We received a message from the future this week, directed to the outraged liberals of the so-called anti-Trump resistance. It was delivered by an unlikely intermediary, Greg Gianforte, the Republican who won a special election on Thursday and will soon take his seat in Congress as Montana’s lone representative. (Here’s a trivia question to distract you from the doom and gloom: Without recourse to Google, how many other states can you name that have only one House seat?)
If you found yourself ashen-faced and dismayed on Friday morning, because you really believed the Montana election would bring a sign of hope and mark the beginning of a return to sanity in American politics, then the message encoded in Gianforte’s victory is for you. It goes something like this:
Get over Montana already — and stop trolling yourself with that stupid special election in Georgia too. They don’t mean anything, and anyway -- that dude Jon Ossoff? He's about the lamest excuse for a national progressive hero in the entire history of Democratic Party milquetoast triangulation. Oh, and since we're on the subject: Forget about the “blue wave” of 2018. Forget about the Democratic majority of 2019. Forget about the impeachment of President Donald Trump. Have you even been paying attention? Because none of that stuff is happening and it’s all a massive distraction.
A distraction from what, you ask? Well, that’s a good question without a clear answer, and the message gets pretty fuzzy after that. I would suggest that rebuilding American politics and indeed all of American public discourse, now that they’ve been Trumpified, is not about the next electoral cycle or the one after that. It’s going to take a while, and I’m not sure how much the Democratic Party will have to do with it, or what it will look like.
No doubt the exaggerated media focus on Montana was inevitable, in the age of the voracious 24/7 news cycle: This was only the second vacant congressional seat to be filled since Trump took office, and the first where the Democratic candidate appeared to have a real shot. But the Big Sky frenzy also spoke to the way American politics has almost entirely become a symbolic rather than ideological struggle — a proxy war between competing signifiers whose actual social meaning is unclear.
Despite their abundant differences, Barack Obama and Donald Trump were both semiotic candidates, who appeared to represent specific worldviews or dispositions (the espresso cosmopolitan; the shameless vulgarian) but presented themselves as a disruption to “normal” politics and were difficult to nail down in left-right ideological terms. Understanding an off-year congressional election in an idiosyncratic and thinly populated Western state, where fewer than 400,000 voters cast ballots, as a referendum on the national mood or the GOP health care bill or much of anything else is patently absurd. But it’s a miniature example of the same reduction to symbolism, in which everything is said to stand for something else and democracy becomes pure spectacle.
As for Gianforte, the inadvertent vehicle for our message, nobody outside Montana had heard of him before this week, and we’re not likely to hear much from him in Washington either, where he will disappear into the chorus of fleshy, pickled-looking, age-indeterminate white millionaires who make up the House Republican caucus. Gianforte found his one moment of fame after allegedly assaulting Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs on the eve of the election, making the GOP candidate a focal point of widespread liberal wish-casting and concern-trolling. Surely the good people of Montana would see the light of reason now that the Republican candidate had been revealed — gasp! — as a thin-skinned, violent bully.
It’s almost hilarious — in the vein of that long-running “Peanuts” gag about Charlie Brown, Lucy and the football — that anyone managed to convince themselves that purportedly decking a representative of the “liberal media” would damage Gianforte. It probably didn’t make much difference; about 70 percent of the votes had already been cast before the Jacobs incident. But I think it’s safe to say that likely Republican voters in Montana, and damn near everywhere else, can be divided into two groups: those who didn’t much care or were inclined to look the other way, and those who were absolutely thrilled.
Gianforte’s decisive victory over Democrat Rob Quist on Thursday has provoked a fresh round of soul-searching from the same people who made too damn much of the Montana election in the first place. We have been told that Democrats must field stronger candidates and commit more resources, that Bernie Sanders does not possess some magic elixir that attracts disgruntled white people and that Donald Trump remains popular in places where people really like him. If that’s not quite enough Captain Obvious, Washington Post columnist Greg Hohmann devoted an impressive amount of research and reporting to the Montana aftermath before arriving at the diagnosis that there is “a growing tribalism that contributes to the polarization of our political system.” You don’t say!
Let me be clear that I’m indicting myself here as well: I edit political coverage at Salon, and I followed the Montana news closely. I knew perfectly well how it was likely to turn out, but one can always be wrong about that (as we discovered last November), and I shared some dim sense that it might be cathartic to experience an insignificant proxy victory in a state I have never even visited. But when I ask myself why I felt that way, even a little, the answers are not edifying.
For many people in, let’s say, the left-center quadrant of the American political spectrum — especially those who are not all that eager to confront the fractured and tormented state of the current Democratic Party — Montana and Georgia and 2018 seem(ed) to represent the opening chapters of a comeback narrative, the beginning of a happy ending. If what happened in 2016 was a nonsensical aberration, then maybe there’s a fix right around the corner, and normal, institutional politics can provide it.
First you chip away at Republican triumphalism, and the House majority, with a couple of special-election victories. Then it’s about organizing, recruiting the right candidates for the right seats, registering voters and ringing doorbells, right? Democrats picked up 31 seats in the George W. Bush midterms of 2006 — and will need 24 or so this time — so, hey, it could happen. For that matter, Republicans gained an astounding 63 seats in the Tea Party election of 2010, and many observers have speculated that Trump-revulsion might create that kind of cohesion on the left. So we sweep away Paul Ryan and his sneering goons, give Nancy Pelosi back her speaker’s gavel after eight long years, introduce the articles of impeachment and begin to set America back on the upward-trending path of political normalcy and niceness.
I suspect it’s pointless to list all the things that are wrong with that scenario, because either you agree with me that it’s a delusional fantasy built on seven different varieties of magical thinking or you don’t, and in the latter case I am not likely to convince you.
My position is that Donald Trump is a symptom of the fundamental brokenness of American politics, not the cause. Electing a Democratic House majority (which is 95 percent unlikely to happen) and impeaching Trump (which is 100 percent not going to happen) might feel good in the moment, but wouldn’t actually fix what is broken. Considered as a whole, the “blue wave” fantasy of November 2018 is a more elaborate and somewhat more realistic version of the “Hamilton elector” fantasy of December 2016: Something will happen soon to make this all go away.
(Let's throw in the caveat that there are plausible universes in which the Republicans ultimately decide to force Trump out of office for their own reasons. Entirely different scenario.)
If you don’t want to believe me now, I get it. But take a good hard look at Rep.-elect Greg Gianforte, and go through all the excuses you have made to yourself about how and why that happened, and we’ll talk.
It’s worth making two salient structural points that I think are beyond dispute, and then a larger, more contentious one. As my former boss David Daley has documented extensively, both on Salon and in his book "Ratfucked," the extreme and ingenious gerrymandering of congressional districts locked in by Republican state legislators after the 2010 census virtually guarantees a GOP House majority until the next census and at least the 2022 midterms. Yes, the widely-hated health care law might put a few Republican seats in play that weren’t before. But the number of genuine “swing” districts is vanishingly small, and it would require a Democratic wave of truly historic dimensions to overcome the baked-in GOP advantage.
As for the Senate — well, Democratic campaign strategists will mumble and look away if you bring that up, because the Senate majority is completely out of reach. Of the 33 Senate seats up for election next year, 25 are currently held by Democrats — and 10 of those are in states carried by Donald Trump last year. It’s far more likely that Republicans will gain seats in the Senate, perhaps by knocking off Joe Manchin in West Virginia or Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, than lose any at all.
Those disadvantages could be overcome if we were looking at a major electoral shift, on the order of FDR in 1932 or the post-Watergate midterms of 1974, when Democrats won 49 seats in the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. I can only suppose that’s the sort of thing the blue-wave fantasists imagine. That brings us to the final and largest point: Exactly who is kidding themselves that the Democratic Party, in its 2017 state of disarray and dysfunction, is remotely capable of pulling off a history-shaping victory on that scale?
This is a paradoxical situation in many ways, one that reflects the larger decline of partisan politics in general. The Republican Party went through a spectacular meltdown in 2016, but wound up winning full control of the federal government, partly through luck and partly by default. Meanwhile, Democrats hold a demographic advantage that was supposed to guarantee them political hegemony into the indefinite future, and their positions on most social and economic issues are far more popular than Republican positions (except when you get to nebulous concepts like “national security”). Now they face an opposition president who is both widely despised and clownishly incompetent.
That sounds like a prescription for a major renaissance — but not for a party that is so listless, divided and ideologically adrift. Democrats have been virtually wiped out at the state and local level in non-coastal, non-metropolitan areas of the country: They had full control of 27 state legislatures in 2010, and partial control in five more; today they control 14 (with three splits). There was plenty of bad faith and unfair recrimination on both sides of the Bernie-Hillary split of 2016, which there’s no need to rehearse here. But the bitterness has lingered not just because each side blames the other for the election of Donald Trump (and they both could be right) but because it represents a profound underlying identity crisis that ultimately has little to do with Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. (Again, they are the symbols or signifiers.)
I have previously argued that the Democratic Party’s civil war was unavoidable and has been a long time coming. Like most people, I assumed it would play out under President Hillary Clinton, not with the party reeling in defeat and at a historic low ebb. In the face of a national emergency, maybe Democrats will find some medium-term way to bridge the gulf between pro-business liberal coalition politics and a social-democratic vision of major structural reform and economic justice. Whoever the hell they nominate for president in 2020 will have to pretend to do that, at any rate.
But right now the Democratic Party has no clear sense of mission and no coherent national message, except that it is not the party of Donald Trump. I can understand the appeal of that message, the longing for a return to normalcy, calm and order that it embodies. What we learned in Montana this week — and will likely learn in Georgia, and learn again in the 2018 midterms — is that that's not enough. There is no “normal” state we can return to.
For the Trump resistance to have meaning, it must be more than the handmaiden or enabler of a political party that has lost its power, lost its voice and lost its way. Electoral victories will come (and go), but we should have learned by now that they are never sufficient in themselves. Rebuilding and redeeming American democracy — if that can still be accomplished — is a much bigger job, and there are no shortcuts.