A Party Hasn’t Lost This Comprehensively Since the Depression
The disaster at the Capitol has rightfully absorbed all of our attention this week, but the elections in Georgia — in which two incumbent Republican senators lost their seats in runoff elections — means that the Democrats have taken control of the White House, House of Representatives, and the Senate. This is big — it’s the elusive “trifecta” that allows a party to actually pursue its agenda, bypassing many of the checks and balances built into our system.
It’s very rare for an incumbent president to lose the White House — Donald Trump is only the fifth incumbent to lose an election in the last century. It’s even rarer for a president to enter his four-year term with control of the trifecta, as Trump did, and manage to lose them all by the time he was shown the door. The last president to enter the White House with his party in full control of the executive and legislative branches, and leave it having been thoroughly defeated, is our last world-historically bad president, Herbert Hoover.
Crisis, failure, rebuke
Hoover lost for one big reason — he presided over the beginning of the Great Depression, and he failed to salvage the economy over the final three years of his term. Hoover’s time in office bears some significant similarities to Trump’s. He took power during an economic expansion, the “roaring 20's.” When crisis hit the country, he refused to take sufficient action, creating hardship all over America. There were massive protests against him, mostly by veterans who demanded relief in the form of early war bonuses. Hoover, like Trump, responded to the protests with violence.
The 1932 election, conducted during a desperate crisis in a country weary of its government’s failures, was a clear repudiation of Hoover and the Republican Party. Franklin Roosevelt won the Presidency in a landslide, 472–59 in the electoral college. But the victory went well beyond Hoover — the country apparently wanted no part of Republicans in national office. Democrats smashed the narrow Republican majorities in both houses of Congress (heading into the election, the G.O.P. had led by one seat in the Senate and two in the House). Democrats picked up 11 Senate seats and 97 House seats in 1932.
There’s one more similarity — just like Donald Trump, Herbert Hoover left a ticking bomb for his successor in the form of the Supreme Court. Despite only being in office for four years, he, like Trump, was able to nominate three Supreme Court justices — Charles Evans Hughes, Owen Roberts, and Benjamin Cardozo. Roberts, in particular, became the deciding vote against much of Roosevelt’ New Deal. The court stood in the way of some of FDR’s most ambitious attempts to fix the economy — until Roosevelt threatened to pack the Supreme Court. Even though Roosevelt’s court-packing scheme fell apart, Roberts began to vote more favorably on New Deal legislation after 1937.
From incumbent to radioactive
There are big differences between 1932 and 2020, of course. Herbert Hoover was not very good at his job, but he wasn’t a dangerous and unstable figure. He didn’t inspire the wild-eyed loyalty we see today in some of Trump’s followers, either. He was, by the time he left office, depleted and defeated.
The Democrats’ victory in 2020 was broad but shallow; their majorities in the House and Senate are razor-thin. Biden’s win, while very solid, was not a landslide like F.D.R.’s. But 2020 does represent the most comprehensive repudiation of an incumbent’s party since Hoover lost in the midst of another national crisis.
We now see Republicans trying to triangulate their strategies. Will they remain in bed with Trump, or will they definitively break with it after accommodating it for so long? Even if they have no moral compass about protecting democracy or telling the truth, Republicans should take heed of the fact that Trump and Trumpism have left their party out of power despite having real advantages in the election.
Even though Trump had control of the mechanisms of government, an inherent advantage in the Electoral College and the Senate map, and constant free media, he managed to lose his own office and drag much of the rest of the party with him into defeat. Perhaps the power of incumbency, combined with polarization, is what kept things close at all.
Hopefully, Republicans will realize the significance of this loss like they did in 1932. After 1932, the G.O.P. didn’t double down on being the “party of Hoover.” Stripped of their power at the federal level, they eventually realized that they needed to discard his toxic image and find a new set of standard-bearers. Hoover had limited influence in the party after his defeat, and the party moved away from him. In 1952, for example, he backed Robert Taft as the G.O.P. presidential candidate, but the party went with Dwight Eisenhower, who was a personal enemy of Hoover’s. The Republicans knew not to put too much stock in Hoover’s political instincts.
As the reality of last year’s broad defeat and the disgraceful behavior he has inspired in his supporters sinks in with Republicans, here’s hoping that they will discard Trump and Trumpism as the losers that they are.