What Trump Means for Texas

The mainstream press missed the signs of a rising Trump electorate. What comes next?

Voting day at the Hidden Forest Elementary school in San Antonio.
Signage on Election Day 2016 in San Antonio.  Jen Reel

Obama was right: The sun did come up today! And in the clear light of day, we can see how strange and terrible this election was and begin to make sense of an uncertain and dangerous future. At least for me, confident conclusions are for a later date, when the raw emotion of these past 24 hours — really, these past 24 months — has had time to settle, and the contours of this brave new world can begin to take shape. For now, here are a few observations and comments about what this election and a Trump presidency might mean for Texas.

There was little in the way of silver linings for progressives last night. But here’s one salient data point: Texas was one of just four states to trend blue over 2012.

With the exception of Tarrant County , Texas’ urban counties are tilting Democratic. Clinton performed better than Obama in Dallas County, Travis County, El Paso County, Bexar County and Harris County. But the banner result was definitely Clinton beating Trump by 12 percentage points in Harris. Not only is Harris County Texas’ biggest urban area, it’s now 70 percent non-white. Yet Democrats have struggled to realize their sizable demographic advantage. In 2008, Obama put up just a two-point lead over McCain in Harris County. In 2012, he beat Romney by fewer than 1,000 votes. In past county races, Democratic candidates consistently lost to Republicans, leaving the GOP in control of the county’s voting rolls, for example.

But this year’s rising blue tide was different. Democrat Kim Ogg knocked off incumbent Devon Anderson to take over the Harris County DA’s Office, one of the key cogs in Texas’ vast criminal justice machinery. This is not a race that many paid attention to outside of Houston, but it matters for hundreds of thousands of people. Anderson, voters learned over the course of the campaign, had jailed a rape victim for a month to make sure she’d testify against her attacker, and called Ogg a “liberal, pro-choice, lesbian district attorney.” Ogg has pledged to stop jailing nonviolent drug offenders and increase transparency in police shootings.

It’s too early to explain why things shook out the way they did in Houston, but it seems almost certain that Latino turnout played a part. The Houston Chronicle reports that 17 percent of in-person early voters in Harris County have a Spanish surname, compared to 11 percent in 2012.

If such gains are real and durable, Democrats have a shot at locking down Houston, as they did in Dallas County several cycles ago. With a fast-growing population of 4.5 million, Harris County offers the prospect of an anchor for a truly competitive statewide Democratic Party. At least that’s the idea….

Like eight years of Obama, a Clinton presidency was never going to be good for progressives in Texas. Left-leaning folks are used to being on the defensive in Texas, but the Obama years helped to render this state an orgy of right-wing hubris. In 2010, the first Obama midterm, the Tea Party tidal wave washed the Texas Democratic Party so far out to sea that it’s a wonder anyone was able to find their way back. Republicans ended up with a super-majority (more than 100 of 150 seats) in the Texas House, and proceeded to do pretty much whatever the hell they wanted. In 2014, the great twin hopes of Battleground Texas and Wendy Davis ended up flopping spectacularly. There were many reasons for all this — Democratic incompetence, bad luck and bad timing, the strength of the Texas GOP — but a black man in the White House who many white conservatives considered to be an usurper (or worse) ranked pretty high up there.

Which is all to say that four or eight years of Clinton was going to be about as bad for Lone Star Democrats as Obama. Every Republican, from justice of the peace to governor, was going to run against Hillary Clinton. Now, they’ll have to own Trump; after all, the #NeverTrump faction dwindled away to basically Konni Burton.

Without a Democrat in the White House, Texas Democrats have one less headwind to deal with. The left in Texas has been in stasis for so long that perhaps only an exogenous event, a meteor strike like a President Trump, could change things. Of course, the imminent national nightmare posed by Trump dwarfs any normal sorting of political plusses and minuses, winners and losers. I think any rational Texas progressive would prefer a Democrat in the White House and the state-level wilderness of the last two decades to… this.

Mini-Trumps. To borrow Sylvia Plath’s line, every Republican adores a strongman, and boy, do they ever have one in Daddy Trump. His success in reordering American politics as we know it has and will spawn a thousand imitators. We already have plenty of Texas pols auditioning for the role. There’s Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, the cartoonishly behatted villain who called Clinton a “cunt” on Twitter and cavalierly joked about nuking “the Muslim world.”

There’s Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a truly Trumpian figure with a background in entertainment (talk radio), a penchant for self-aggrandizement (God whispers to him about legislation) and an appetite for political risk (school choice). Like Trump, Patrick has no qualms about embracing elements of the far right (Kory Watkins) or scapegoating vulnerable groups, including immigrants and trans folks.

There are few checks on Trumpism in Texas. State politics and government is almost entirely controlled by Republicans. The mainstream press corps is dismissed and disdained by the conservative base, which gets its news from Fox and, increasingly, the screaming half-wits at Breitbart. The business establishment is too dependent on the favors its gets from the Lege to buck too wildly. I guess Ted Cruz is our last, best hope.

Coda: If nothing else, last night taught us that the conventional political wisdom is for fools, by fools. The mainstream press, the political professionals, all the so-called experts (yes, myself included) were criminally wrong. Few understood the depth of this reactionary moment until it was too late. The prediction business, which sold itself basically as a science, totally missed a fundamental shift in the electorate, even as Team Trump quite correctly pointed out that the Brexit vote was an antecedent to this election.

The Trump victory has so scrambled politics — left and right, top and bottom — that it would be foolish to make anything more than provisional forward-looking statements. Into the great unknown we go, friends.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is the editor of the Observer.

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Published at 5:09 pm CST
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