The last, dying gasp of Republican America
President Trump seems to truly believe that he speaks for the American people. Just look at all that red on the Electoral College map! And see how he scaled the Democrats' fabled Blue Wall in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin? Ordinary Americans have finally found their defender against the corrupt elites who seek to rule them from their enclaves on the coasts, and these Americans have rewarded Trump with their votes.
This story was never really persuasive. Trump's victory could hardly have been narrower. He won only 46 percent of the votes cast, he lost the popular vote to his opponent by nearly 3 million, and he owed his win to the vagaries of the Electoral College combined with a grand total of 80,000 votes spread across those three formerly Democratic-leaning states.
Yet win he did. And combined with Republicans keeping their majorities in both houses of Congress and holding or gaining control of well over half of the statehouses and governors mansions in the country, it certainly looked and felt on the morning after the 2016 election like we'd entered an era of ascendant right-wing populism and nationalism.
But what if the Trumpified Republican Party represents the end of something rather than the beginning?
No one knows precisely what the future holds — especially with Trump's populist and nationalist analogues in Europe making electoral gains across a wide swath of the continent. But the persistent weakness of the president's approval rating (and sky-high rates of strong disapproval), combined with the stunning series of upset Democratic victories in special elections around the country over the past year (most recently this week in western Pennsylvania), raises the distinct possibility that Republicans could be facing an electoral wipeout later this year — and one that goes far beyond what one would expect from a standard midterm drubbing for the party holding the White House.
Ironically, the conditions for such a wipeout have been set by the very institutions and actions that have given the GOP such an advantage in recent election cycles.
Republicans have become masters of manipulating our system's countermajoritarian institutions — and sometimes devising new ones — to transform tepid popular support into outsized political power. The Electoral College is the most obvious example. It's also the hardest to change, because doing so would require a constitutional amendment. But the GOP's Electoral College advantage is actually quite small. Trump's margin of victory in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin was so tiny that even the slightest decline in the president's support relative to what he enjoyed going into the 2016 vote — or an equally miniscule increase in enthusiasm for his Democratic opponent over what Hillary Clinton managed to generate — would leave the president vulnerable to defeat next time around.
Far more formidable is the GOP advantage due to blatantly partisan gerrymandering.
In 2016, Republicans beat Democrats in the popular vote in House races by a total of 1.1 percentage points, but this translated into a majority of seats with a margin of 10.8 percent (241-194). Four years earlier, the gap was even more striking. Democrats prevailed in the popular vote in 2012 by 1.2 percentage points but nonetheless ended up in the minority, with the Republicans winning a majority of seats by a 7.6 percent margin (234-201).
As a recent series of court decisions in Pennsylvania have brought to national attention, Republicans are able to achieve this amplification of their popular support by taking advantage of the tendency of Democrats to cluster in densely populated urban areas and combining it with state laws that permit the party holding power at the state level to set the boundaries of congressional districts. The result in Pennsylvania has been an egregiously unfair partisan skew — with Republicans in 2016 slightly losing the statewide popular vote and yet winning 72 percent (13 out of 18) of the state's congressional districts. (In neighboring New Jersey, where redistricting is handled by an appointed commission, a statewide popular vote outcome favoring the Democrats 54 percent to 46 percent yielded a much fairer congressional delegation of seven Democrats and five Republicans.)
Pennsylvania might push the tactic further than most states, but enough of them engage in similar practices that to win control of the House, Democrats need to do much better than prevail with just over 50 percent of the nationwide vote. To be assured that they win a majority, Democrats likely need to trounce Republicans by at least 7 to 10 percentage points.
That's incredibly galling — a blatant injustice at the core of our democracy that's impossible to justify as anything other than an attempt by Republicans to rig the system in their own favor. And that's how the GOP may well have set up the conditions of its own undoing.
If Republicans wanted to maximize the chance of getting away with their power grab, they would govern with humility and restraint, seeking compromise and conciliation whenever possible, realizing that the party's raw political strength lacks a firm foundation in public opinion. Instead, the president and his party have actively antagonized Democratic voters from day one, pushing a hard-right agenda, attempting to pass it without any votes from the other side of the aisle, issuing sweeping executive orders, and making an endless series of public statements that seem intended to keep liberals and progressives in a constant state of fury against the president and his party.
If either of them commanded the solid support of a strong majority of the voters, they might be able to get away with such behavior and absorb the overwhelming hostility from their political rivals without it endangering their majority in Congress. But they don't enjoy that support, so it's doubtful they can avoid reaping the whirlwind.
If the Democratic wave manages to breach the barriers erected by the GOP in Congress and key states, liberals and progressives can begin to dismantle these institutional obstacles to majority rule. Note that when they do so, the victorious Democrats will be unlikely to enact in-kind countermajoritarian hurdles against Republicans. Like the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which redrew the state's congressional map in such a way that the roughly equal partisan division in the state would be reflected in its congressional delegation, Democrats around the country would just be happy to be given a fair chance to compete. After all, consistent polling has given them reason to think that in a fair fight they would prevail more often than not.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that in a country where the Republican presidential nominee has managed to prevail in the popular vote just once since 1988 and the sitting president appears permanently stuck below 42 percent approval, his party has decided to embrace flagrant cheating. But that doesn't mean that the voters are going to accept it indefinitely. A tidal wave is coming. When it arrives next November, Republicans may find they've lost the last advantage they had in their effort to forestall electoral reality.
The GOP has become a minority party. And sooner or later, minority parties lose.