As the interpretations of last night’s elections settle, most of them are right: good night for Democrats, not good for Donald Trump. We’ll have to see if anyone bears out Trump’s prediction that a defeat of Kentucky’s incumbent governor, Republican Matt Bevin, would occasion hysterical reactions from the press. “If you win,” Trump told the rallygoers, “they are going to make it like, ho hum. And if you lose, they are going to say Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world.” This writer will merely note that Bevin did lose and grant that Trump didn’t suffer a giant defeat. It was a close race lost by an unpopular candidate. Still, it was a bad sign for Trump overall. If your side gets defeated at the polls once or twice, you can put it down to local peculiarities. When it happens more often than not, though, it’s something else. So Democrats have a lot more to be happy about than Trump does. No, there weren’t a lot of surprises, but the health of Trumpism relies on holding ground and winning upsets, and that came nowhere close to happening.
Instead, being endorsed by Donald Trump is looking more and more like King Tut’s curse. In failing to rescue Matt Bevin, Trump proved unable to close the deal in a state where his support should matter. Previous failures have included Luther Strange and Roy Moore in Alabama, Ed Gillespie in Virginia, Kris Kobach in Kansas, and Scott Walker in Wisconsin. What we’ve seen, time and again, is that Trump has been unable to mobilize the movement that he unwittingly brought into existence. Had Trump been the real fascist that his enemies believed him to be, he would have voiced a clear worldview and taken quiet and systematic steps to subvert the old Republican Party (not to mention the Bill of Rights) and get the new one into office all over the country. In real life, Trump lacks the ideology, the patience, and the ground game. He has no such discipline and relies instead on arena showmanship and culture-war loyalty. It keeps a lot of his fellow Republicans in line, but it doesn’t transform them.
Another standout result from yesterday was the flip of Virginia’s House and Senate from red to blue, a bit of good news for Democrats and bad news for Trump, although, as with many of the races yesterday, no one was surprised. Demographic projections can be misleading, but they tell us a lot more than people tend to recognize, and yesterday’s results were the culmination of a long-running increase in the share of Hispanic and college-educated voters, especially in the northern part of the state. The inevitability of births and deaths, combined with immigration, make demographic forces like a glacier—slow but invincible. Virginia will stay blue. North Carolina is heading there. So is Georgia. In California, newspapers are looking back at Proposition 187, a controversial anti-illegal-immigration ballot measure that passed 25 years ago, and marking it as the moment that woke up Latino voters and turned the state blue. The less interesting reality is that the state had been trending blue for years, electing Democrats to the Senate and the White House in 1992, and continued its steady march blue-ward, because the population was changing. Its Mexican-American population was growing, and white conservatives were leaving. No shock to the system was required for demographics to have their cumulative effect at the ballot box.
Three makes a trend, and the refusal of Matt Bevin to concede last night was the third prominent instance of such a thing in the past three years. Back when Alabama Republican Roy Moore refused to concede to Doug Jones, in the special Senate election of December 2017, most people saw it as one more symptom of Moore’s deranged zealotry, and everyone moved on, except for Moore. (Moore is now said to be eyeing the state’s Republican primary for the 2020 Senate race. Given his belief that he’s already the incumbent, that should be unnecessary.) When Democrat Stacey Abrams refused to concede in the gubernatorial race in Georgia in 2018, a large share of pundits amplified her claims of malfeasance by the opposition, an incendiary game to play, but the winner ultimately took office without incident. Matt Bevin will also be shown the door, but this time we’re talking about an incumbent, and that increases the hazards. Incumbents have the default real estate—the office, the drapes, the people. They can chain themselves to the desk and cause a lot more of a scene. Let’s hope Bevin avoids that, despite the possible entertainment value.
Given the pain of losing, doing it sorely has been surprisingly uncommon in American politics. The phrase “refuses to concede defeat” is a staple of news reports on races in developing countries—Romania, Indonesia, and Kenya in this past decade, to name a few. When it starts cropping up in a developed country that has long been a beacon of peaceful transfers of power, however, it’s more of a shock, one that bodes ill for upholding our traditions. It doesn’t help that, to an increasing degree over the past 25 years, we’ve been treating our elected presidents as illegitimate. You could say that the last president to avoid having a kooky fringe call him a usurper was George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton set off a thousand crazy conspiracy theories on the right, some of them implicitly questioning his right to be in office at all. George W. Bush caused even more, not least because some of the objections in his case were legitimate: The Supreme Court had all but installed him. With Barack Obama, a robust fringe of conservatives insisted he was Kenyan-born and therefore fraudulently in his position. But worst has been the reaction to Donald Trump, who set a third of the country into a Siberian-candidate frenzy that has yet to abate. And this time much of the mainstream joined in.
No politician ever believes they were beaten fair and square, but they’re supposed to act like it, because the alternative is chaos. That’s something our public figures, even at their worst, used to appreciate, almost without fail. You sucked it up and told your supporters to simmer down. But our elites aren’t what they used to be. It’s no wonder Bevin is holding on.
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