I admit I didn’t expect much from yesterday’s runoff elections in Georgia. Sure, one of two Democrats might knock off one of two Republican incumbents, but that’s about it, I thought. The threat of Donald Trump is over. Runoffs are designed to discourage voter turnout. I had resigned myself to seeing Joe Biden working with a split Congress.
By midnight, our world changed. More Georgians had voted Tuesday than voted in November. Raphael Warnock defeated Kelly Loeffler. Jon Ossoff, as if this writing, has a slight lead over David Perdue. He’s going to win. The ballot count continues this morning, and the former has more outstanding votes than the latter. Chuck Schumer is going to be the majority leader. Biden is going to be working with a unified Congress.
Over the last four years, the Republicans played with dynamite. Now they’re shocked it blew off their hands.
Before we rush into what the Democrats can do with their newfound power, we should appreciate what’s been accomplished, why and how. For one thing, a Black man and a Jewish man will represent Georgia in the United States Senate. (There are nine Jewish senators currently. Ossoff will be the 10th. Warnock will be the 11th Black senator ever.) For another, the last two times a Democrat won the White House, his party lost Georgia runoffs. It isn’t possible now to overstate the state’s impact on US politics. It’s equally impossible to overstate Stacey Abrams’ role in that. But Abrams herself might be an effect, not a root cause. According to Roy Barnes, the cause is Donald Trump.
Barnes would know. He was the last Democratic governor of Georgia. His successor, Sonny Perdue, was the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. Given Barnes was a dynastic Democrat, he seemed unbeatable. (His nickname was “King Roy.”) But in 2002, the state and the rest of the country were reeling from the terrorist attacks of September 11. The George W. Bush administration was gearing up for war. It wouldn’t do for a governor to look soft. That’s what happened, though, when Barnes signed off on a change to the Georgia state flag, removing the emblem of the old Confederacy.
Last night on Bloomberg TV, as the runoff votes were coming in, Barnes said the coalition that put him in office comprised “urban blacks” and “rural whites.” The suburbs, he said, were dyed-in-the-wool conservative Republican voters (though Barnes had some success with them). What he didn’t say is by signing off on the flag change, Barnes took a side (the Black side) and cracked his coalition. Perdue, seeing his opportunity to strike, permanently broke the king’s bloc. He made Barnes look like a chardonnay-sipping, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading liberal in league with “the Jews” and “the Blacks” (and even “Islamofascist” terrorists). To win, since 2002, Georgia Republicans have pitted rural and suburban white voters against Black voters.
Trump changed things, Barnes said. On the one hand, he created conditions in which Black voters—urged, cajoled and guided by the indefatigable Stacey Abrams—would crawl over broken glass, rusty nails and bloody rags to vote against a lying, thieving, philandering sadist (my words, not Barnes’). On the other hand, Trump flipped the suburbs for Biden. That’s not all, Barnes said. By refusing to concede, and by blaming the Republicans for his troubles, Trump would in effect suppress Republican turnout. What Barnes didn’t say was Trump suppressed turnout by voters who raged against him in 2002—voters who raged against Barnes turning his back on the Confederacy.
And everything it stood for. Namely, right-wing collectivism. Which is where I’m going. Trump arose from the Republicans’ fascist turn after Sept. 11. He nationalized Perdue’s white-power strategy. He gave the party incentive to follow, even if that meant standing against the republic—even if that meant unearned forgiveness for treasonable conduct. The Democrats are as partisan as the Republicans, but in the age of Trump, Warnock and Ossoff didn’t seem so. A vote for them last night was a vote for democracy, decency, freedom and love of country. Over the last four years, the Republicans played with dynamite. Now they’re shocked it blew off their hands.
Mitch McConnell, who now leads a minority party, reportedly blames Trump. He’s correct, but don’t expect soul-searching. Don’t expect the Republicans to back off. While Biden, the Democrats and the rest of the country move on to issues as wide-ranging as the pandemic, climate change, and systemic racism, the GOP will continue to serve a wholly imagined nation-within-a-nation, a fictional confederacy where “real Americans” live, where anyone who isn’t a Republican is an “enemy of the people.”