Is Trump Finally Toast?
Is this time different?
After the midterms are all said and done it is likely that the GOP regains control of the House and possible that they regain control of the Senate as well. Nonetheless, Election Night did not go nearly as well as Republicans hoped. All of the vibes about a red wave came to naught. The GOP will make, at best, incremental gains. Or, to put it another way, Biden can claim the best performance by an incumbent Democrat (in his first midterm) since John F. Kennedy.
Republicans are unhappy, and it seems pretty obvious who is to blame. Donald Trump backed a lot of poor candidates during the primaries and they paid the price in the general election. This outcome serves as a useful reminder of Trump’s poor showing as the leader of the party. As Matthew Continetti noted in the Washington Free Beacon:
In retrospect, the 2016 election should be viewed less as a victory for Donald Trump than a loss for Hillary Clinton. Years spent overinterpreting the strength of both Trump and the “America First” agenda is one reason so many people, including me, are so surprised at this year’s outcome.
Since Donald Trump became president, Republicans have lost the House, the White House, and the Senate. If they win these institutions back in 2022 and 2024, it will not be thanks to his influence but despite it. The national GOP needs to recognize Biden’s irrelevance, settle on an economic message and agenda that wins public support, take lessons in how to talk about the right to life, and reconnect with independents, suburban voters, and moderates. Maybe the governor of Florida, who just won reelection by 20 points without Trump’s “help,” can teach them how to do it.
Continetti is not the only conservative analyst to reach this conclusion in the last 48 hours:
The New York Times’ Michael Bender and Maggie Haberman report: “As the sheer number of missed Republican opportunities sank in, the rush to openly blame Mr. Trump was as immediate as it was surprising…. The chorus of criticism, which unfolded on Fox News and social media throughout the day, revealed Mr. Trump to be at his most vulnerable point politically since the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.”
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The Washington Post picks up similar vibes, “Trump is taking blame from Republicans for disappointing performances by many of the candidates he backed, at the same time that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis won a landslide reelection, instantly elevating his profile as a serious 2024 presidential contender.”
DeSantis led Florida Republicans in the kind of red wave the GOP expected nationally — and this was despite Trump’s threats and insults directed at him. This has led many to wonder if this is the time that GOP leaders decide it’s time to shiv Trump. Jonathan Chait argues that this time, the party will finally decide:
The conventional wisdom all this time has held that Trump would simply bully DeSantis or anybody who stood in his path, just as he humiliated the likes of Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz. But this belief relies on the lazy assumption that whatever dynamic pertained in the last contested Republican primary would automatically continue. DeSantis has the advantage of a unified conservative-movement apparatus behind him, which Trump’s rotating cast of 2016 opponents never enjoyed….
It might be the case that members of the party base are so loyal to Trump that they follow him regardless of what their favorite media personalities tell them. But conventional wisdom has grown far too sour on the power of the party Establishment. After 2012, political insiders believed the “party decides” thesis showed that voters follow cues from elites. Trump’s victory confounded that thesis, causing a reaction against it. But a more sober reading of the evidence suggests that party elites, while not all-powerful, still have considerable influence, especially when they coordinate.
The Republican Party has run several elite favorites with a mixed record of success in primaries. But the last time it unified behind a single candidate in the primary was in 2000, when the party coalesced around George W. Bush. DeSantis has put together Bush-like support from every corner of the movement: its donors, its activists, its media personalities.
Add in Trump’s legal troubles, and one has to ask: is this the last political gasp of the thrice-married, twice-impeached one-termer?
I have my doubts. For one thing, we have heard this tune many times before. Trump was even more toxic after January 6th, and even his culpability in that act of political violence did not pry the likes of Mitch McConnell off the fence. One could argue that this time, Trump is seriously hurting the party — but that was also true in 2018, when the GOP lost the House, and 2020, when the GOP lost the Senate.
Even if the GOP underperformed more in 2022 compared to expectations, the Republican problem remains the same: the party cannot afford to alienate Trump. Going all the way back to 2016, the fear among GOP heavyweights was that Trump would go the third party and divide the Republican vote. Trump’s bargaining advantage with other Republicans has always been that he is willing to burn the GOP to the ground if he doesn’t get his way. Even if his base has been loosened — and it has — it’s still large enough to matter decisively in GOP primary politics.
The true takeaway from the last few election cycles is that the margins are razor-thin in pivotal races. This means that even if Trump does not command the following he once his, he can take his ball and go home and GOP turnout will take enough of a hit for Republicans to get shellacked. Maybe DeSantis and GOP party elites can buy him off somehow — I could imagine a pardon deal being proffered — but Trump hates looking like a beta male and this deal would do exactly that.
The same WaPo story talking about Republicans casting blame on Trump also notes, “A longtime legislative aide in Tallahassee said Tuesday’s results showed that DeSantis is a viable alternative to Trump, but that may not matter if Trump barrels ahead anyway. ‘Nobody thinks the path for DeSantis is taking Trump head-on at this point,’ the aide said, expecting Trump would ‘run the party to the ground.’” That sounds like there needs to be another cycle or two for Trump’s grip on the party to truly weaken.
Maybe Chait et al are correct, and this time Trump is defanged. His ability to rile up his supporters ain’t what it used to be. But Trump has already set expectations that he will run in 2024. Any reversal of course will be viewed as weakness. If he runs, he will be unafraid of threatening to burn the GOP’s house down. And it is at that moment when all past behavior points to the GOP leadership caste refraining from alienating him.
But I hope I’m wrong. Over the past six years, the one area where Trump could claim legitimate politically skill has been his colonization of the Republican Party. Beyond a love of tax cuts and deporting immigrants, the GOP of 2022 bears little resemblance to the GOP of 2012. If the GOP finally decided to push Trump aside, it allows for the possibility of the Grand Old Party looking more like a traditional party and less like Hezbollah.