It’s time to start bracing for what may happen after Election Day, because things are about to get rocky—even by contemporary standards—regardless of the outcome. Today, let’s consider what things might look like if Democrats fall short of expectations and fail to win a House majority. Tomorrow I’ll look at the risks ahead if Democrats win.
Given the expectations of a blue wave crashing ashore on Tuesday, it will be a huge victory for Republicans if they are able to hold on to power in the House, even if their majority is razor thin (which it would be) and even if Democrats win a majority of the aggregate House vote (which they will). If Democrats fail to secure the House they will almost certainly fail to win back the Senate, and any gains they make at the state level will be inconsequential to a national narrative that Democrats underperformed.
The political and policy implications will be enormous. Donald Trump will claim credit for a great victory that would vindicate his scorched earth strategy of all racism, all the time. Holding on to power will embolden him to ramp up his attacks on his perceived enemies and further undermine anyone who can limit his ability to act at will. Having telegraphed his desire to derail all investigations into his political and business activities, he will feel free to install a political ally as Attorney General or fire Robert Mueller directly. Federal institutions designed to frustrate the consolidation of power will see unprecedented challenges as we face the prospect of two more years of Donald Trump without a congressional check, with the survival of democracy resting ever more tenuously on a battered press, bureaucracy, court system, and—increasingly—protest and civil unrest.
For their part, congressional Republicans will have learned that they can enable the president without paying a political price. Powerless to defy or even disagree with Trump in the wake of a party base quick to punish defectors with primary opponents, Republicans have worried since last year that their turn to Trumpism would be a catastrophic general election liability. Should they survive with their majorities intact, they will know they can continue to lean on the benefits they derive from the House gerrymander, the natural tilt of the Senate toward thinly populated conservative states, the Electoral College, and reliable turnout from their voters to embrace a president who did not win a popular vote majority and is disliked by a majority of the country.
Legislatively, there is every reason to believe Mitch McConnell when he says that Republicans will use their continued hold on power to make a final push to dismantle the social welfare state. Obamacare, Social Security and Medicare will be targeted, with the excuse being the need to fill a deficit hole created by the Republican tax law. None of these efforts, along with the tax law, enjoy popular support, but they serve the interests of the Republican donor class. In fact, they are so unpopular that Republican candidates have found themselves running away from their many votes to kill Obamacare and in some cases have simply lied to their constituents about their willingness to keep pre-existing condition protections. But this is an even-numbered year. If Republicans are able to accomplish these goals in 2019 it would be the culmination of a generations-long quest by the right to unravel the New Deal, and the country would slip into a state of minority rule unparalleled in modern times.
The stakes for democracy are exceptionally high because the authoritarian impulse behind Trump’s reactionary candidacy has been permitted to flourish by the Republican congress, and because next Tuesday marks the first time the country will have an opportunity to translate persistent majority disapproval of this presidency into action. If they fall short, even if it’s because the playing field is tilted against them, the public won’t get another chance to register its disapproval for two more years, and by that time the institutions designed to obstruct the consolidation of power may be unrecognizable.
We must brace for this outcome, although as the contest enters its final weekend I would look to the 2017 election as a cautionary tale about the limits of fomenting hysteria. The president’s fearful rhetoric has escalated toward absurdity as he tries desperately to give his core supporters reason to vote. Unlike the way he closed the 2016 campaign with a Twitter blackout that gave reluctant voters space to take the plunge, his final argument this year is unhinged, and more closely resembles how Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie closed things out last year by running racially charged ads in the reddest parts of his state. Final polling showed Gillespie within three points of his opponent. He lost by nine and took fifteen assembly seats with him on his way down. Republicans turned out in large numbers but were overtaken by Democrats and independents. There are many close House districts in play this year that look like Virginia.
We’ll know in three days.