This week’s midterm elections in the US delivered a surprise that calmed the hearts of angst-ridden progressives. The dreaded “red wave” failed to materialize (prompting comedian Stephen Colbert to dub the phenomenon a “pink trickle.”
We awoke on the morning after Election Day at almost the same place we were the day before. Despite billions of dollars—that’s billions with a “B”, endless hand-wringing about election denialism and the death of democracy, and fretting that interest in abortion rights was not sustainable, the status quo basically prevailed.
This is not to say that the midterms were meaningless. Voters would do well to dig deeply into the results and analyze lessons learned in preparation for upcoming election cycles, especially the upcoming 2024 Presidential campaign. And gloating about the results would be short-sighted and counter-productive.
More importantly, however, we might take a step back and ask a bigger question: is there an historical reference that can guide us as we move beyond the moment? I might offer the situation that prompted a statement by Winston Churchill after the second battle of El Alamein. Fought near the western frontier of Egypt between 23 October and 4 November 1942, El Alamein was the climax and turning point of the North African campaign in the Second World War when the British defeated the Axis forces under Gen. Erwin Rommel (the Desert Fox) as his advance threatened British control of the Suez Canal, the Middle East and its oil resources.
It was the first significant Allied victory after months of losses, prompting Churchill to offer a memorable mix of caution and optimism on November 10: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
The comparison with events of this week seems especially appropriate. Since coming down the famed “golden escalator,” Donald Trump has evoked havoc across this land, buffeting the American public with self-seeking lies and misinformation, invectives against perceived enemies, ludicrous conspiracy theories, short-sighted policies and pronouncements of unmitigated cruelty, and general, chaos-inducing buffoonery.
And while many final midterm tallies are still undetermined as of this writing, one trend is clear: American voters have soundly rejected Donald Trump. While he and his legion of followers will not disappear overnight (it is not the end), and some Trump-supported candidates have won and will govern in the immediate future (it is not even the beginning of the end), we have undeniable evidence that Trump’s dominant clout on the American political scene is now over (it is the end of the beginning).
Early in my career, I learned a basic (almost self-evident) principle about crafting a story line that has served me well. Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is the writer’s task to clearly identify these elements so that the reader can follow the action and understand the author’s intent. Following this logic, if the 2022 midterms were the end of the beginning, we are about to confront the beginning of the middle. And “middles” can be hard.
What does the next chapter hold for us? No one expects that with Trump off the stage, we will all now gather together across the barriers that divide us, hold hands and hum wistful choruses of Kumbaya. Indeed, the midterm results in Florida offer a clue to the future as revealed in the victory of Ron DeSantis, the new poster child for ongoing pettiness and division that continues to afflict our land. DeSantis’s “middle,” infused with his misbegotten machismo brand of manipulative malevolence may prove more dangerous than Trump’s could ever have imagined.
Still, there is time to worry about that in the future. For now, let us take a breath and then exhale, savoring the triumph of moderation over extremism, trust and confidence over despair and desperation. The soundness of the American democracy has prevailed. However fragile our roots may be, for one election cycle at least—we have crossed a threshold and we have witnessed the end of the beginning of what has been a deeply troubling chapter in our American story.