Amid the fallout from a stunning Republican loss in Georgia that effectively hands control of the U.S. Senate to Democrats, we’re already seeing commentary and think pieces about how this means the end of Trumpism, that Donald Trump killed the GOP, that Trump sabotaged his own party, and so on.
Not so fast. Yes, President Trump will leave office having served only one term, but consider where he will leave his party relative to his previous two predecessors. When George W. Bush left office, he left behind eight fewer GOP Senate seats and 21 fewer House seats. Democrats comfortably controlled the Congress and the White House, having made substantial gains in two consecutive elections, the 2006 midterms and the 2008 general—something no party had done since the 1930s.
By the time Barack Obama left office, his party had been decimated. Sure, Democrats gained two Senate seats and six House seats in 2016, but it wasn’t anywhere close enough to make up for historic losses in the 2010 and 2014 midterms. In the latter, Republicans won the largest Senate majority for either party since 1980, while gains in the House gave the GOP its largest majority since 1928. All told, Obama oversaw the net loss of 12 Senate seats and 64 House seats.
On the state level, Obama’s tenure was marked by the largest loss of power since Ike Eisenhower. When Obama took office in 2009, Democrats controlled both chambers in 27 states. When he left, it was only 13. Under Obama, Democrats lost 13 governorships and a total of 813 state legislative seats. Between the 2010 and 2014 midterms, Republicans gained control of 33 state legislatures.
By comparison, Trump is leaving his party in good shape. Yes, Democrats control the presidency, the House, and effectively control a split Senate. But Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s majority is razor-thin—and about to get thinner. President-elect Joe Biden has picked three Democratic House members to serve in his administration, which means Pelosi will have only a three-seat majority when the next Congress convenes.
Democrats failed to unseat a single House Republican in 2020 while losing Democratic incumbents nationwide. Democrats failed to gain control of a single state legislature, while Republicans netted about 60 state House seats and more than a dozen state Senate seats across the country. Democrats failed to gain any governorships, and in fact lost one in Montana, the only governorship to change party hands in 2020.
None Of This Means The GOP Is Doing Well
All of the above is of course relative. Trump didn’t sabotage his party, but his victory in 2016 did signal the end of the GOP as we knew it—not because Trump was going to kill the Republican Party (as I suspected might happen when he won the party’s nomination) but because his election meant the electorate had already changed, and profoundly.
Republican voters, along with millions of Independents and moderate Democrats, were fed up with an entrenched establishment beholden to a donor class whose interests conflicted with those of ordinary people. The chasm between these two groups was (and still is) especially obvious on issues like immigration, free trade, and foreign policy. For too long, Republican leaders paid lip service to what voters want—a secure border, protections for American workers, an end to foreign wars—while doing what the donors wanted.
Trump was in many ways the perfect candidate to channel these frustrations, which he did with aplomb and sincerity, given his long opposition to U.S. elite consensus on these issues. His 2016 victory underscored just how dead the old GOP consensus was—the Cold War “fusionism” that kept otherwise disparate elements of the Republican coalition together. Once in office, resistance to his agenda from within the GOP establishment made these divisions even more visible.
What became clear, at least outside the corporate media echo-chamber, was that the old Republican Party was already dead—had been dead since before Trump came along. Trump’s election offered the party new life and a new direction.
Instead of being beholden to a wealthy donor class and the exhausted ideas and slogans of the Reagan era, Republicans could embrace populism and become a right-of-center, multiracial, working-class party. Studies of the 2016 electorate indicated GOP voters were more economically liberal and socially conservative than anyone had thought, while Democrats were moving steadily to the left on both counts.
The question was, would Republican elites take up the gauntlet and try to transform their party along these lines? Some did, some didn’t. The old guard, people like Sens. Mitch McConnell and Mitt Romney, didn’t. A certain segment of the GOP establishment was never going to go along with a populist movement on the right, whether Trump was connected to it or not.
Indeed, as the dust settles from Georgia we are likely to hear again and again from establishment types who never supported Trump in the first place. They will say the loss of the Republican majority in the Senate, like the loss of the White House, is all Trump’s fault, and that in fact the last four years of a Trumpist (that is, a populist) GOP was all a huge mistake.
But Trump’s loss and the loss of the Senate, bad as it might seem for an emergent GOP populism, aren’t going to bring back the pre-Trump Republican status quo. Simply put, the failure of the Republican establishment was responsible for Trump’s rise, and Trump’s fall will not undo that decades-long failure—nothing will. That party, such as it was, is gone forever.