Beating Trump Was the Easy Part

The next authoritarian won't be this incompetent or ineffective

It appears that, courts willing, Joe Biden has won the presidency. Time to celebrate, right? Yes. But with a pause. And a warning.

Given the speed and relief with which the Republican leadership has thrown Donald Trump overboard, I suspect this is the end of it. He is done and gone. But that barely-hidden glee from Republicans—from Fox news to other senators to almost everyone who’s not in his immediate family—is an important reminder of what’s coming next, and what actually happened.

I just published a piece explaining all this:

I suspect that the Republican leadership is sanguine, if not happy, about Trump’s loss. It’s striking how quickly Fox News called Arizona for Biden, and how many Republican leaders have condemned the president’s rage-tweeting and attempts to stop the count. They know that Trump is done, and they seem fine with it. For them, what’s not to like? The Supreme Court is solidly in their corner; they will likely retain control of the Senate; House Republicans won more seats than they were projected to, and they are looking at significant gains in state Houses as well, giving them control over redistricting for the next decade. Even better for their long-term project, they have diversified their own coalition, gaining more women candidates and more support from nonwhite voters.

That’s right, the Democrats lost almost everything else in this election, and have little hope of gaining back the senate in the near future barring a win in both the Senate run-off votes in Georgia. The map does not look favorable to them at all in 2022 or 2024.

This is what I fear we face:

The situation is a perfect setup, in other words, for a talented politician to run on Trumpism in 2024. A man without the eager Twitter fingers and greedy hotel chains, someone with a penchant for governing rather than golf. An individual who does not irritate everyone who doesn’t already like him, and someone whose wife looks at him adoringly instead of slapping his hand away too many times in public. Someone who isn’t on tape boasting about assaulting women, and who says the right things about military veterans. Someone who can send appropriate condolences about senators who die, instead of angering their state’s voters, as Trump did, perhaps to his detriment, in Arizona. A norm-subverting strongman who can also create a durable majority and keep his coalition together to win more elections.

What is to be done? One answer is to take inspiration from Stacey Abrams, who lost her gubernatorial run in Georgia but did not then use her prominence to try to run for Senate. Instead, she spent years building infrastructure empowering and protecting voters in that state which had not voted for a Democrat since 1992 (when Bill Clinton, a southerner ran). Given all the legislative arenas that are now closed off, and given the fact that the judiciary has been reshaped, from top to bottom, by Trump, the most important thing is voter rights along with finding a political future that’s not based on nostalgia. Trump was a symptom of our broken politics as well as our American pathologies, not a supernatural, one-time event. There is no good-old-days that we can go back to to get rid of the problem.

To put this into context, remember that this is a wave sweeping the world. It’s easy to fall into American exceptionalism, but his particular brand of populist authoritarianism is everywhere, including multiple countries in Europe. This is not some hiccup that’s over: the US got a mild version because of historical contingencies; we got a reality TV star, not a smart and shrewd authoritarian—the kind that keeps winning elections, but also subverting democracy, around the world.

The next authoritarian will have absorbed all these lessons, and will get there through skill and competence, not bumble into it like Trump did.

I thought hard about publishing this today. But I saw one too many “our national nightmare is over” tweets with thousands of retweets, and I just had to peek my head out and say that of course people can and should celebrate victories. But let’s not forget to look at what happened with clear and realistic eyes, not empty triumphalism, and get to work. But yes, maybe tomorrow. There is something to celebrate. It’s a beautiful, crisp fall day where I am, and despite this somewhat downer of a piece, I am very much going to enjoy today.