Donald Trump’s first year as President is drawing to a close, and it’s been rough. The Republican Congress proved unequal to the task of repealing Obama Care. The border wall hasn’t been built. The administration is packed with generals and hawkish ideologues who push the President toward foreign intervention. A special prosecutor stalks the land, turning up no evidence of collusion with Russia to steal an election, but laying snares for officials who are unwary about what they tell the FBI. The President’s party suffered a rout in Virginia, not only in the commonwealth’s gubernatorial race but in its legislative contests, too—a sign of things to come in the congressional midterms, Democrats are certain.
They’re probably right. Things will get worse for Trump in 2018. The Republicans will lose seats in the House of Representatives, and they could well lose control. Swings against a president’s party are typical of midterms, and two of the last three presidents—Clinton and Obama—lost the House two years into their administrations. Even the Senate is not entirely safe for Republicans, though the map of the seats up for re-election next November is favorable to them. Incumbent Republican senators might even face primary challenges backed by Steve Bannon, the President’s former chief strategist. If Bannon’s candidates lose, critics will say their failure is really Trump’s. They’ll say the same thing when Republicans nationwide suffer the fate of Virginia’s GOP. Democrats smell blood.
The bitter remnants of the NeverTrump movement foresee their resurrection in all of this: Once Trump is shown to be an albatross around his party’s neck, Republicans will rush back to Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio. Trump will only have discredited Trumpism, and nevermore need the party establishment worry about deplorables demanding “America First!” or less immigration. Globalization will be back on track.
What can save Trump from total defeat? The same thing that brought him victory just over a year ago: his enemies’ absolute complacency and failure to learn any lessons from their own setbacks. The host of wannabe Bushes running against Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries learned nothing from the annihilation of Jeb Bush’s dreams of the White House. Hillary Clinton learned as little from Trump’s sweeping away of the Republican opposition. And from Clinton’s own devastating defeat, Democrats and establishment Republicans alike have come away none the wiser. But you can’t blame them: They’re only refusing to face a truth that would drive them to despair—namely, that they deserve as much credit as Trump himself for Trump’s election. Majorities of voters in a majority of states made Donald Trump president because they want nothing to do with any more Bushes or Clintons, not even the updated multicultural models touted by the Beltway-knows-best experts. Voters want jobs—not wars, not gender-neutral bathrooms. They want a president who is on the side of law enforcement, not an advocate of violent protesters. These are simple demands, but they’re demands the bipartisan establishment just can’t—or rather, won’t—meet.
Success in 2018 threatens to be the Democrats’ undoing. It will be an unearned victory, much as the Republicans’ successes in 2010 and 2014 were. In those Obama years, the GOP had not even begun to exorcize the spirit of the last Bush administration, which still possessed the party. Proof of that could be seen in 2008 and 2012, when the most unregenerate establishmentarians imaginable, John McCain and Mitt Romney, won the party’s presidential nomination. Democrats will do well in 2018 simply by default. And that will deprive them of the spur to reinvention.
That’s a shame, because a Democratic Party that actually learned the lessons of 2016 and bid for the votes of Middle America would improve the political right as well as the left by putting pressure on the GOP to deliver what Trump promised. Imagine: two parties competing to put Americans to work and to put our country first in foreign affairs. Two parties, not just a president from one party, repudiating the globalism of the Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama epoch. And if either party slipped back into its old ways, the other one would gain a quick advantage.
It’s not in the cards: The Democrats are still the party of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, a House leader from San Francisco and a Senate leader effectively from Wall Street. That’s a party Donald Trump can beat in 2020, whatever happens in 2018. That is if, and only if, Trump delivers for Middle America.
To do that, he and his allies might first have to make a new kind of Republican Party in Congress. And they’ll get their chance if things go the way they look to be going in this November’s midterms. Far from ushering the NeverTrump gang back into power, a wipeout of the old GOP will clear the way for a new breed of Republican—but again, if, and only if, that new breed is ready to put Americans first.