At this time of year, normally a sleepy, unremarkable period, I often write a column summing up the things that I got wrong in the previous year’s worth of punditry. Given that everything is rather more harrowing than usual this year, the habit feels a little self-indulgent — except that one important and mostly falsified hypothesis that I once held, not just for 2020 but across the entire Trump era, is about to be put to one last test.
The hypothesis was that by nominating Donald Trump for the presidency and lashing itself so closely to his unique mixture of corruption, incompetence and malice, the Republican Party set itself up for a sweeping political repudiation — on the order of what it faced in 1964, after Watergate and in the last two elections of the George W. Bush era.
I was wrong about this in 2016, but after the pandemic arrived in 2020 and Trump responded so Trumpishly, I suspected that the reckoning had finally arrived — that the president was sinking himself and that his party would likely go down with him.
Trump did sink, but not as deeply as I anticipated — and meanwhile, the GOP kept bobbing, its House caucus actually increasing, its hold on a few crucial Senate seats surprisingly maintained.
Where did I go wrong? Despite making it a frequent theme, I probably underestimated the public’s reluctance to hand a self-radicalizing liberalism full control of government, given its matchless power in other institutions. I also probably underestimated the stabilizing effect of the economic relief efforts on people’s finances, which made the pandemic year less devastating and the anti-incumbent mood less intense. And I suspect there was more lockdown fatigue, more wariness of the Democratic Party’s preferred public-health regime, than the coronavirus polling captured.
Add up all those factors, and you have a decent explanation for both the slightly higher-than-expected Trump vote and the voters who wanted to be rid of him but preferred divided government, in numbers that helped keep the Republican Party afloat.
Pundits are supposed to learn from the past, and learning from the Republican overperformance in November 2020 would lead one to expect that the GOP will keep its two Georgia Senate seats in today’s runoffs. After all, Trump himself has been defeated (his unwillingness to admit as much notwithstanding), the Georgia suburbs boast plenty of the kind of mildly conservative voters who voted for Joe Biden but also might like to see his presidency held in check, and David Perdue, one of the two Republican senators on the ballot, ran ahead of the president nine weeks ago. A Republican Party that survived the Trump era without the kind of shellacking I kept expecting should surely be able to win the first Senate races of the Biden era.
Except that this isn’t the Biden era, is it? Not for two more weeks; for now, it’s still the Trump era, the Trump show, the last crazy act (until he runs in 2024, that is), with everything dialed up as far as he can take it: the wildest conspiracy theories, the most perfect phone calls to beleaguered state officials and the most depressing sort of voter-fraud pandering from the irresponsibility caucus among congressional Republicans. And all of it happening while the COVID curve bends upward, a new strain spreads and the vaccine rollout falls well short of Trump administration predictions — not that the president shows any evidence of caring.
This context makes prediction a fool’s errand. You can’t use historical case studies to model pandemic-era runoff elections in which the president is making war on the officials of his own party and some of his fiercest online supporters are urging a boycott of the vote.
But since prediction is often just an expression of desire, I’ll tell you what I want to happen. Even though the party richly deserved some sort of punishment, I didn’t want the GOP to be destroyed by its affiliation with Trump, because I’m one of those Americans who don’t want to be ruled by liberalism in its current incarnation, let alone whatever form is slowly being born. But now that the party has survived four years of Trumpism without handing the Democrats a congressional supermajority, and now that Amy Coney Barrett is on the Supreme Court and Joe Manchin, Susan Collins and Mitt Romney will hold real power in the Senate, whatever happens in Georgia — well, now I do want Perdue and Kelly Loeffler to lose these races, mostly because I don’t want the Republican Party to be permanently ruled by Donald Trump.
Obviously, a runoff-day defeat won’t by itself prevent Trump from winning the party’s nomination four years hence or bestriding its internal culture in the meantime. (Indeed, for some of his supporters it would probably confirm their belief that the presidential election was stolen — because look, the Democrats did it twice!) But the sense that there is a real political cost to slavishly endorsing not just Trump but also his fantasy politics, his narrative of stolen victory, seems a necessary precondition for the separation that elected Republicans need to seek — working carefully, like a bomb-dismantling team — between their position and the soon-to-be-former president’s, if they don’t want him to just claim the leadership of their party by default.
That kind of Trump-forever future is what Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz and others are making possible, with their ambitious pandering. Hawley and Cruz both want to be Trump’s heir apparent (as though he doesn’t already have several in his family), but the deeper they go into the Trumpian dreampolitik, the more they build up the voter-fraud mythos, the more likely it becomes that they’ll just be stuck serving him for four more years — or longer.
So there needs to be some counterpressure, some sense that dreampolitik has costs. And defeat for two Republicans who have cynically gone along with the president’s stolen-election narrative, to the point of attacking their own state’s Republican-run electoral system, feels like a plausible place for the diminishment of Trump to start.
I don’t think that diminishment is necessary to save the American republic from dictatorship, as many of Trump’s critics have long imagined, and with increasing intensity the longer his election challenge has gone on. Whatever potentially crisis-inducing precedents Republican senators are establishing this month, the forces and institutions — technological, judicial, military — that could actually make America into some kind of autocracy are not aligned with right-wing populism, and less so with every passing day.
But Trump’s diminishment is definitely necessary if the American right is ever going to be a force for something other than deeper decadence, deeper gridlock, fantasy politics and partisan battles that have nothing to do with the challenges the country really faces.
Or to distill the point: You don’t have to see Trump as a Caesar to recognize his behavior this month as Nero-esque, playing a QAnon-grade fiddle while the pandemic burns. We imported at least one of the new variants of the coronavirus from overseas in the past few weeks — like the pandemic itself, the kind of thing a populist-nationalist president is supposed to try to slam the door against — but instead of shutting down flights from Britain or South Africa, he’s been too busy pushing the stupidest election challenge in recorded history, while slipping ever-closer to blaming the lizard people for his defeat.
I don’t know how any of this ends. But somewhere between the wipeout of the Republican Party that I once expected and the 2024 Trump restoration that I fear, there’s a world where the party spends the next four years very gradually distancing and disentangling itself from its Mad Pretender and his claims.
And since that scenario becomes a little more likely if Georgia goes for the Democrats, I think that not only liberals, but also those Republicans who want a conservatism after Trump, should welcome that result.
Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.