credibly of "a slow-motion constitutional crisis."

All of those worries are real, but they merely support my longstanding prediction that Trump's rise could very well represent the beginning of the end of constitutional democracy in the United States.

My pessimism is caused by something much more basic.  Even coming out of a very good night for Democrats, it is now actually possible to see a way that Donald Trump could win the 2020 election outright.  I will explain why in a moment, but it is first useful to pause and think about just how shocking this is.  Even in the worst moments after November 8, 2016, it was never plausible to think that Trump could win even a mildly rigged election in 2020.  His base seemed too narrow, and the majority that despises him would surely not repeat the mistakes of complacency that they made in 2016.

This meant that the biggest concerns about 2020 were either that Republicans would rig the elections even more than they have already done (most obviously by continuing to suppress votes) or that Trump would simply refuse to leave office after he lost.  Even after a hypothetical blowout loss in the presidential election, there would be every reason to worry that Trump would reject the results and simply carry out an internal coup.

Again, however, I never imagined that Trump could actually win in 2020.  Why am I now worried that he might?

First, there are not enough states that could potentially be in play to break Trump's Electoral College majority.  Yes, Floridians re-enfranchised ex-felons in one of the best results of Tuesday's elections.  On the other hand, they also elected one of the most openly bigoted Trumpists to be their governor, which tells us more than we wished to know about Florida's voters.  And that guy will be in charge of Florida's elections two years from now, figuring out ways to keep his state in Trump's column.

It is possible to see a few other states flipping, but it would take Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania all to go blue, which might seem likely in Tuesday's afterglow but that are by no means guaranteed.  Ohio would be a big prize, but it went for Trump by 8.6% in 2016.  Bigger reaches like Iowa and Arizona seem even less plausible now, with Hawkeye voters returning bigot extraordinaire Steve King to office and electing a Republican governor (even as a few congressional districts did flip), while voters in the desert apparently gave a narrow win to a hateful Senate candidate.  [Update: The Republican in Arizona lost!]

All of this happened even after Trump ran an ugly campaign that should have motivated every decent person finally to say that enough is enough.  And some lifelong Republicans apparently did abandon ship, but the core of that party is much larger than it seemed.  After all, when the counting is finally completed, it appears that Democrats will have won the aggregate House vote by something like 53-47, which seems difficult to square with the polls consistently showing that only about 39 percent or so of voters approve of Trump.

In short, one of the reasons that election night this year was not as happy for non-Republicans as it once appeared that it would be is that Trump's fearmongering and bigoted campaign actually worked on some voters, and the other is that some Republicans who claimed to be wavering were not truly in play.

For heaven's sake, even two Republican congressman who were under indictment nevertheless won reelection on Tuesday.  The key to a Trump win in 2020 is for people to vote for him simply because that is what they do.  And he will certainly do everything he can to make this year's ugliness look mild by comparison.

Finally, consider the short attention span of the public and the political media.  Trump's firing of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions as Attorney General will almost certainly soon lead to a shutdown of Robert Mueller's investigation.  That will be a huge deal, but at most -- at most -- for two months.  From that point forward, any attempts to bring up the subject will simply be dismissed as old news.

Perhaps the biggest reason that I am now so pessimistic about 2020 is captured by a comment from one of my research assistants.  She noted (with tragic prescience) that there will continue to be shootings and other atrocities over the next two years; and although those horrors (some of which will be explicitly political, like the Pittsburgh synagogue murders, while others will be "random") will be dreadful, the minimal silver lining might be that people could break out of their complacency and more completely reject Republicans.

That is truly depressing, and if that is a plausible path back from sanity, then things are worse than we thought.  In any case, as things currently stand, the possible futures facing us include one that I never thought plausible, and that is for Trump to win -- actually to win -- in 2020.  Not enough people were outraged in 2018 to allow Democrats to thoroughly trounce the Republicans on Tuesday.  That tells us more about Americans than we should ever hope to be true.