Democrats all over the country had a message for voters this fall: democracy itself is at risk if you vote for a Republican Party still enthralled by Donald Trump and his army of election deniers and January 6 insurrectionists. Voters, despite the predictions of talking heads and analysts, responded. Democrats only lost the House by a few seats instead of a landslide, kept the Senate, made impressive (and surprising) gains in state legislatures, and sent some of the worst election deniers in crucial swing states packing.
And now American democracy is safe! Right?
It’s never that simple, sad to say. This was a good win, but it’s not the end of the danger.
Since Donald Trump descended that infamous escalator in 2015, the United States has careened from one apocalypse election to another, in which both sides of our political and cultural divide fervently believed that the future of America as we knew it was on the ballot. 2022 was no exception, to the disappointment of the Republican Party.
Republicans were hoping that the dictator-embracing, name-calling, violence-inspiring, authoritarian Trump would be less of a drag on the party now that he’s out of office, and that the usual laws of political gravity would be reinstated. What they wanted most of all was a “normal” election, where issues like inflation, the economy, and the relative unpopularity of the president would sweep them into office. If this were another year, in another kind of political era, then sure. That would have worked.
But this was the first federal election since the January 6th insurrection, and voters had not forgotten. They watched the January 6 committee hearings, they comprehended in horror just how close we came to a much more violent and dangerous outcome on that terrible day. They knew that Donald Trump was responsible, that he had incited the riots, and they also knew that he had been enabled, and was continuing to be enabled, by the spineless toadies and fire-breathing true believers who had infested the GOP at all levels.
And this was the first election since the unprecedented, gut-wrenching overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court, led by far-right judges appointed by Trump. It was a shocking rollback of a right so many of us had grown up assuming would be permanent. If a politicized, activist court could so cavalierly overturn abortion rights, what would be next? Interracial marriage? Same-sex marriage? Contraception?
One thing was clear: if Republicans won sweeping majorities, there would be no hope of reforming the court. And there was every danger that if Trump ran and lost in 2024 the GOP House would overturn the will of the people and install him as president again. In short, the hard-right minority would do what it could to establish permanent rule over the majority.
Republicans, thinking they had it all in the bag, doubled down on their attacks on LGBTQ people and nominated extremists like Kari Lake and Doug Mastriano for governor in swing states. Here in Connecticut, Republican voters chose Leora Levy after she was endorsed by Trump himself. In short, they did everything they could to show voters that no, they had not moved on. They were the same dangerous bunch.
In hindsight, it’s not that surprising that Republicans did much worse than they expected. But will they learn the lesson from this election that people by and large don’t want cruel extremists in charge? Will they understand that attacking trans kids, scaremongering about crime, and bulldozing abortion rights isn’t a good way to win over moderates? Will they finally come to their senses and realize that the one thing that unites almost all Americans is our shared love of democracy, and that it’s a bad idea to stand against that? Will the GOP finally wake up and shed Trump and his fans one and for all?
Former Republican state senate leaders John McKinney and Len Fasano hope so. In a recent piece for the Courant, they argued that if Republicans want to win, they need to “reject” Trump. They’re absolutely right. But do you think they really will?
Yeah, me neither.
That’s why democracy isn’t safe. Not yet. It’s in better shape than it would have been if the election had gone another way, but until the noxious blend of hard right bigotry, religious fundamentalist extremism, neo-fascist chest-pounding, and violent authoritarianism that make up Trumpism is purged from one of our two major parties, we won’t have normal elections.
For democracy to win, we will have to choose it again, and again, and again. So breathe a little easier, for now. But be ready, because the next fight is just around the corner.