Was It Really All Just Trump’s Fault?
Here’s the conventional wisdom about the midterm results: Good for DeSantis. Bad for Trump. Bad for election deniers. Bad for “bad candidates.”
The Republican party’s failure to engineer anything approaching a “tsunami”—likely the worst midterm election performance by a party out of power since 2002—has the GOP and conservative establishment (again) calling for Donald Trump’s political exile.
But can the Republican party just fire the manager and get back to owning the libs? Where did all those “bad candidates” come from, anyway? Can you really blame them all on a Florida retiree without a Twitter account?
Early Wednesday morning, longtime Mitch McConnell adviser Scott Jennings tweeted an obituary for Trump’s political future. “How could you look at these results tonight and conclude Trump has any chance of winning a national election in 2024?”
Conservative intellectual Yuval Levin wrote a similar post-mortem for National Review:
The pattern of Republican wins and losses on Tuesday was not random, and its message is not hard to discern. It presents itself as a blinking, blaring, screaming sign that reads “Republicans: Trump is your problem.”
Even the New York Post, Trump’s hometown paper, took its turn with the knife, naming Florida governor Ron DeSantis “DeFUTURE.”
So #TeamNormal is having a moment. But then again, we’ve been here before.
When Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” remarks were publicized late in the 2016 race, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan worked behind the scenes to force him off the ticket. Senator Mike Lee and then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz publicly called on Trump to leave the race. At least they tried?
More recently, after Trump’s MAGA army launched a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol to stop the counting of electoral votes, GOP establishment types once again looked to a post-Trump future.
National Review’s Dan McLaughlin declared that January 6th heralded The Abandonment of Trump: “it is impossible to miss the number of conservatives now either openly regretting voting for Trump ten weeks ago, or simply being done with him and telling him to go away.”
Former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said it was time for “hard truths”, telling Tim Alberta that “we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.”
Lindsey Graham announced on the Senate floor that he and Trump had “a hell of a journey. I hate it being this way . . . count me out. Enough is enough.”
But while the spirit may have been willing, the flesh was weak.
House speaker Kevin McCarthy and Florida Senator Rick Scott sought out the former president to pay him homage. Graham also reversed course, declaring that any GOP leader “must have a working relationship” with Trump and that the 2024 nomination is “his . . . if he wants it.”
And so here we are. Again.
Can the GOP successfully dislodge Trump from the commanding heights of Republican politics this time? Possibly. Party leaders and conservative media are attempting to create a sense of inevitability around Ron DeSantis. Even some in Trump’s orbit are reportedly urging him to “delay” his rumored forthcoming presidential announcement.
Could a rebranded MAGA movement continue by just replacing the frontman? Is it still Journey without Steve Perry, or the Grateful Dead without Jerry Garcia? In a way, yes. MAGA could Jefferson Starship itself indefinitely as long as the crowds keep vibing. But without the original magic the venues tend to shrink, the fans get old, and it all starts to seem a little pathetic.
How much of a burden can you place on a single scapegoat? Over the last seven years we were told time and again that Trump was a symptom of a larger phenomenon. Is that no longer the case?
Take local TV news star Kari Lake’s struggle to defeat her less media-savvy opponent in the race for governor of Arizona. Katie Hobbs didn’t even debate! Is Lake’s underperformance Trump’s fault?
Mehmet Oz might have been a Trump-endorsed “bad candidate,” but his loss to a recent stroke victim probably had as much to do with Pennsylvania voters ranking abortion as a more important issue than inflation as it did with Donald Trump.
What about Herschel Walker? Do you hold Trump responsible when his real first choice was David Perdue?
And who gets the blame for picking a weird Ron Paul acolyte to take on a popular astronaut? Do you put that all on Trump? Or do you share some of the blame with Blake Masters’s patrons in the venture capital bubble and the emerging “national conservative” movement?
Where does Trump end and the far-right begin? If you dump Trump but keep the people who built him up and protected him every step of the way, did you really change anything?
Blaming Trump is easy. Organizing a realignment of the GOP coalition to improve its standing with younger voters—by purging the party of its openly racist and seditionist elements, for example—is more of a challenge.
An early test of the GOP’s determination to put the former president out to pasture will come during the Georgia Senate runoff between Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker. Will Trump rally for Walker? Will Walker disavow Trump and all of the Stop the Steal lies?
Or perhaps Republicans will find a way to rationalize following their former leader into one last battle—“Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.” Though if Trump somehow agrees to sit out the Georgia runoff, he will have effectively conceded leadership of the party. He knows weakness when he sees it.
Looking ahead to the 2024 presidential campaign, Republicans will seek to avoid a destructive showdown between Trump and DeSantis. The ingredients for a “corrupt bargain” are there. Trump needs federal protection, possibly even a pardon. DeSantis needs the former president’s support, or at least some assurance that he won’t be bad for business.
The problem with a prospective Trump-DeSantis detente is that the threats they pose to each other are asymmetrical.
Trump has indicated he’s willing to destroy the Florida governor. “I think if he runs he could hurt himself very badly,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal. “I will tell you things about him that won’t be very flattering. I know more about him than anybody other than perhaps his wife, who is really running his campaign.”
But is DeSantis actually willing to destroy Trump, to see him ruined or even imprisoned? I have my doubts about that. Because such a course of action could cost him a lot of Republican votes.
And this is the asymmetry which drives the GOP’s cycle of dysfunction—and has since then-RNC chairman Reince Priebus desperately tried to convince Trump to “pledge” to support the Republican nominee in 2016:
Trump can destroy the party whenever he wants, yet the party can’t destroy him without also risking its own crack-up.
Nor can Republicans assume that Trump can be easily dismissed. His $100 million war chest can sustain armies of grifters and right-wing media, promising that any contest for GOP primacy would be long and painful.
While there’s a narrow opening for Ron DeSantis, if he chooses to take it, there’s also an opportunity for the broadly centrist pro-democracy movement to drive further wedges into a beleaguered MAGA coalition.
Will MAGA Republicans still go to the mattresses to keep re-litigating the 2020 election? Can they dump Trump while protecting him and his circle from accountability for the Capitol riot, or a federal indictment? Are conservative activists still trusting the plan, or Q, or Steve Bannon? These are questions that should be aggressively tested.
The path of least resistance for anyone trying to lead the MAGA movement will be to avoid these uncomfortable issues as much as possible. But as recent history has proven time and again, if you want to avoid a MAGA comeback, you need to hit them while they’re down.
Sweep the leg. And this time, finish the job.