Last year, New Year’s Eve was full of foreboding. Despite our best attempts at predicting the future, none of us could be sure what 2017 might hold. We all knew that a man who is eminently unfit for political office was about to enter the White House. Would Donald Trump moderate or become even more extreme? Would he learn to have some respect for the rules and norms of the American republic or inflict lasting damage on the political system? And would he try to deliver actual improvements for the blue-collar Americans who supported him most vocally in the campaign or focus on enriching himself and a narrow band of plutocrats?
A year on, some of the answers are clear as day. There can hardly be any doubt that Trump has failed to moderate; as his recent assertion that he has the power to do whatever he pleases with the Department of Justice reminds us, he remains disdainful of the most basic limits on his authority. Nor is it plausible to believe that he actually has the interests of blue-collar Americans at heart: “You all just got a lot richer,” Trump reportedly told friends at Mar-a-Lago after his tax reform bill lavished depressingly generous presents on the richest Americans while doing virtually nothing for the lower middle class.
But even as the nature of Trump’s administration has become increasingly transparent over the past months, the impact he is having on the political system is less clear. Trump has consolidated his hold on the Republican Party. Congress has failed to make him pay any real price for his most outrageous actions, like the firing of FBI Director James Comey. At the same time, however, Trump has failed to restrict the independence of the judiciary or the vibrancy of the mainstream media—and has suffered some humiliating electoral defeats.
It remains perfectly plausible to see the past year either as the start of an orgy of economic and institutional destruction or as the helpless floundering of a deeply ineffective president. Much of political commentary has, as a result, devolved into a shouting match between pundits who are confidently pronouncing the political demise of Trump and those who are confidently pronouncing the demise of the American republic. (In my mind, the unsatisfactory truth is that our ultimate fate almost certainly has not yet been determined—and will look falsely inevitable in retrospect.)
For all of this uncertainty, however, I am feeling much more upbeat than I was this time last year.
There is a simple reason for my optimism. Unlike 2017, 2018 offers us an all-important opportunity to take back power. By winning the House or the Senate—or both—Democrats can finally ensure that Congress does the crucial job of checking the Trump administration.
There is a very simple difference between populists who flame out after a few years in office and populists who end up consolidating their power: They lose elections.
In countries from Venezuela to Hungary to Turkey to Russia, democratically elected heads of government with authoritarian tendencies were unable to transform their systems overnight. Though they started to attack the independence of institutions like the judiciary or the electoral commission early on, it took them many years to consolidate their hold on the levers of power. By the time they first stood for re-election, the opposition retained a real chance of winning.
In each case, the opposition squandered that vital chance to save the system. And it squandered that chance for two reasons: First, because Hugo Chavéz, Viktor Orbán, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Vladimir Putin were skilled politicians who delivered real improvements for their own base and remained highly popular in their first years in office. And second, because the opposition to these authoritarian populists proved to be tragically ineffective and unforgivably divided.
This comparison should drive home the stakes for 2018. Trump has already consolidated his hold over the Republican Party and effectively neutered Congress’ willingness to hold him to account. If Democrats fail to win back either the House or the Senate in the upcoming midterm elections, he will have at least two more years to weaken the institutions of the American republic. The consequences could be very serious indeed.
But the comparison to Russia and Hungary and Venezuela should also be heartening. For Trump has, thankfully, proved to be deeply incompetent in his first year in office. He has sold out his own base. He is, at this point, deeply unpopular. What’s more, the opposition to Trump has so far proven to be both resolute and resourceful. So long as the cold war between liberals and leftists does not turn hot in the coming months, Trump will face a strong opposition party united by a righteous determination to oust him from power.
2018 will most likely contain some shocking lows. There will be moments when it is crucial to play defense, protecting the most vulnerable Americans from the administration’s attacks and ensuring that Trump fails to dismantle independent institutions like the FBI. But this year, we also have an opportunity to go on the attack. And so our mission for the next months should be uncompromising and single-minded: Everyone who cares about saving the American republic from the Trumpists must do what they can to elect as many anti-Trump candidates as possible to state legislatures, to governors’ mansions, to the House of Representatives, and to the United States Senate.
Bring it on, 2018.