American democracy received a stay of execution on Tuesday. But it is still on death row.
I blame the Framers, although to be fair, they may not have had much choice. The Constitution was designed to protect small (by population) states by giving each state equal representation in the Senate, by feeding the count of Senators into the count of presidential electors, and by insulating the Senate from the ordinary Article V amendment process. These provisions are obviously anti-democratic, but they were also considered a necessary compromise. The Framers saw quite clearly that fewer people would have more political power if they lived in small states. That was the point.
We are accustomed today to think about national politics in terms of political parties, and from that point of view it can seem like the Senate arbitrarily and unfairly favor Republicans. Unfairly, yes, but there is nothing arbitrary about it. Small states are rural states. To the extent that one party is a rural party and the other is an urban party, it will be the rural party that benefits from equal representation in the Senate. This is sectional politics, and it would have been perfectly familiar to any 19th-century politician who witnessed sectional fights over internal improvements and over slavery. The conflict between urban and rural factions is as old as history: just ask the the Romans and the socii.
One aspect of Donald Trump’s political genius is that he intuited, was advised, or stumbled into the realization that the American constitutional system gives an immense structural advantage to the rural party. He has knocked the Republican party off of its traditional ideological axes and remade it as a thoroughly rural party. This was not a large shift: it was already the more rural of the two parties, and has been tipping further in that direction for some time. He just gave it a hard shove.
The white male identity politics that Trump has been stoking are the politics of rural resentment. The unifying theme is a hatred of urban elites. You can call them Democrats, or libtards, or globalists, or Jews. You can see them in the universities, in government bureaucracies, in the professions, or anywhere else that still has its head above water. The policy specifics are less important than the sense of shared identity and commitment. There are an Us and a Them, and They live in the cities – cities that are full of crime, depravity, and brown people.
Trump discovered, quite possibly accidentally, that a rural Republican party can take and hold electoral power even if it represents a minority of the population and receives a minority of votes. 2016 set up the hypothesis, and 2018 confirmed it. Even without the House (where the urban party also is at a structural disadvantage, but less of one), the Presidency plus the Senate is enough to staff the agencies and to stack the courts.
The Republican party has been almost completely purified into the Trumpublican party. Many of the retired or defeated Republican House members were suburban “moderates,” and many of the Republican Senators who would publicly rebuke him (even if they generally voted with him) are now retired or dead. Those who remain are either vocally loyal or have made their peace and will go along with whatever.
Of course Trump is moving immediately to fire Sessions and stop the investigations. He can, and the Senate won’t interfere. He’ll still get his replacement attorney general, his judges, and whatever else he demands. He’ll still get his political cover.
In fact, the lesson of 2018 is probably that the investigations don’t matter politically. It’s hard to imagine what else could now come out that would be enough to sway someone who wasn’t persuaded already. The United States of America now consists of 45% Gryffindor, 35% Death Eaters, and 20% people who are uncertain between the two. There are no more surprises. Even if his aides and family members are tried, convicted, and imprisoned, do you really think that will make the difference politically? Imagine what Fox News, Gateway Pundit, and Infowars will say. Is there anything, anything at all, that would make them turn on him? Can you imagine any cruelty, any mistake, any disaster, or any scandal that they would not ignore, explain away, or lay at the feet of those perfidious Democrats?
The global trend is clearly in the direction of populist right-wing authoritarianism: it’s visible on every continent and in every major election. Trump himself was a fluke: he accelerated what was already coming. And he was so extreme, so corrupt, so heartless, that there was at least the possibility that he would trigger a backlash that would discredit the reactionary movement in the United States for a political generation. But it didn’t happen in the primaries, it didn’t happen in the general election in 2016, and it didn’t happen in 2018, either. It’s not going to happen, not in the way we need. It is easily possible to imagine that Trump will lose the 2020 election. It is inconceivable that Trumpism will be put back in the bottle.