The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Voters tell us who they are by who they vote for

Former president Donald Trump endorses Harriet Hageman for Wyoming's U.S. House seat in May. (Lauren Miller/The Casper Star-Tribune via AP)

In November 1991, I stood in the packed, smoke-filled American Legion hall in the nearly all-White New Orleans suburb of Metairie. A day later in Baton Rouge, I watched a chilling development unfold on election night.

In Metairie, White men and women in their 20s, 30s and 40s, some decked out in campaign T-shirts and hats, whooped up a storm for the demagogic, ex-Klansman Republican David Duke, who was then running for governor. In Baton Rouge, coiffured senior citizens in suits and ties and cocktail dresses mingled with people clad in jeans and cowboy boots to cheer on the same racist bigot and antisemite. But those things weren’t the shocker.

Thanks to a phenomenal Black voter turnout, Duke lost in a landslide to Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards. But Duke was able to claim the title of the voice of Louisiana’s White majority. The searing takeaway was not Duke himself, but nearly 700,000 Louisianans who, knowing what he stood for, voted for him anyway.

On Sept. 30, 2016, after closely watching nearly two years of Donald Trump’s primary and general election campaigns, I wrote about the dangers of his winning. He had been revealed as an ignorant, undisciplined, ranting bully who exaggerated and lied without shame. His tough-guy masculinity was fakery. Trump was a coward, I said at the time, who picks on women, demeans people of color and is thoroughly lacking in human decency.

“What does sicken and alarm, and what ought to concentrate African American minds, is the thought of Trump with the powers of the presidency in his hands. Therein lies the danger.”

The upshot?

On Election Day 2016, nearly 63 million Americans voted for Trump, giving him more than 300 electoral votes and the White House. The takeaway? They, too, knew where he stood and voted for him anyway.

Four years later, the impeached, scandal-scarred president went before the American people once again. By then, Trump was known all too well. In his losing bid for reelection, Trump attracted 74.2 million votes.

So, it comes as no surprise — deep disappointment, yes; a jolt, no — that Trump’s foremost Republican critic, Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), would get a thrashing at the polls in 2022, losing renomination by 37 points to Trump devotee Harriet Hageman. Wyoming Republicans knew where Trump stood on Cheney.

The story is the same in Arizona, where Kari Lake narrowly won the Republican primary for governor, Blake Masters prevailed in the Senate GOP primary and Mark Finchem took the Republican nomination for secretary of state. Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers went down in flames in a state Senate primary for the same reason. Voters knew where Trump stood on all four: Up with Lake, Masters and Finchem; down with Bowers, who resisted efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election and told the House Jan. 6 committee all about it.

So it has played out in Republican House, Senate and gubernatorial primaries in Michigan, Washington state, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Nevada, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland, where Trumpist Dan Cox won the Republican nomination for governor.

This is not a recital of complaints about Donald Trump. It’s about people by the millions who know where Trump stands and slavishly side with him anyway.

Trump holds cultlike control over Republican voters. They aren’t blank slates. They know what the struggle for economic and racial justice is about. They know, too, what Democrats are talking about when they go on about expanding access to health care and reducing prescription drug prices, or confronting the climate crisis, or advancing racial and gender equity, or treating immigrants with dignity and decency. And they know what they don’t like about any of that “liberal” or “progressive” stuff, including those proposing it.

So, when it comes to elections, bear in mind what’s really at stake. Donald Trump’s name will not appear on any midterm election ballot.

The challenge is to turn out more voters who want the country to keep moving forward and upward than voters bent on empowering candidates to stand in for Trump and all he represents.

That kind of test was there with Duke in Louisiana. Also in 2020, when Trumpism was met head-on and taken down. And it will happen again in the midterms, and again in the 2024 elections. Concentrate on where the battle belongs, not in debates about noxious Trump and his legions of worshipers, but where political conflicts and engagements get decided — at the ballot box.

The alternative is almost too dreadful to imagine.

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