On Sunday, there were all manner of allusions to Republican “soul-searching” scattered across the front pages of the nation’s top digital newspapers.
Hours earlier, The Associated Press called Nevada’s closely contested Senate race for Catherine Cortez Masto, whose narrow win over Trump-backed former state attorney general Adam Laxalt clinched the upper chamber for Democrats.
If Raphael Warnock tops Herschel Walker in Georgia’s runoff, it’ll be insult to injury for the GOP. If Walker wins, it won’t much matter. Kamala Harris will still have the tie-breaker. In fact, given the nature of the controversy surrounding Walker’s campaign, it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest Republicans would be secretly fine with it if he lost. He’s a liability on a key social issue.
When queried by reporters in Cambodia, where he’s attending a regional summit, Joe Biden struggled to say exactly what benefit Democrats would derive from a Warnock victory other than additional bragging rights. “It’s just simply better,” he said. “The bigger the number, the better.” (“Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it?”)
Republicans were still set to secure the House, but by a razor thin margin. There too, the GOP’s midterm performance was extremely underwhelming, and that’s me being very (overly, even) polite. I can promise you this: No top Republican was being any semblance of polite about the situation behind closed doors on Sunday.
The figure (below) assumes a Warnock victory in Georgia and Republican wins in all House races they led as of 8:00 AM in New York on Sunday.
That figure is unambiguous: Republicans underperformed. Midterms are generally good to the opposing party. 2022 should’ve been a walk in the park for the GOP given inflation realities and Biden’s low approval rating. Instead, Biden’s midterms will go down as a success, in an absolute sense vis-à-vis the Senate and in a relative sense vis-à-vis the House and inflation.
Contrary to the “soul-searching” talking point mentioned here at the outset, Republicans are unlikely to engage in somber reflection. Rather, they’ll be keen to point fingers amongst themselves. Some will blame Mitch McConnell, others Donald Trump, and that tells the story. The GOP is still mired in an identity crisis born of the party’s decision to embrace a personality cult in 2016.
Ostensibly, the midterms reflected a rebuke of Trump’s balderdash in all its various manifestations. But it could be that many Trump voters are only interested in voting if Trump himself is on the ballot. Participating in the democratic process entails making an investment. Not necessarily a monetary investment, but at the least, a time investment. Republicans count on in-person voting, but in-person voting by definition entails a non-trivial amount of effort. I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that some key Trump demographics aren’t especially likely to make that effort for the sake of a Trump proxy, let alone for the sake of the democratic process. It seems a stretch that the people who attach large Trump flags to their truck beds are the sort of folks you’d see proudly sporting “I Voted!” buttons.
But there’s more to it than that. The AP on Sunday wrote that, “Republicans focused relentlessly on the economy, a top concern for many voters amid stubborn inflation and high gas and food prices [and] also hit Democrats on crime, a message that sometimes overstated the threat but nonetheless tapped into anxiety, particularly among the suburban voters who turned away from the party in 2018 and 2020.”
I’m sure there are all manner of statistics which show just how hard the GOP hit Democrats on inflation, so I wouldn’t want to make any quantitative claims about messaging shortfalls. I would, however, make a simple qualitative claim in that regard: If CPI is 8%, and if grocery and power bills are rising at a double-digit annual rate (figure below), but you still underperform as the opposition party in government, you didn’t emphasize inflation enough.
That chart (or a simpler version of it, maybe) should’ve been on billboards all over the country. If you were a GOP candidate, you’d have done well, I’d argue, to ask voters (rhetorically) whether their grocery and electricity bills have gone up since Biden took office, instead of asking them ridiculous questions like, “Should Joanna, formerly John, be allowed to compete on the women’s swim team.”
Consider that, as the AP also noted, Nevada is “an economically challenged state that has some of the highest gas prices in the nation.” But Laxalt couldn’t deliver it to Republicans. Why? Well, I’m sure experts on politics in Nevada could regale you for hours, but I’d suggest Laxalt’s failure might be related to his messaging which, as NBC recounted, included the contention that the left should be put “in the ash bin of history,” that Republicans “can’t negotiate with” Democrats, that Anthony Fauci should be “in front of a Senate hearing” and that, if in power, Senate Republicans could determine “What in the world is going on” with Hunter Biden’s “laptop from hell.”
I realize a lot of those talking points play well with some voters. But I’m confident in asserting they translate into more votes when Trump himself is running versus when he isn’t. By contrast, Cortez Masto bragged to voters about GOP endorsements she won, and her work with the likes of Chuck Grassley.
Meanwhile, Trump is on the rampage, and his target is Ron DeSantis, the only high-profile Republican who outperformed expectations this month. I won’t quote from, let alone republish, Trump’s anti-DeSantis diatribe, posted to Truth Social a few evenings ago, but suffice to say it was irritable. That’s a problem for Republicans given that, again, Trump’s candidates underperformed in the midterms, while DeSantis rolled to reelection in Florida by a huge margin.
For the GOP, DeSantis ostensibly represents the “best” (note the scare quotes) of both worlds. He’s highly educated, boasts a picture perfect household that could’ve walked out of an advertisement for professional family photography and is very enthusiastic about leveraging the Trumpian culture wars but without any of the (increasingly heavy) baggage that goes along with Trump.
If DeSantis’s biggest advantage is that he isn’t Trump, that may also be his biggest disadvantage. People are keen to paint a mental picture of the GOP 2024 primaries as a Godzilla versus King Kong battle between the two that’ll leave both so worn down that neither will perform well in the general election. That’s probably not the best way to conceptualize of a prospective Trump versus DeSantis primary. I, for one, don’t believe DeSantis can prevail.
Some would argue that if Rupert Murdoch abandons Trump (which he apparently has, something Trump addressed in the same anti-DeSantis screed mentioned above), that’s that. I can assure you it’s not that simple. Consider the (mostly self-evident) notion that no one who’s still enthusiastic about Trump being president would ever defect to DeSantis. If you’re still on the Trump train, you’re not getting off at the stop labeled “Ron,” or any other stop for that matter. I don’t know how many people are still on that train, but whatever that number is, that’s the number of votes DeSantis won’t be getting.
Still, betting odds shifted dramatically in favor of DeSantis last week. The figure (below) gives you a sense of the sea change that accompanied the midterm results.
I wouldn’t bet on that, pun fully intended. Effectively, you’d be betting that the same establishment which Trump famously vanquished in 2016 is capable of toppling him. That wasn’t a good bet then, and it’s unlikely to be now.
The AP recapped Murdoch’s efforts. “The New York Post’s front cover on Thursday put Trump’s face over the drawing of a boy from a well-known nursery rhyme. The headline: ‘Trumpty Dumpty,'” David Bauder recounted. “The Wall Street Journal’s opinion section ran a sharp editorial headlined, ‘Trump is the Republican Party’s Biggest Loser.'”
Again, Murdoch won’t be enough. The Atlantic spelled it out. “Rupert Murdoch, Rich Lowry, Mike Pompeo and company: Welcome to the resistance!” David Graham joked. And then: “The traditional conservative establishment didn’t make Trump, and it can’t break him. If his political career is over, it will be because the voters who brought him to power decide to end it.”
And therein lies the problem. As I wrote on election night in 2020, the fact that Trump won as many votes as he did after Americans had four years to observe what a Trump presidency actually entails, spoke volumes. The lightly edited excerpts (below) are from my election night 2020 coverage. They’re every bit as relevant today as they were then.
Those of an optimistic persuasion have steadfastly insisted that Trump or, more precisely, Trumpism, doesn’t represent American values.
I draw a distinction between the man and the ideology because citizen Trump embodied (or pretended to embody) many of the attributes Americans typically identify with success. He was rich, or at least appeared to be. He was brash. He made himself synonymous with capitalism. And by his own (in some cases dubious) account, was wildly successful at just about everything he decided to try his hand at.
By now, virtually everyone understands that the myth of Donald Trump, “legendary businessman,” is mostly a fabrication. But that’s not the point. Rather, the point is simply that prior to becoming president, Trump did, in fact, live a life that was wholly consistent with modern American “values,” as they manifest in aspirations to success in a capitalist society. America is a tacky, arrogant place where “winning” is almost always couched exclusively in terms of wealth. Seen in that light, Trump has always represented American “values.”
Trumpism, on the other hand, overtly embraced what I’ve consistently argued were but secondary inclinations for a man whose first concern is himself. Xenophobia, notions of racial superiority and pandering to impulses far more pernicious than simple greed, are some of Trumpism’s defining features. But for Trump himself, the choice between, say, going to an expensive dinner with a wealthy African American executive, and going to lunch with a lowly blue-collar worker who wants to have a substantive discussion about the plight of the disappearing middle-class in a globalized world, is no choice at all. He wouldn’t be caught dead at a sandwich shop with somebody making $40,000/year before it mattered politically.
I’d guess many Trump voters know that. They know their former president thinks of them as lesser human beings because they’re not affluent. But they embrace him anyway. Why? Well, because for tens of millions of disaffected Americans, Trumpism has two highly attractive characteristics. First, it purports to offer easy solutions to complex problems, like the deleterious effect of globalization on the American middle-class. Second, it implicitly promises to delay inevitable demographic changes and uncomfortable societal shifts that threaten white, male privilege, which is, regrettably, just as identifiable with American “values” as the worship of unbridled capitalism.
When you combine Trump’s tediously cultivated mythos as the embodiment of the American capitalist dream with Trumpism‘s menu of quick fixes and implicit promise to safeguard what many believe is their inherent “right” to occupy a higher social stratum than, for example, women and minorities, you end up with a platform that’s, unfortunately, wholly consistent with American “values.”
In my estimation, none of that has changed since election eve 2020.
You could argue the 2022 midterms suggested otherwise. “The American people rejected — soundly rejected — the anti-democratic, authoritarian and divisive direction the MAGA Republicans wanted to take our country,” Chuck Schumer declared on Saturday evening, when Nevada was called for Cortez Masto.
Maybe. But the paradox for Democrats and Republicans is that the “defeat” of MAGA in the 2022 midterms might’ve been due mostly to the fact that its founder wasn’t actually on the ballot.