The palpable joy among liberals and progressives over Tuesday night’s victories was not simply a function of the many contests in which Democrats prevailed. Sure, the party recaptured the New Jersey governor’s mansion, swept dozens of state and local elections, voted to expand Medicaid in Maine, and kept the Virginia governorship despite a nasty Republican campaign. But the outpouring of ebullience and relief cannot be explained entirely by angst about whether Ralph Northam would really come through in Old Dominion. No, what Tuesday night suggests—and the reason it registered so acutely with so many—is that democracy might actually survive Donald Trump.
The central fear of Trumpism, for many of us, is that his presence in American life will erode the fundamental promise of democratic government. (A related fear is that a massive terrorist attack, or some other hinge event, would cause those freedoms to disappear much more rapidly than what is implied by “erosion.”) While Trump and Trumpism are bad enough on their own, the fear in progressive circles isn’t just about having an authoritarian in the White House. It’s about the way our democracy does or doesn’t function.
There are lots of reasons to worry for American democracy today: In numerous states, voting laws make it harder for Democratic constituencies to vote. Gerrymandering has helped entrench Republican control of Congress and state legislatures. Urban-rural divides make capturing control of the House even more difficult, because Democratic voters are packed into cities. The Senate is weighted, overall, against blue states. Fears of Russia “hacking” the election—whether that means ballot boxes (which has yet to happen, as far as we know) or politically sensitive email accounts (which has)—are rampant. Those disparate concerns feed into the same fear: that neither Trumpism nor Trump will ever really be defeated. That his unpopularity won’t matter. That the deck is stacked, and Republican control is inevitable. The sum of all these fears is Trump himself—a man who would clearly love to be a dictator and couldn’t care less about sacrificing a quaint notion like fair elections for his own power.
This is not to say that all these fears are equally dire or that Democrats do not lose elections for all sorts of other reasons. The 2016 catastrophe had many causes, not the least of which was the unpopular person at the top of the ticket. Going forward, the party faces numerous challenges, including nominating a better candidate for 2020, reaching at least some of the Americans who find the party culturally toxic, motivating voters outside of presidential years, and being willing to fight and win elections with the country (and electoral system) we have, not the one we want. Still, what’s most terrifying about Trump is the thought that we will never be rid of him. That prospect now feels slightly more remote.
It is, of course, far too early to celebrate the survival of American democracy. Gerrymandering will make taking back the House more difficult for Democrats even in a “wave” election. Hacking by Russia or other foreign powers remains unaddressed by the Trump administration, which has instead appointed a federal commission on “election integrity” to address the nonexistent problem of voter fraud. And issues of voting rights are not going away—in fact, they are as dire as they have been in decades in several states. Tuesday night’s losses might even motivate Republicans to push for new restrictions, in the hopes of blunting a Democratic wave.
Still, Tuesday’s results felt like the first significant blow against Trumpism. If these four years are a stress test for American institutions, most of them have so far passed Trump’s assault, as Daniel Drezner argues here. But some of those institutions—the Supreme Court, the Justice Department—are likely to feel Trump’s effect over time, with uncertain consequences. For all the proper concern about the future sanctity of the ballot box, it remains the best way to fight a unique—and democratically elected—menace.