The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Trump Undertow will have a long-lasting impact

The MAGA march on D.C. showed Trump supporters are not a monolith, but their dedication to the president is singular. (Video: The Washington Post)

Waves never stop coming, and certainly not in American politics.

Republicans of my generation treasure Ronald Reagan’s sweep in 1980 as the once-in-a-lifetime election that broke decisively in favor of the GOP for both the presidency and the Senate.

It happened again 14 years later for the House of Representatives. I was co-hosting an election night special at Los Angeles PBS affiliate KCET in 1994 when the Newt Gingrich-led tsunami broke upon the land. “If it was a fight, they’d stop it,” I chortled as the green light blinked on to open the show. Later that evening, then-Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) dropped by and confided to me offstage: “If anybody tells you they saw this coming, they are lying.”

Democrats have had their blowout nights, too, among them election night in 2006, when Nancy Pelosi led Democrats to control of the House and her place in history as the first woman to be speaker of that body. “We got thumped,” President George W. Bush, ever gracious, announced.

The GOP got thumped again by Barack Obama in 2008, as that political force majeure swept the Republicans aside. Two years later, in 2010, the Republicans came roaring back, picking up 63 House seats and gaining control of state legislatures in such a way that the GOP won the ability to oversee most of congressional and state legislative redistricting for the remainder of the decade.

A characteristic of waves is that they surprise, at least to some extent. Democrats like to think of 2018 as a blue wave, picking up 41 House seats, but the GOP held the Senate that year — and thus control of the confirmation process that continued the restoration of constitutionalism to the federal courts.

And it is not too early to herald what might best be described, if not as a wave, as the Trump Undertow of 2020.

Because, like an unseen riptide, this year’s results just handed the GOP an advantage many never thought possible. And it carried far away from shore Democratic hopes and dreams.

“Wait,” you say, “Trump lost the presidency.”

Yes, he did. But Trump, even as he lost, engineered a huge win for the GOP this month, and one that will echo through American politics as our once-a-decade reapportionment fights begin.

“On the eve of reapportionment, Republicans are now in a better position than they were after 2010,” Noah Rothman noted in Commentary. “Following those elections, Republicans controlled 54 of 99 state legislative chambers.” (Nebraska’s legislature is unicameral.)

That number is now 61.

If anything, Rothman understates the impact of the GOP domination of state legislatures. After the 2010 election, congressional redistricting lived in the shadow of a Supreme Court suspicious of gerrymandering. In one 2015 case, the court upheld the redistricting maps of Arizona’s absurdly partisan “citizens’ commission” by a 5-to-4 margin. Today, two of the five justices in the majority on that case have left the court. State legislatures now may do their redistricting work free of fear of new “tests” invented by the court to strike at their maps. Indeed, commissions of the sort that design districts in California, Ohio and Virginia may not be long for the books — a never-very-popular, post-Watergate-era reform whose era is now long over.

The new Supreme Court may be revisiting its 2015 decision very soon.

In nearly two dozen states, the congressional district mapping is safely in the hands of the GOP. That’s because Trump generated huge turnout in red states as well as blue, and Republicans did well down a lot of ballots.

It is ironic that Trump’s narrow losses in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin kept him from a second consecutive term. It wasn’t a conspiracy that cost Trump the White House but a terrible combination of bad timing — the vaccines he promised were announced a fortnight too late for them to impact voting — and bad polling. Polling directs resources, locates rallies, energizes or depresses turnout. If polling tells you Wisconsin is lost, Pennsylvania is competitive and other states are safe, when none of that is accurate, the consequences are disastrous.

The party Trump leads is reluctant to tilt at legal windmills, but it is eager for answers about why no one expected so many states to finish closely or projected House Republicans to pick up seats. The headline that read “Biden leads Trump by 17 points in Wisconsin” is what I’ll never forget, nor should the pollsters, the media or the experts.

Elected Republican leaders will rightly balk at asking state legislatures to overturn popular votes — as radical a “constitutional” innovation as packing the Supreme Court, and just as repugnant to rule-of-law conservatives. But the GOP nomination in 2024 will be very much Trump’s for the taking should his health and energy remain as they are now.

Whether he runs again, Trump has reset the stage for the decennial remaking of the maps on which lawmaking at every level of government depends. It’s a proper capstone for a first term — or a last.

Read more:

Marc A. Thiessen: An eight-point plan for Trump to leave the presidency and win it back in 2024

Paul Waldman: No, Trump will not run for president again in 2024

Hugh Hewitt: Trump’s legacy will be framed by his actions between now and the inauguration

Jennifer Rubin: Trump and Giuliani are the Republican Party

Matt Bai: What will history say about Trump?