If you’ll permit an understatement, these have been frightening and uncertain times. Every day, it seems, we wake up to find a new addition on the list of doomsday scenarios. Facing a dangerously intemperate president, backed by white nationalists, with vast powers at his disposal and a clear willingness to dispense with all conventions of proper conduct, it’s vital that we maintain a sober understanding of what’s at stake, and how much could go wrong. In trying to rally ourselves to prevent these catastrophic possibilities from becoming reality, many of us have found it useful to visualize the opposite: success. Perhaps Senate Republicans will ultimately break away from their own party and vote for impeachment. Maybe a constitutional amendment will be passed providing for some kind of no-confidence vote that would force an early election. Maybe Steve Bannon will be sidelined in a power struggle inside the White House, convinced, somehow, to retire, perhaps to go raise sheep in the countryside. Others are training their hopes on the 2018 midterm elections. Given the mobilization of left-leaning Americans since the election and the unpopularity of Trump—likely only to increase—it’s tempting to imagine a Democratic sweep that would reclaim control of the House of Representatives, providing crucial political leverage to push back against Trump and his policies. The danger that voter-suppression strategies pose to the Democrats’ chances in 2018 must not be underestimated.
However, in our eagerness for such a scenario, we should take care to not let the ease of imagining it distract us from the potential threats to achieving it. Staking the future of our movement and of the country—not to mention the world—on winning elections requires that we think carefully and seriously about how we ended up here in the first place, with a figure like Trump managing to claim victory despite his massive unpopularity and controversies that should have sunk his candidacy at every turn. Specifically, we should keep in mind the recent history of voter suppression and the degree to which the outcome of the 2016 election wasn’t necessarily determined by voters feelings alienated by the Democrats’ message—nor turned off by the mythical two-headed ogre of “identity politics” and “political correctness”—but rather by Republican strategies to tilt the process itself in their party’s favor. The danger those strategies pose to the Democrats’ chances to recover the House in the 2018 midterm elections must not be underestimated.
In 2013, the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder effectively gutted the Voter Rights Act, permitting Republicans to employ a variety of voter-suppression methods that have since proved invaluable to their campaigns. These tactics will not only remain a factor working in their favor in 2018; they are very likely to significantly expand under the leadership of a man obsessed with the specter of “massive voter fraud,” desperate to prove himself both legitimate and loved by the people, and backed by a party in near-total control of all branches of government and eager to bend the rules to suit their political interests. The 2018 midterms elections could easily end up being compromised to the point that no realistic degree of popular opposition to incumbent Republicans would be sufficient to overcome them.