In modern American politics, there are no eternal winners—only two unpopular major parties that take turns losing. According to the latest Economist/YouGov polling data, forty-one per cent of Americans have a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party and thirty-six per cent have a favorable opinion of the Republican Party. The ratings for individual politicians are often even worse, particularly for those who have been around for a long time. According to the Economist/YouGov data, only thirty-two per cent of Americans have a favorable opinion of Chuck Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader. Just twenty-one per cent have a favorable opinion of his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell.
Arguments can be had about what led to this lamentable situation. Was it social media? Negative advertising? Partisan media coverage? Or are the elected officials responsible? Is the great American public right to suspect that most politicians are irredeemably corrupt—or, at least, that they are trapped in a broken system?
One thing is clear: in such a poisonous environment, the key to success isn’t being overwhelmingly popular—for all but a few transcendent figures, that is an impossibility—but being less unpopular than your opponent. Joe Biden’s 2020 victory is a prime example of someone who succeeded in this strategy. After four years of Trump madness, a majority of voters plumped for a moderate, sane alternative. From January to August of last year, Biden’s approval rating remained safely above fifty per cent. Then came the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, Joe Manchin’s Senate roadblock of Biden’s domestic agenda, a resurgent pandemic, and rising inflation. With Trump off Twitter and out of the headlines, Biden’s ratings plummeted. Democrats looked fearfully to the midterms. After the November gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, Republicans looked to them with great anticipation.
Now comes Trump again, speculating about another Presidential bid and reminding people what a monumental threat he represents—not just to American democracy and the rule of law but to the sense of relief that has reigned since he left office. “If I run and if I win, we will treat those people from January 6th fairly,” he told a crowd in Texas a couple of weeks ago. “And, if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons.” Days later, he turned on Mike Pence, falsely claiming that the former Vice-President had failed to use his power to abrogate an election result that courts across the country had affirmed. “Unfortunately, he didn’t exercise that power, he could have overturned the Election,” Trump said in a statement that, intentionally or not, confirmed beyond all doubt his own nefarious intent.
Of course, Trump’s reëmergence doesn’t relieve the White House and the Democrats of the many policy challenges that they face—including inflation, the pandemic, and the Senate filibuster. Ultimately, they will be judged on their record in office, and an anti-Trump message won’t necessarily provide a political panacea. Terry McAuliffe’s defeat in Virginia illustrated the danger for Democrats of overly relying on the spectre of Trump when he is no longer in power. But Trump’s return to the headlines is an important development because it shifts some of the focus back to the G.O.P. and highlights the simple but defining question that the Party cannot avoid, as much as the Republican leaders McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader, may want to. Does the G.O.P. still support democracy? Or is it now Trump’s sock puppet—an authoritarian populist movement eager to run roughshod over anyone or anything that gets in its way, including the votes that eighty-one million Americans cast for Biden?
When Pence stood up at a meeting of the conservative Federalist Society, in Florida, on February 4th, and said, “President Trump is wrong; I had no right to overturn the election,” he was effectively claiming that the old G.O.P. is still alive and well, and so is its commitment to democracy. But, on that very day, at a meeting in Salt Lake City, the Republican National Committee sent the opposite message by passing a resolution that said the January 6th protesters were “engaged in legitimate political discourse” and censured two G.O.P. Representatives, Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, and Adam Kinzinger, of Illinois, for joining the House Select Committee that is investigating the attack on the Capitol. The formal motion of censure accused Cheney and Kinzinger “of participating in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens.”
According to a recent CBS News poll, eighty-three per cent of Americans disapprove of the actions of the Trump supporters who forced their way into the Capitol, and fifty-four per cent think it was an insurrection. In defeating McAuliffe in November, Glenn Youngkin, a leveraged-buyout tycoon who hails from the traditional Wall Street wing of the G.O.P., successfully avoided being dragged into the January 6th morass. He accepted Trump’s endorsement but didn’t invite the former President to campaign for him. Youngkin called for an audit of Virginia’s voting machines, but, finally, after repeatedly ducking the issue, said that he would have voted to certify the 2020 election result. He kept Trump at arm’s length without alienating him or his supporters.
With Trump back on the national stage railing about a stolen election, this straddle will be increasingly difficult for any Republican candidate to maintain. Constitutionally incapable of admitting defeat, he is clearly intent on making fealty to his Big Lie a litmus test, and any Republican who questions any part of it risks incurring his wrath. Last week, he even attacked Lindsey Graham, his longtime toady and golfing partner. After Graham said he didn’t favor issuing pardons to the January 6th participants who were being prosecuted, Trump called him a “RINO,” adding, “Lindsey Graham doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about if he says that.”
Trump’s reëmergence doesn’t guarantee anything. The antiquated American political system favors minority rule. Opposition parties usually do well in midterms, and this year’s electoral map favors Republicans. But the past week has highlighted the cancer that is still eating at the G.O.P. and reminded anti-Trump voters why it is so vital for them to get out and exercise their democratic duty—an important factor in a year in which Democratic strategists fear a decline in turnout. Coming in the same week that Omicron cases kept falling sharply and the January job figures came in unexpectedly strong, this has given Biden and other Democrats reason to hope that they can eventually get their ship back on course.