The endless barrage of news stories — Rod J. Rosenstein, Brett M. Kavanaugh, the United Nations literally laughing at President Trump — are all worthy of attention. But they shouldn’t make us lose sight of a simple but urgent truth: The 2018 midterms are the most important election in modern U.S. history. The 2016 presidential election pales in comparison. And if these midterms result in a Republican win, they are likely to have a greater impact than the 2020 race, too.
American democracy would have been fine if Al Gore had prevailed over George W. Bush or if John McCain had beaten Barack Obama. We would have been fine if Republicans hadn’t won the 1994 midterms, or if any results were reversed in the midterms of the 1960s, ’70s or ’80s.
That’s not true this time. The stakes are much higher. This election is not about policy or partisanship; it’s about the principles of democracy. It’s about the long-term viability of the American republic. This is the election that determines whether Trump’s brand of authoritarian populism establishes itself as the new normal.
Consolidated democracies don’t die from the rise of a demagogue. They die when the demagogue successfully co-opts the institutions and political parties that would otherwise resist authoritarian-style politics. They die when checks and balances become abstract theories on old parchment, instead of oversight exercised in practice. They die not when voters elect a strongman, but when they give his authoritarian brand of politics their stamp of approval in the subsequent election. That’s how ailing democracies died in Turkey and Hungary. It cannot be allowed to happen in the United States.
In 2016, millions of voters tolerated Trump’s alarming, despot-like outbursts, his racism, his lies, his apparent unfitness for office because they saw him as a necessary corrective who would shake up a broken political establishment. Others hoped the Donald Trump Show on tour in the campaign was a populist facade, a circus that he would discard if he won, growing out of the buffoonery and into a presidential statesman.
How wrong they were.
But the crucial point is that voters didn’t really know what a Trump presidency would look like. Millions figured: Let’s roll the dice.
Today, nobody is under any illusions about who Trump is or what he represents. He is — more than any president in American history — a threat to the democratic system itself. Never before have the pillars of American democracy come under direct and sustained assault from the White House.
Trump deploys Stalinist venom against the free press, calling it “the enemy of the people” or a “stain on America.” He systematically works to undermine the rule of law, whether it’s pardoning allies while calling to prosecute rivals, calling the FBI a “cancer,” admitting to firing investigators because they’re investigating him or directing his attorney general to politicize law enforcement decisions to benefit Republicans.
Trump also scapegoats minorities for political gain, targeting black athletes, Mexicans, Muslims and migrants. He makes a mockery of democratic ethics, using public office for private gain. He appoints unqualified cronies or his unqualified family members to senior posts. And he consistently praises the world’s worst tyrants — Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un — while directing an endless stream of vitriol at America’s democratic allies.
Finally, Trump undermines a core tenet of democracy — informed consent of the governed — by waging war on the truth with lies and Orwellian doublespeak.
Republicans have been shamefully complicit in enabling these authoritarian instincts. Nov. 6 is the party’s moment of reckoning. If Democrats sweep into power, winning at least the House, Republicans will be forced to reassess their spineless kowtowing to a wannabe despot. Real oversight will restore checks and balances to their proper function. Trump’s worst impulses will be constrained.
That’s precisely why those who have been lifelong Republicans — such as Bill Kristol, Michael Gerson, Tom Nichols, Joe Scarborough and Max Boot — are actively pushing Republicans to vote for Democrats this year. They understand that policy should divide us; democratic principles should not.
But if Republicans retain control of both houses of Congress, they will double down. Trumpism could be cemented into American politics for a generation, posing an existential threat to democracy itself. Republicans will receive the message that embracing Trump’s authoritarian streak is the surest path to victory. The feeble rhetorical resistance of Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) will be replaced by, at best, a deafening silence and, at worst, a full-throated battle cry for Trumpism. He will get away with more. He could be reelected in 2020, and his Republican successor would likely follow his authoritarian-style playbook.
Think about it this way: Criminals aren’t at their most dangerous in their first foray into crime. They are most dangerous after they have committed crimes and gotten away with it. Impunity is a drug that causes us to test the limits. Similarly, if Trump and Republicans get away with the past 20 months, they will be emboldened to behave much worse.
Democracy takes decades to build and centuries to perfect. But it can be destroyed in just a few “tipping point” elections. Our tipping point has arrived. And this time, it’s not Democrats vs. Republicans on the ballot: It’s democracy vs. authoritarian populism. We can’t afford to make the wrong choice.