As this unprecedented and seemingly unending election winds down, it is clear that next January we will have a Democratic president. The race to control congress is looking increasingly competitive, but it is likely that neither party will have a big margin in the House of Representatives or the Senate. This means that partisanship will not go away once Donald Trump goes huffing and puffing into the history books.
As this campaign, the nastiest in a very long time, comes to a close, activists, leaders and elected officials from both parties must wrestle with the lessons of this election and determine where to go from here. The lessons of this election, however, are contested and depend very much on how each party answers a similar, almost parallel question. For the Republicans, the key question about this election is whether Hillary Clinton is a pathological liar who prima facie should not hold high office and who represents a threat to the U.S., or whether she will be a president with whom they will disagree on many issues, but with whom they can work. Democratic leaders and activists are asking whether the abomination and threat to the democratic process that is Donald Trump is an aberration that grew out of the quirks of this year's primary season or whether he is the natural development of a party that played footsie with bigots for more than a generation and through efforts to limit voting rights, massively increase surveillance and lead the U.S. into a foolish and illegal war, has been betraying American democracy since the Bush administration.
Both of these questions are, of course, subjective, and a good argument could be made for either answer to either question, especially among party loyalists. These queries are also central to how our government will function and the extent to which our society will continue to fracture on ethnic and ideological lines.
Sadly, the Republican Party seems to have offered an answer to this question as so many Republicans stood by their nominee. Defeated primary candidates, sitting elected officials and the RNC chair all continued to support Trump through steady bigotry of all flavors, revelations that Trump was a serial sexual assaulter and Trump's clearly demonstrated lack of knowledge of almost all issues. Moreover, they did this for a candidate that had little chance of winning and who, in many cases, didn't even have traditional Republican positions. This is partisanship at is most base, and poorly thought through level.
Despite the support offered their candidate, the relationship between Trump and the Republican Party has been challenging for the GOP. Talented politicians like Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell have looked foolish as they bounce between endorsing, supporting, but not endorsing, being outraged and other positions based on the latest statements by their party's mercurial, erratic and bigoted nominee. Other GOP stalwarts like Mitt Romney, and many others, have stuck by a principled anti-Trump position by remaining true to their own conservative views. Still others like Newt Gingrich, Chris Christie and most flagrantly, Rudy Giuliani, have consistently restated their support for, and defense of, Trump, destroying their own reputations in the process.
For Democrats, the relationship between Trump and the GOP has perhaps been even more challenging. Trump's outright racism, strong authoritarian tendencies and casual calls to disregard the fundamental tenets of our democracy, from media freedom to accepting the results of fair elections, has made it clear that he is not a typical Republican and represents something much more dangerous than the rest of the GOP. On the other hand, the runner-up for the GOP, Ted Cruz, was an extreme right-winger that makes George W. Bush look like a moderate and Ronald Reagan look like a liberal. In short, the GOP had been captured by the far right, and others who might threaten our democracy, well before Donald Trump, who is clearly a qualitatively different level of threat to the republic than any other GOP nominee, came along. Confused yet? Many Democrats are too.
This is important because what Trump has taught many of us is that using words like fascist and threat to democracy too cavalierly, and many used those terms when George W. Bush was in office, leaves us without appropriate language when the real thing comes along. On the other hand, while Bush was not a fascist, many of the actions of his administration weakened democracy and contributed to the GOP that nominated Trump this year.
The more significant question is where both parties can go from here and whether political leaders and the American people themselves can leverage the ugliness of the Trump campaign to remind ourselves that strong disagreements in democracies are inevitable, and that we can have those fights best when the basic rules of democracy are understood and shared. This will be a very difficult balance to strike, but it is one upon which the future of our democracy rests.