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“The Greatest Defeat in the History of the World!”: The 2019 Elections and Future of Trumpism

“If you lose, they’re going to say that Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world. You can’t let that happen to me,” Donald Trump said at a campaign rally for Kentucky governor Matt Bevin. Yet, it seems that Bevin lost the election. What does this mean for national politics?

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(Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Exactly a year before the general elections, the Democrats scored big in the recent 2019 elections. If these elections are any sign, 2020 may not look good for Donald Trump.

In Kentucky, Democrat Andy Beshear is poised to win the governorship, although the defeat has not yet been recognized by Governor Matt Bevin, who asked for a review of the vote totals in each county. In Virginia, the Democrats took control of both houses of the state legislature.

Even in states where Republicans won, they only barely beat the Democrat opposition. In Mississippi, for example, Republicans managed to hold onto the governorship, though only by 5%–a far cry from Trump’s 18% victory in Mississippi during the general elections. The Republicans ran a campaign of explicit opposition to the expansion of Medicaid and against increased tax collection. This tactic worked, though only by a slim margin.

At least 80 LGBT people won seats throughout the country, raising the number of LGBT people who have won office this year to 144. In Virginia, Juli Briskman, the woman famous for being photographed giving Trump the middle finger, won a seat on the board of supervisors. Can these elections be read as a rejection of Trumpism?

Many of the big Democratic winners put forward moderate agendas linked to Medicaid expansion and gun control. Support for Trump continues to fall in the suburbs, in part due to shifting demographics and in part due to disillusionment with Trumpism. Another important element to consider is the impeachment investigation, which Republicans hoped would mobilize a rural base to come out to vote in an expression of solidarity with Trump. However, as over half of the population supports impeachment, it is possible that it could also have been a factor that helped Democrats win in this election cycle. 

“You can’t let that happen to me!” Kentucky disappoints Trump

Perhaps the biggest upset of the night came in Kentucky–a state in which Trump won 30 points in the 2016 elections. Furthermore, it is a state where Trump campaigned this year, setting up the fall’s election as a referendum on his Presidency. At a campaign rally Trump said to then-Governor Matt Bevin, “If you lose, they’re going to say that Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world. You can’t let that happen to me.” But with Democrat Andy Beshear poised to declare victory, it seems that this is exactly what happened.

As one of the most disliked governors in the US, Bevin was a particularly bad candidate, proposing to cut pensions and roll back healthcare and institute work requirements for Medicaid. When in 2018 teachers walked out in protest of Bevin’s plan, he called them “selfish.” He blamed teachers for childhood sexual assault, claiming that children may be sexually assaulted at home when they are not at school, suggesting that by walking out teachers were putting students at risk. Turning his back on Kentucky’s teachers hurt Bevin’s campaign significantly; as Time put it: “Republican Governor Matt Bevin Lost Teachers and Lost Kentucky.”

In light of his negative track record, Republicans decided to make the election a national referendum on Trump rather than focus on Bevin and his proposals for Kentucky. Trump set out to collaborate with Bevin’s campaign, sending Mike Pence to Kentucky. Aside from Bevin’s low approval ratings in the state, the fact that the president’s support could not favorably influence the election speaks to his own waning support. As Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said, “Just because Trump shows up doesn’t mean an automatic win anymore.”

Although there may be a recount, it seems that Democrat Andy Beshear has taken the governorship by a narrow 5,000 votes. He is the son of former Governor and Attorney General Steve Beshear. While Bevin tried to make the local race into a national one, Beshear had the opposite strategy: focus on local issues. “The Democrats nominated a moderate, who’s dad was a moderate, who didn’t talk about impeachment or Trump, and who acts like a Republican… Talk about Kentucky when an actual Democrat runs,” said Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale. To some degree, he is right. Beshear tried to distance himself from both the impeachment proceedings and the party leadership, like Nancy Pelosi, and he is certainly a far cry from the progressive wing of the party like Bernie Sanders. 

Of course, Beshear’s victory may turn out not to be a referendum on Trump’s presidency. Bevin was a terrible candidate and it is not unheard of for Kentucky to vote Democrat. Kentucky has not always been a red state. It has only had four Republican governors since World War II and Beshear is part of a long political dynasty in the region.

Virginia is a Blue State 

20 years ago, Virginia was a red state. 10 years ago, Virginia was the bellwether: what happened in Virginia was indicative of the leanings of the rest of the country. Now, the results have solidified Virginia as a blue state: the Democrats have not won in the Presidential elections there for the last 25 years. One of the key issues in Virginia was gun control, where pro-gun control groups outspent the NRA by $500,000. Passing gun control in Virginia, the home of the NRA, may indicate where much of the country is on this and other issues. 

An important factor in this shift towards the Democratic Party, which will control the state legislative branch for the first time in 25 years, is the Latinx vote. It is a wake-up call for Republicans, who have seen their support among members of this community decline as a result of Republicans’ racist and repressive immigration policies. This trend could be projected nationally in 2020, as more and more Latinxs are eligible to vote and most of them favor Democrats.

Another significant aspect of Virginia’s Democratic Party victory has to do with the courts striking down the most egregious Republican-drawn gerrymandering. For nearly a decade, Black voters were gerrymandered into the same district, giving Republicans an important leg up in the elections. By 2018, the courts had invalidated 11 districts, which forced a complete redrawing of Virginia’s electoral map. Many districts flipped from Republican to Democrat as a result of the reorganization; however, this is only part of the story.

What’s going on in the suburbs? 

“With all due respect to Trump, who I love by the way — he’s killing us in the urban-suburban districts,” Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R)  said in a leaked recording.

The suburbs–wealthy neighborhoods with vast yards, two car garages, and quality public schools , “used to be the backbone of the Republican Party outside the Deep South. They elected responsible, sober governors like Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania or statesman-like senators personified by John Warner in Virginia.” In short, they elected Republicans. But the Republican Party has changed and the suburbs do not like it. 

Voters in the suburbs delivered victories for the Democrats, and shifted the electoral results in Virginia, Kentucky, and around the country. Former Republican Pennsylvania congressman Ryan Costello said, “there appears to be an electoral realignment in the suburbs”- arguing that there is more support for the Democrats in places like the wealthy communities outside of Philadelphia, as well as in other places such as Memphis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Virginia. Essentially, ever since the 2016 elections, Republicans have lost ground in the suburbs, but continue to monopolize votes in rural areas.

Voters in these areas are fiscal conservatives, without a doubt, but they do not seem to like Trump’s Republican Party and the chaos it causes: the over-the-top tweets, the family separations, the blatant racism, the climate denial, and the lack of action on gun control. At the same time, many of the seats that flipped did not flip for progressive candidates, but rather for candidates that spoke to local issues.

The Left and the Elections

As Vice News explains, “Democratic Socialists Had a Pretty Good Election Night.” Of the 13 candidates endorsed by the DSA, three won their seats campaigning around issues like a Green New Deal and rent control. In Philadelphia, an independent candidate, Kendra Brooks, flipped a Republican seat, one held by Republicans for generations. In other places like Charlottesville, Virginia and Cambridge, Massachusetts, DSA backed candidates won running on the Democratic Party ticket. Local DSA-endorsed candidates also won city council seats across the country, such as Amelia Parker’s victory in Knoxville, Tennessee. 

On the more left side of the spectrum, Kshama Sawant, a socialist city council member, won re-election by a narrow margin in Seattle. Before Sanders and socialism were in vogue, Sawant ran and won as an independent socialist in 2012. In this election, her electoral race demonstrated the incredibly undemocratic nature of the electoral system. Amazon intervened to try to buy the elections, pouring over a million dollars into the race of Sawant’s opponent, small-businessman Egan Orion. This new focus on intervention at the local level may have something to do with Amazon’s recent failure to relocate to New York City in the face of intense local mobilizations against the company. While we do not share Sawant’s support for Sanders, the fact that Amazon has spent so much money trying to defeat her shows that, while defending the free market and its tax privileges, the company is shamelessly operating in favor of election interventionism. Sawant’s narrow victory demonstrates that the working class  classes of Seattle and by extension the rest of the country are fed up with the 1%’s control over the political system.

What does this mean?

Without a doubt, the 2019 elections went well for the Democrats, continuing a trend that began with the successes of last year’s midterm elections. Trump started out with a 47 seat advantage in the House of Representatives. Now the Democrats lead by 36 seats. Republicans now control the governorships of only 26 states, down from the 33 they controlled before the elections. 

Moreover, all of this occurs against the backdrop of the impeachment investigation. The key testimony of a former EU ambassador admitting pressures on Ukraine is a political misstep for Republicans, and the majority of the American population today supports the investigation into the president. Although according to polls the majority of US citizens say that impeachment does not change their vote in 2020, the investigation has taken center stage of US politics. This may cause other, more progressive demands to fall to the wayside. In fact, Elizabeth Warren’s recent announcement of the economic plan to fund Medicare for All went almost unnoticed in the face of new impeachment events.

Despite high hopes, the impeachment inquiry does not seem to be helping the Republicans. According to NPR, the rural population, who have been staunch Trump supporters, did not show up to vote, while urban populations did, ensuring the election of Democrats.

Furthermore, these elections may show the waning appeal of Trumpism. The Republicans ran Trump-like campaigns, taking up the issues that got Trump elected, like immigration. As the Washington Post argues, the Republicans “fell back on the polarizing campaign style that Trump has embraced, denouncing Democratic rivals as “socialist” and warning of illegal immigrant invasions, a strategy that, while spurned in the suburbs, helped them succeed in more rural places such as southwestern Pennsylvania, where Republicans made gains in local elected offices.” 

On the other hand, the Democrats who won were, in general, to the right of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, two of the three frontrunners of the Democratic Party. It was the moderate Democrats who were most notable during this election cycle, representing a clear shift away from Trump’s polarized politics even in Trumpist states. In this sense, these elections are decidedly different from the midterm elections, where people of color swept the elections and new progressive leaders of the Democratic Party like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez were voted in.  Thus, torn between progressive and moderate tendencies, the Democrats will continue to face the problem of their internal division, which has so far prevented the emergence of a candidate who can clearly contest the presidency. At the same, neither the Sanders wing nor the establishment wing of the Democratic Party provide a real alternative for the working class or to US imperialism. 

Behind this division are many factors that will influence what ultimately happens in the primaries and in the presidential race. It remains to be seen how the discontent of the middle class and workers, the rejection of the political establishment, the illusion of reforms such as Medicare for All, or the increase in the minimum wage will influence the elections. What happens will essentially depend on the ability of the Trump government to manage the economy and successfully navigate a year that promises to be turbulent, as many analysts are warning of a new recession. With this fear, Trump will not fear to resort to appeals to pragmatism, as shown by his attempt to end the trade conflict with China. But “stability” does not seem to be the right word for the Trump government. The truth is that in these elections he received a big setback and the democrats scored a battle, but there is still a long way to go before the 2020 elections.

These elections showed that the deep divisions between the ruling classes will only deepen, as will the processes of struggle between the workers and the discontent of the youth. Some signs of this appeared in the teachers’ strike in Chicago and the rebellion in the Brooklyn subway against police brutality. Though the elections resulted in victories for the moderate wing of the Democratic Party, it is evident that processes are continuing to emerge from below. Sanders and Warren will try to capitalize on these movements, they will do so in order to co-opt and strengthen the Democratic Party. Yet, as the ruling class continues to divide itself, possibilities for radical action, strikes and perhaps even a working-class alternative independent of the capitalists emerge. 

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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