Historians will love Donald Trump even if they hate him: He will leave a legacy that will be talked about for a long time.
His term began by smashing the paradigm of who could be elected president; it effectively ended with some of his supporters smashing the Capitol. Whatever accomplishments Trump managed will forever be overshadowed by the violence of Jan. 6. Trump showed us just how fragile our democracy and our institutions are — but also perhaps how resilient. Trump did not create the polarization that divides America today, but he certainly sharpened it and reveled in doing so. Trump remade the Republican Party in his image, showing just how potent the combination of right-wing populism and nativism can be. Trump was not an aberration, though. He represents a strain of American politics that runs back to the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s; the only difference is they did not come to govern the country, and he did.
Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic will be compared to Herbert Hoover’s handling of the Great Depression, with the caveat that voters in 1932 dealt with Hoover far more harshly than voters in 2020 did with Trump. Given how close the election was, it’s entirely possible to imagine that without the pandemic Trump would have been reelected. It’s also entirely possible to imagine that Trump would have been reelected if it hadn’t been for something that happened in Virginia.
Would white nationalists have been emboldened to march through the streets of Charlottesville if Trump hadn’t been elected? That’s unknowable, but he was and they did — and his fumbling response to that deadly protest defines part of his presidency. Virginia Republicans that day were quick to denounce the march in exceptionally strong language. Trump said, “You also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” That failure to quickly and unequivocally denounce white supremacy is what prompted Joe Biden to come out of a presumed retirement and seek the presidency. Put another way, Trump’s inability or unwillingness to forcefully denounce white supremacists prompted the candidacy of the man who ultimately defeated him. Could another Democrat have beaten Trump? That’s arguable. Certainly other Democrats might have energized more voters on the left, but they’d have also repelled some voters in the center. Our Electoral College requires candidates to win votes in specific configurations, and Biden did so — narrowly. Trump’s own actions may have brought about the only candidate who could defeat him. There’s something Shakespearean in that.
We can see Trump’s legacy in Virginia in other ways. Some of that is in the form of omission. Trump vowed to bring back “King Coal” as he called it, yet saw coal decline at even faster rates than it did under Barack Obama. More coal plants were closed retired under Trump’s fossil fuel-friendly administration than in Obama’s second term. That’s because no president can truly control the economy, and the free market is now waging its own “war on coal.” Other forms of energy are simply cheaper. Trump could have used his power to try to create a new economy in Appalachia, a part of the country that adored him more than almost any other. In some parts of the coalfields, he took more than 80% of the vote. Instead, he tried to defund the federal agencies most involved in economic development in Appalachia and generally left the region adrift. Trump may have made Appalachia voters feel good about cultural issues but he did them no economic favors. Thought experiment: What if he’d spent four years trying to reward some of his most fervent supporters by trying to direct new investment to Appalachia?
Another Trump legacy in Virginia is that Democrats now control both the executive and legislative branch for the first time since January 1994. Virginia elects a governor the year after a presidential election and ever since the ‘70s we’ve always swung in the opposite direction. The one exception was 2012/2013, when Obama’s reelection was followed by Democrat Terry McAuliffe winning the governorship. Was that the start of a new trend or a just a quirk? We don’t have enough data points yet, but what we do know is that Trump’s election in 2016 spurred the highest turn-out in a state election in 20 years — and many of those voters were motivated to punish every Republican in sight. Ed Gillespie was a perfectly respectable Republican nominee; not even Democrats called Ralph Northam an exciting figure. Northam, though, won with the biggest margin of any Democratic candidate for governor in 32 years. Another thought experiment: Would that have happened if Hillary Clinton had been president? Not likely.
The Trump years saw realignment accelerate in Virginia as suburban voters recoiled from Trump and his party. In those 2017 elections, Democrats gained far more seats in the House of Delegates than they had expected. Two years later, they won full control of the General Assembly — and keep in mind they were running in House districts that Republicans had gerrymandered against them. That would not have happened without Trump. Ironically, everything that Republicans despise — such as the state’s new gun laws, the power localities now have to take down Confederate statues, new restrictions on police — have happened because suburban voters reacted so negatively to the Republican president.
That realignment has played out in other ways. In 2018, Democrats picked up three U.S. House seats — in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads. In 2020, they kept them. 2020 also saw Virginia Beach vote Democratic for the first time since 1964. Chesterfield County and Lynchburg voted Democratic for the first time since 1948. For every action there is equal but opposite reaction, and Republicans strengthened their hold on rural Virginia. Trading Loudoun County for Lee County is not an even trade, though. Did Trump make it impossible for Republicans to win statewide elections in Virginia again? We won’t know until we come to this year’s elections, the first of the post-Trump era. Some of that may depend on what lessons Republicans learn — do they embrace the Trump-like politics of Amanda Chase or return to the conservative sensibilities of, say, Kirk Cox? The Republican nomination for governor will be one of the first opportunities to see just how lasting Trump’s legacy will be.
The Roanoke Times