Trump’s Midterm Death Ride
In the absence of yesterday’s anticipated Red Wave, the GOP’s missed opportunity has a father – and we know his name
Seven years, four months, and 23 days ago, Donald J. Trump descended the golden escalator in his eponymously named tower on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and entered the presidential race. The importance of this event was broadly downplayed at the time, not least because for most Americans, Trump was a reality TV star, not a serious person, much less commander-in-chief material. Those with longer memories recalled that the orange-coiffed not-actually-a-billionaire was regarded as a vulgar figure of fun in his hometown, better remembered for his repeated business failings than his supposed financial acumen. His politics were almost a blank slate.
Hence, Trump’s dramatic throwing his hat in the presidential ring on June 16, 2015, got less serious attention than it merited in hindsight. Not everyone missed this game-changing event. This author observed that Trump’s flamboyantly entering the race, discussing issues which Republican voters cared about but GOP leaders didn’t, fundamentally shifted the campaign:
Trump, by virtue of being Trump, can force the GOP to discuss issues it would really rather never see brought up, such as immigration and trade, and their impact on the wages and lives of average Americans. I have no idea how the GOP can exclude Trump from debates, given his poll numbers — and if you thought The Apprentice was must-see TV, just wait for The Donald and his hair debating the whole Republican cast of 2016 wannabes. Get popcorn, folks.
Of course, I got it wrong regarding where this was headed, with my prediction, “Trump will never be the Republican nominee in 2016, or ever, and he has about as much chance of moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as my cat does.” That cat, since deceased, didn’t move into the White House, but Trump did. In fairness to myself, nobody in the summer of 2015 outside Trump’s immediate family seems to have believed his campaign would succeed (neither did Trump himself, based on all available evidence).
Much has happened over the last seven years, but we can now say that Trump’s overall impact on the Republican Party, upon which he executed his hostile takeover in 2015-16, has been cancerous. This isn’t the time to review policy. Anybody fairly assessing this knows that Trump accomplished little of what he set out to achieve, being hobbled from the first day of his presidency to his last by his mostly disastrous personnel choices, exacerbated by Trump’s inability to master how his own executive branch functioned. Trump’s learning curve regarding cadres and getting things done in Washington never existed.
Let’s state the facts plainly. Trump’s election in 2016 represented an astonishing one-off, a time and place which cannot be recreated. While Trump’s campaign was assisted to a degree by dirty influence games perpetrated by Russian intelligence – with whom Trump’s relationship* remains elusively mysterious – the bigger factor was that he had the good fortune to run against one of the most unpopular politicians in modern American history, who ran an inept campaign to boot.
After that unexpected victory, which took the president-elect by surprise as much as everyone else, it’s all been downhill for the Republican Party and its shotgun marriage to the reality TV star. The 2018 midterms, which saw the Democrats win 41 seats in the House of Representatives, regaining control of the chamber, weren’t uniquely bad for the GOP, neither was this any sort of win. The 2020 election went perhaps better for Republicans than might be expected, given the paralysis the country was facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Senate winding up tied and the Democratic lead in the House being whittled down to a handful of seats.
However, Trump himself was defeated in his reelection, though he refused to accept this, condemning the country and his own party to an agonizing spectacle of pestilential kayfabe immersed in juvenile loyalty tests which threatened to rip the GOP to shreds, merely to salve Trump’s damaged ego. Trump’s persona was never separable from his politics, indeed to a large degree his persona is his politics. Trump outdid himself with his juvenile antics on his way out of Washington, DC, which appalled all but the most pro-MAGA Republicans at least privately.
The bigger issue involves Trump’s “lessons learned” from his miraculous, one-of-a-kind victory in 2016, which can be summed up in four points:
- Losers tell the truth; say anything you need to say to win, no matter what it is
- Winning is all that matters; you will be forgiven everything so long as you win
- Personal loyalty counts more than competence, even basic competence
- Amateurs are better at politics than professionals, especially if they’re famous on television
The first two points are hardly novel inside the Beltway; they may even be uncomfortably true. The third point can be taken too far, by appointing whole platoons of incompetents to key positions, as the Trump White House did. Trump’s fourth maxim, however, was his innovation. Napoleon supposedly said something similar about his profession by noting that in war, as in love, sometimes amateurs are better than professionals. Trump ascended this to a new level not merely by valorizing political neophytes, but by placing celebrity at the cornerstone of Republican politics.
How that worked out was plain to see last night, as the results from the 2022 midterms came in. While this election cannot be termed a defeat for Republicans, since the party is likely to gain control of the House of Representatives, albeit narrowly, and keep the Senate tied, as of the count at this hour, the much-anticipated Red Wave (or even Tsunami) of GOP dreams failed to materialize. In terms of expectations, yesterday was an unmitigated setback for Republicans, who planned to give the Biden administration a good, hard thrashing at the ballot box.
They had valid reasons to expect that. Poll after poll showed many Congressional races to be much tighter than they turned out to be yesterday. Moreover, opinion polls broadly demonstrated that the top issues for voters this fall – inflation, crime, the economy, the border – were Republican strengths and Democratic weak points. Neither did overwrought Democratic rhetoric about “democracy is on the ballot” seem to energize voters outside their own base. Joe Biden is as unpopular a president as Donald Trump was, and none can deny that inflation and the overall economy are worse now than they were under the last president.
What happened? That requires detailed analysis which hasn’t come in yet, and this outcome, like all complex events, is far from monocausal. Surely the Dobbs decision on abortion by the Supreme Court this summer, which caught many elected Republicans flatfooted, was no help to the GOP in the midterms. More controversially, cynical Democratic support to MAGA candidates in the Republican primaries, bolstering extremists at the expense of moderates, seems to have paid dividends in the general election, given how many of those Trump wannabes went down to defeat yesterday.
That said, the clear culprit behind yesterday’s GOP debacle is Trump himself. Republicans have him to thank for running many candidates who frankly had no business being there. Hard-right neophytes with no credentials for office except kissing Trump’s ring as often as the former president demanded it, did not do well in the midterms. Neither did merely being famous. Trump’s model of being a reality TV star who says whatever he wants, no matter how fact-free or outrageous, is sui generis. Even Trump failed to replicate his success a second time. For all other Republicans, Trump’s template is a disaster.
If the GOP wants to avoid a similar debacle in two years, it needs to focus on vetting candidates and nominating politicians who plan to win the old-fashioned way, by enticing actual voters rather than courting Trump’s capricious favor. As Jim Geraghty explained today at National Review:
Somewhere out there, there’s an alternate universe where Republican primary electorates nominated clean-cut, articulate state legislators and state attorneys general who knew a lot about the issues and had some governing accomplishments to point to — you know, normal candidates — instead of daytime-talk-show hosts, football stars, and tech investors, based upon whoever proclaimed their absolute loyalty to Trump the loudest. I would love to see how that batch of candidates did.
Normal works. Normal wins. Normal gets stuff done. Maybe it’s long overdue that Republican primary voters recognized the value of normalcy.
Which brings us to the Republican bright spot yesterday, which comes from Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis achieved a slam-dunk of a reelection, winning by almost 20 points just four years after he barely won the governorship at all. In Florida, the GOP achieved the tsunami-class win which eluded the party in the rest of the country. Senator Marco Rubio handily won reelection too, while across Florida, the Republicans ran up their numbers even in counties that were not on their team just one or two election cycles ago.
Something big is happening in Florida, and Republicans outside the Sunshine State need to emulate DeSantis nationally for 2024 if they want to win. Here, the governor has aggressively taken on the Left on a whole range of issues, including touchy “culture war” topics which supposedly are a drag on the GOP: but not in Florida. DeSantis has also demonstrated a governing competence that Trump never did, which surely matters. DeSantis’ ebullient victory speech last night, which should be viewed as the de facto launch of his 2024 presidential bid, was not for the faint-hearted, including as it did the claim, “Florida is where woke goes to die.”
“Make America Florida” has been taken as a slogan for that budding campaign by DeSantis supporters in the Sunshine State, a claim which concisely draws the outline of the coming presidential race. At home, DeSantis has demolished the Obama-era Democratic coalition, which kept the state purple on election day until very recently. The DeSantis coalition includes many non-traditional Republican voters, among them large numbers of Hispanics, not just Cubans (a reliable GOP demographic). The salient question for the next two years is whether Ron DeSantis can expand his Florida victory template nationally.
Time will tell, as it usually does. For now, we can state that Ron DeSantis was the GOP’s big winner last night, while Donald Trump was the big loser. What the midterms mean for Democrats, who are today breathing a sigh of vast relief, having eluded the expected electoral hangman, remains to be seen, although Joe Biden now is unlikely to be easily unseated as the party’s 2024 nominee. In the meantime, the knives have come out for Trump himself. The front page of the New York Post today, Trump’s own paper, hails DeSantis as DeFUTURE, while Fox News is running a story pronouncing the Florida governor “the new Republican Party leader.” Your friends, they say, stab you in the front.
* This complex counterintelligence topic has been elucidated by this newsletter here in greater detail than in any other open-source publication.
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