The American republic stood on the brink of another descent into Trumpism this week. On Tuesday it stepped back to reconsider its options.
That's the most salient fact about a midterm election that surprised all but a few brave souls who insisted that, actually, things looked kinda good for the Democratic Party. As Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has discovered, perhaps for the last time, you can flirt with Trumpism only so many times before it devours your moral innards and leaves you like carrion on the roadside.
The election results, for the House and many other offices, are a long way from final. But unlike every midterm since 2002, and most of the midterms before that, the president's party did not suffer a blowout. And it may yet prove much better than that for Democrats. The reasons for that are uncertain. But some elements are clear.
Republicans assured the electorate that criminals were coming to attack them and migrants were coming over the border carrying fentanyl to kill their children. (Fox News went with fentanyl-laced candy as its Halloween trick.) It was a visceral message, delivered nationwide. In effect, Republicans told voters that Democratic victories would lead to a quick and violent death — for themselves and their families. Inflation would jack up funeral costs.
Democrats, meanwhile, told voters that Republican victories would lead to a slow and violent death — of their rights and their democracy. Many said it was a mistake for Democrats to foist this abstraction on a harried, unhappy electorate. It required voters to set aside immediate concerns in favour of protecting a long-term philosophical and humanitarian project. Who would care?
It seems enough women and young people — it is always women and young people, isn't it? — grasped the genuine threat, both personally and nationally. Abortion rights appear to have prevailed everywhere they were on the ballot, including Kentucky. Americans, including a few who say otherwise at church, do not want the right to an abortion taken away. Indeed, it's possible that the midterm die was set in June when an arrogant Supreme Court majority overturned Roe v. Wade.
Of course, it's also possible that a decisive number of voters realised that a series of Benghazi hearings on Hunter Biden and allegedly "woke" corporations are unlikely to curtail crime or global inflation. Perhaps some voters even understood that the erosion of Republican seriousness in government is directly related to the abandonment of democratic values and commitment by so many Republican legislators.
Many on the left will be revelling in Donald Trump's very, very bad night. But the GOP has been inching beyond Trump for some time. Not long ago, Republican voters said they were more loyal to Trump than to the GOP. Now they say the opposite. Trumpism doesn't need Trump to flourish. The resounding victory of Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida, Trump's new intraparty nemesis, is a testament to Trumpism's continued dominance.
Like Trump, DeSantis has an authoritarian's crude touch, using the power of the state against his chosen targets — immigrants, trans kids, Mickey Mouse. DeSantis, however, has skills and intelligence that Trump lacks, even as Trump remains the party's top demagogue. DeSantis is more likely than Trump to bring Trumpism to fruition. That prospect, however, is shakier today than it seemed yesterday.
Still, there is no swift way out of the nation's democratic troubles. The Republican Party is, for now, devoted to lies. Words matter in a democracy, where often deeds are done in words. The hundreds of election deniers who won Republican nominations for major elected offices confirm that the party has a minimal commitment to democratic rhetoric, values or practices.
"Election denier" is the ambiguous term that much of the news media has settled on for this subversion of democratic form and function. For the moment, the phrase means someone who denies an election's results. But given the power to realise their ambitions, election deniers would be in a position to deny the actual practice of fair elections, not just their results. That ambition took a direct hit this week. Democracy in America is stronger as a result.
On a night that saw many Democrats victorious, the most important deed, with perhaps the most lasting echo, belonged to a loser. "I have the privilege to concede this race to JD Vance," Representative Tim Ryan [Democratic Party] said after losing his longshot bid for a US Senate seat in Ohio. "Because the way this country operates is that when you lose an election, you concede."
Never has one shamed so many, so simply.
Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering US politics and policy. Previously, he was an editor for the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg and is published by a special syndication arrangement.