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Heads Trump Wins, Tails Republicans Lose

Everyone knows the midterms were the end for Donald Trump. What this piece presupposes is: Maybe they weren’t?
November 9, 2022
Heads Trump Wins, Tails Republicans Lose

The instant narrative in The Discourse is that the midterm results were brutal for Donald Trump. The underperformance of many Trumpy candidates, combined with Ron DeSantis’s blowout re-election victory, signaled a changing of the guard. The idea seems to be that Republican voters will wake up on Wednesday morning and say to themselves:

  1. We can’t win with Trump on the ballot.
  2. DeSantis is the future of the Republican party.

And that’s certainly one way to interpret the results.

Republican voters nominated a bunch of bad candidates—Don Bolduc in New Hampshire, Dr. Oz and Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, Blake Masters in Arizona, Herschel Walker in Georgia—who probably underperformed what a #TeamNormal R would have gotten them.

And DeSantis did run ahead of Trump’s 2020 result in Florida.

If you are motivated to hope that Donald Trump goes away and Ron DeSantis returns the GOP to something recognizably similar to what the party was pre-2015, then you can talk yourself into thinking that Tuesday night was good news.

Maybe you’ll even be right.

But just for the sake of argument, let me flip the telescope around and tell you what Trump’s narrative will be. Earlier on Tuesday, Trump toyed with expectations:

As the full picture from Tuesday night becomes clearer, Trump can—reasonably—interpret the results to Republican voters who do not work at conservative think tanks / magazines in New York and Washington in the following ways:

(1) You need Trump on the ballot. Trump will say that, to the extent Republicans did poorly this week, it’s because he wasn’t on the ballot to bring home His People. This was his line for the 2018 midterms and it has the merit of being a little bit true.

When Trump is on the ballot, turnout from the low-education, low-engagement parts of the Republican coalition is higher. It’s also true that Trump drives away educated Republican suburban voters—so it’s a balancing act. But as the Republican party is currently constituted, that’s a tradeoff that Republicans can do pretty well under. Witness how congressional R’s overperformed in both 2016 and 2020.

Without Trump on the ballot, a lot of Republican electoral energy dissipates.

(2) Trump has never lost. Will Republican elites who have gone along with the stolen-election narrative for two years suddenly say, “See! Trump is a big fat loser!”

That seems like a tough sell.

I suppose Republican elites could try something along the lines of, “It’s a damn shame, but the Deep State won’t ever let Trump win. So we have to move on and give Ron a shot.”

And maybe that would work. But that doesn’t sound like the kind of alpha dominance that Republican voters seem to crave.

(3) Trump is the only strong leader in the Republican party. Look what happened in the last 24 months after President Trump’s sacred landslide election was stolen. The Republicans in Washington coddled Sleepy Joe by voting for his socialist programs. The Old Crow McConnell and Crybaby Kevin McCarthy couldn’t even win a clear midterm victory when it was handed to them on a silver platter.

Republicans need Trump to come back and lead them.

(4) Who is going to come at the Don? When it comes to Trump, the M.O. of elected Republicans has been to desperately hope that someone will make him go away—while simultaneously doing everything they can to publicly support him, so as not to get on the wrong side of R voters.

For the most part, this has meant hoping that Democrats (or the criminal justice system) would rid them of Trump.

Now they’re going to hope that DeSantis can beat Trump—while studiously trying to make it look like they’re on Trump’s side.

How’s that supposed to work? They’re going to quietly tell DeSantis, Don’t worry, bro. We’ve got your back. But we’ll just have to keep quiet about it until after you beat him.

Good luck with that.

(5) Who is the Republican party for? The people desperately hoping for DeSantis seem to believe that the Republican party is an institution designed to maximize the chances of bringing into reality certain policy preferences.

That used to be true.

But Trump turned the Republican party into a lifestyle brand and Republican voters haven’t done what they were told for a long time. I don’t know why the people in Conservatism Inc. would believe that these voters are suddenly going to revert to being obedient.

Like I said: No one knows how this shakes out. Trump could announce that he’s running for president tomorrow. The Department of Justice could indict him next week. There are a hundred things that could happen between now and November 2024.

But I don’t think it’s a slam-dunk that the 2022 midterm result means that the Republican party is going to reject Trumpism and all its works. No matter how much I’d like to believe that it might be true.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.