The California recall victory shows Democrats the path forward against Trumpism

The California recall victory shows Democrats the path forward against Trumpism
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaking at the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention at the George R. Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, California, Gage Skidmore

Despite the polls looking hairy for a few weeks over the summer, Wednesday morning brought relieving news as California's Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom crushed a well-financed recall effort. Republicans had seen Newsom as a soft target ever since he was photographed attending a fancy dinner during the time of the most severe pandemic restrictions. They were counting on Democratic voters being too tuned out and demoralized by the pandemic to bother voting in this deeply blue state. But Newsom was saved by a landslide — 64% to 36% in the vote count, as of this writing.

Newsom likely won by making the campaign a referendum on his leading opponent, right-wing talk radio host Larry Elder a man so repulsive that he gives his idol, Donald Trump, a run for his money. Newsom highlighted how Elder opposed any COVID-19 mitigation measures and reminded voters that letting thousands of people die is worse than occasional bouts of hypocrisy. Newsom also relentlessly tied Elder to Trump.

"We may have defeated Donald Trump, but we have not defeated Trumpism," Newsom told a crowd on the final night of the campaign.

The political press was swift to seize on this aspect of the Newsom campaign as the dominant narrative, not just for how the California governor survived, but how Democrats will win in other off-year elections and possibly in the 2022 midterms.

"Democrats wanted Trump gone. Now they want him on the ballot," reads a Washington Post headline, which points not just to California, but Virginia and New Jersey and Virginia, where Democratic candidates Terry McAuliffe and Phil Murphy regularly invoke the specter of Trump in their 2021 gubernatorial campaigns.

"While Trump, of course, isn't on the ballot this fall, the Democrats in the most closely contested statewide races of 2021 are acting as if he basically is," political analysts Rick Klein, Averi Harper, and Alisa Wiersema write at ABC News.

"Even before the final ballots were cast, Newsom's advisers were selling his campaign as a template for Democrats nationally in the midterm elections," David Siders and Carla Marinucci write in Politico. Democrats "can find some comfort in this fact" that "Trump continues to be a disqualifying figure at the polls," argues Philip Elliott in Time.

It's tempting to roll one's eyes at these Trump-centric campaigns. After all, Trump lost not just the election but failed to pull off a coup, even after inciting a violent mob to storm the Capitol. He also continues to be a ridiculous figure. His most recent activities involve skipping the 9/11 memorial ceremonies to be a painfully terrible boxing announcer because this supposed "billionaire" never turns down a chance to make money.

The grim reality, however, is that Democratic voters are responsive to Trump-centric messaging because they know that Trump remains an active threat both to democracy and the wellbeing of everyday Americans.

Barring some miracle, such as Joe Biden's administration getting serious about prosecuting Trump for his dizzying number of crimes, Trump is going to run again. Most Republicans still say they want him as their leader, so he will likely to be the GOP nominee in 2024. The vast majority of Republicans are still in his thrall, not just constantly kissing his ring but actively covering up for his criminal activity, as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., did when he attempted to obstruct the formation of a commission to investigate the events of January 6. Republicans in state legislatures are rewriting election laws to make it easier for Trump to steal the 2024 election. And they are doing all this while understanding full well that Trump is an unhinged maniac.

Just this week, reports are coming out that Gen. Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Trump, understandably panicked during the heights of Trump's attempted coup and started maneuvering to keep Trump from starting a nuclear war with China. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa write in their new book "Peril" that Milley was alarmed because "Trump had gone into a serious mental decline in the aftermath of the election," and was "screaming at officials and constructing his own alternate reality about endless election conspiracies." Worried about Trump trying to save his presidency by doing something nuts, like nuke China, Milley talked to other military leaders about taking steps to slow down any orders from Trump.

There's been a lot of press hand-wringing, some of it even from liberals, about Milley's actions and the dangers of the military rejecting presidential authority. But that's the problem with coups — they are so disruptive to the normal order of government that they leave many officials facing impossible choices. Milley was faced with a choice between backing a president who is actively trying to overthrow democracy or protecting peace and democracy. There is no such thing as a clean choice in such a dilemma, either morally or legally. The very notion of "civilian control of the military" becomes elusive in such moments. The real moral of the story is not that Milley did the right or wrong thing, but that Trump is, to quote Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a "very dangerous person."

Failing in his coup effort hasn't mellowed Trump either. On the contrary, his loathing for American democracy has only grown stronger. At every opportunity, he repeats the flat-out false claims that the 2020 election was "stolen" from him and encourages those organizing around the Big Lie. He's actively rewriting the history of January 6, trying to frame it as a noble effort to save America, instead of what it was, which is a violent attempt to overthrow democracy. He's cast Ashli Babbitt, a woman who was shot as she tried to lead a charge of Capitol rioters to run down fleeing congressional members, as a martyr. On Tuesday, Trump appeared on Sean Spicer's Newsmax show and unleashed some more ominous hints of violence, declaring, "The election was rigged and we're not going to have a country left in three years, I'll tell you that."

This sort of rhetoric is often described as a "prediction," but it needs to be understood for what it is: A threat.

Trump needs to be understood for what he is, which is the leader of an authoritarian movement that is attempting to gut American democracy. He's got a real chance at success, due to the onslaught of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and even vote nullification laws being passed in Republican-controlled state legislatures. Should there be a Republican majority in Congress if Trump tries to steal the election again in 2024, he may very well successfully overcome the will of the voters and ascend to the White House again.

A growing number of voters understand this, which is why they are moved by reminders of the threat of Trumpism. A new CNN poll confirms how well voters recognize the threat, with 51% saying they worry about politicians simply overturning the results of an election they disagree with. Sadly, Democrats still underrate the threat, with only 46% seeing the threats to democracy. Still, that nearly half of Democrats see the problem, despite Trump's failed coup, is heartening. The poll results are unfortunately polluted by Republicans pushing the Big Lie, with 78% falsely claiming that Biden stole the election. But even this result underscores the real threat to our democracy: Trump-led Republicans, armed with lies painting themselves as victims, have talked themselves into believing they're entitled to actually steal elections.

The only real question now is whether the politicians Democratic voters are relying on to protect democracy can actually put up the necessary fight. On a national level, things aren't looking great.

A couple of dunderheaded Democratic senators refuse to provide the votes necessary to end the filibuster, and so legislation to stop Trump's plans for a coup redo in 2024 appears DOA. A Republican-controlled Supreme Court feels assured enough that the GOP is shielded from voter accountability that they basically overturned Roe v. Wade with a memo. So for now, Newsom's win is a reprieve from disaster in California — but the rest of the nation is still very much in danger.

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