Little remarked this week, amid the Republican celebrations and the weeping and gnashing of teeth among the Democrats, is this: it was not all about Donald Trump. It was on the whole a normal election in which the party opposed to the president made some gains, both Democrats and Republicans notched some wins and took some losses. Winners were gracious, losers stoic. Nobody alleged they’d been defrauded of victory.
We could be seeing the beginning of the decay of Trumpism, much as a radioactive isotope loses half its strength as it decays.
Wait—this just in! Ciattarelli, backed by Donald Trump, has refused to concede. Otherwise, Donald Trump allowed himself, in the interest of winning Virginia, to be confined to TV rallies in the rural precincts of Southside and Southwest Virginia, while allowing his anointed candidate, Glenn Younkin, to establish an identity as a reasonable, cultured suburbanite concerned about the schools. Trump was nowhere to be seen in New Jersey, where Ciattarelli nearly won.
We could be seeing the beginning of the decay of Trumpism, much as a radioactive isotope loses half its strength as it decays. Of course he still has his base that believes any arrant foolishness that comes out of his mouth, but there are also about as many Republicans who would really prefer that he not be their presidential nominee in 2024. The base is probably slowly shrinking without Trump stirring them up constantly on Twitter. At best it’s a significant minority of the electorate, around 40 percent at most, probably less now.
The newly reemerging Republican establishment will have the challenge of humoring the Trump base with dog-whistle rhetoric, while they get about their real business of reestablishing GOP dominance in the suburbs and among educated White women. This is no easy task; if they fail, many of these Trumpers might feel disrespected and ignored, and stop voting. Or the suburbanites might come to see themselves being used by the Trumpers. A delicate dance indeed.
The challenge for the Democrats is also daunting, as Trumpism decays and normal politics resumes. As we could see in the Virginia campaign, Trump was McAuliffe’s trump card: when all else failed, he could try to scare voters by treating Youngkin as a Trump clone. It didn’t work.
It did work in 2020, when Biden’s main argument was that he was the anti-Trump. But even back then, many voters who despised Trump and voted for Biden then voted GOP down-ballot. Biden’s win was an anti-Trump referendum. It was not an endorsement of the Build Back Better program.
Democrats have just a year to figure out and sell a positive message against a post-Trump Republican Party. The Republicans pretty much have their message.