WASHINGTON – The Republican Party is fractured by ideological divisions, led by an inexperienced and unpredictable president-elect, and quite possibly headed for a fratricidal civil war. The Democratic Party should be so lucky.
There is much unpleasant reality for Democrats to deal with right now, starting with this: The GOP controls virtually everything. The two-party system is, at best, one and a half.
Republicans won the presidency. They retained control of both houses of Congress. Soon, when Donald Trump appoints a replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia, they will re-establish a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. As far as the federal government is concerned, that’s the whole trifecta.
But there’s much more: After making significant gains last week, Republicans control both legislative chambers in 32 states – and hold the governorships in 33. Some of the nation’s most diverse and populous states, including Texas and Florida, are living under one-party Republican rule.
Democrats should reject the urge to take comfort in favorable demographic trends. It is true that within a generation, minorities will be in the majority – and that minorities tend to vote for Democrats. But what would the country be like after 20 or 30 years of near-total Republican control? I’m sure most progressives would join me in not wanting to run that dangerous experiment.
Did Democrats lose the White House because their presidential candidate had baggage and was not perfect in every way? Come on, the Republicans nominated Trump, for heaven’s sake, a man who bragged about grabbing women by the genitals. I don’t have nearly enough space to list all the ways in which he disqualified himself. Yet he won.
The Republican Party is so splintered – the establishment, the tea party wing, the fiscal tightwads, the defense hawks, the social conservatives, the libertarians and now the Trumpistas – that sometimes I think of it as Afghanistan: with each faction having its own warlords and grievances and goals. Many of the demands they make upon Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be uncompromisingly extreme and mutually exclusive. There will be blood (metaphorically, of course).
Yet if Democrats expect to sit back and watch the GOP self-destruct, I fear they will be disappointed. Consider this fact: The Republican Party not only survived the Trump candidacy, but prospered. Why would the same not be true of a Trump presidency?
One of the biggest lessons I draw from the election is that the GOP basically came together behind its candidate. Despite all the Never Trump noise, most prominent Republican officials eventually fell in line. Some voiced strong reservations but said they would vote for him anyway, which amounted to an endorsement. Others, such as the Bush family, declined to publicly proclaim their opposition in a way that perhaps might have made a difference. Maybe they thought he was bound to lose anyway; if so, they miscalculated.
Another lesson, perhaps the most important one, is that the Democratic Party cannot hope to succeed by relying solely on its ability to win the popular vote in presidential elections.
Democrats have won the popular vote in 1992, 1996, 2000, 2008, 2012 and now 2016. That’s six out of the last seven presidential contests. Yet the Republican Party is running the country, or at least most of it.
The Democratic Party cannot just wait for the next Barack Obama to come along. The president is a unique political talent of the kind that appears only once in a great while, when the stars magically align. Instead, Democrats need to do what Republicans did, which is to build from the ground up and start winning state and local elections.
A Democratic rebound has to begin with the basics: Getting people who agree with you to vote. Less than 60 percent of those eligible to cast ballots in last week’s election bothered to do so. Conservatives who say this is “a center-right nation” may be right in terms of who votes, but they’re wrong in terms of who could vote. Polls show that the country favors Democratic over Republican positions on most issues.
The Democratic Party should put its energy and money into connecting with potential voters at the grass-roots level. Trump made a bunch of pie-in-the-sky promises he can never keep. Democrats need a hopeful but realistic message recognizing that while most big cities prosper in today’s globalized economy, much of the rest of the country suffers.
Democrats will win when theirs is the “big tent” party. Right now, though, the GOP circus is in town.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.