Members Only | December 9, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Um, is Trump a scapegoat?
GOP elites want to believe voters rejected him, not the GOP.
The consensus coming out of Tuesday’s Senate run-off in Georgia seems to be the criminal former president is to blame for the Republicans not winning as many seats in the US Congress as they should have.
Republican pollster Frank Lutz summed up the idea. “Trump is the big loser,” he told USA Today. “One by one, his handpicked candidates for Senate flopped. I can’t remember a time when the environment for Republicans was so good and yet the results were so bad.”
The Democrats seem to agree, though they aren’t blaming. They’re crediting him. “Polls in battleground states showed dislike of the ex-president among moderates, particularly in the suburbs,” USA Today reported. Voters took it out on Trump-endorsed candidates.”
And maybe this is a crazy idea, but, um:
What if Trump is a scapegoat?
A simpler reason
Let me explain!
Isn’t it a little too convenient?
After all, the Republican leadership went along with Trump’s choice of Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Blake Masters in Arizona and Walker in Georgia. To be sure, Mitch McConnell seemed to recognize the constraints on their potential. But the Senate leader was on board.
That’s one thing. The other is the assumption that the Republicans were supposed to do better. As Frank Lutz said: “I can’t remember a time when the environment for Republicans was so good.”
This is politics, though. Nothing is guaranteed.
It’s true the odds this midterm favored the GOP. High inflation, the president’s low approval rating and “thermostatic politics” altogether seemed to point in the direction of a Republican blowout a la 2010.
It wasn’t a blowout but even so, the Republicans still won. They are poised to take over the House. (They’ll have a plus-10 majority.) As for the Senate, that was always a longer shot. Indeed, the punditariat seemed to expect the House to flip, but not so much the Senate.
Looked at from this view, the Republicans did do what they were supposed to do. They performed as well as they were expected to.
So why blame Trump?
It could be the press and pundit corps’ obsessive focus on intraparty conflict, as their attention turns to the upcoming presidential election. It could also be GOP stalwarts hoping to purge Trump.
But there’s a simpler reason.
For Republican Party elites, blaming a criminal former president is easier than reexamining themselves, their values, their ideas and their policies. They’d rather believe suburban swing voters – or as I like to call them respectable white people – rejected Donald Trump.
Just as likely, though, they rejected the Republicans.
Return to history
Remember Trump did not cause the rise in authoritarian politics in America. He’s a symptom of what came before him, which is to say, Trump is the product of choices, their consequences and history.
The Republican Party’s hard-right turn had been building momentum since at least 1992 when Pat Buchanan challenged incumbent George HW Bush because he wasn’t Ronald Reagan. He failed but delivered a speech at that year’s Republican National Convention that Molly Ivins would later say probably sounded better in the original German.
There’s a straight line from Buchanan’s so-called “culture war speech” to “American Carnage,” Trump’s 2017 inaugural speech.
Remember, too, that the Democrats did not defy history.
The conventional wisdom was that the party that controls the White House loses one or both chambers of the Congress in the president’s first term. Political scientists often call that “thermostatic politics.”
But that conventional wisdom is based on patterns evident during the past 20 years. Go back farther to see that, as I did recently, “thermostatic politics” is far from normal. Normal was for the congressional elections yielding no change in control at all.
Far from defying history, the Democrats returned to it. USA Today reported that, “for the first time since 1934, the president’s party successfully defended every one of its incumbent Senate seats.”
Did you feel déjà vu this year? Didn’t politics before the midterm elections sound like politics before 1980’s presidential election?
Inflation was rising back then. The economy was crawling. Jimmy Carter was unpopular. The stage was set for the “Reagan Revolution.”
For the next 40 years, rooted in that time, the Republicans pinned inflation to the Democrats, just as they pinned “tax and spend” to them. They did this so much, the press corps eventually stopped questioning the accusation at which point it became received truth.
Inflation did not apply to Republicans, though. Inflation was rocking the economy in 1982. Interest rates were as high as 18 percent! Yet inflation did not hurt Reagan’s party during his first midterm. As was the case for most of the 20th century, the Congress didn’t flip.
You could say Reagan’s party did well despite high inflation, but just as plausible was it did well because of it. Perhaps voters felt the president’s party would do a better job than the opposing party. I can’t say for sure, but the point is the same could be said now.
To wit: The Democrats didn’t perform better than expected despite inflation. They did so because of it. For 40 years, the received truth, rooted in 1970s politics, was that inflation was bad for the Democrats. Suddenly, that’s not true anymore. Something serious has changed.
The previous benefit of the doubt
After 1980, Reagan and the Republicans sold conservative ideas, particularly so-called “supply-side economics” in which cutting taxes, especially for the rich, spurs economic growth. The other idea to reach such heights was probably the so-called sanctity of life. (Another is linked to the Second Amendment, but that’s for later.)
These dominated politics. The Democrats were always on their heels. But these twin ideologies do not hold sway as they used to, especially among respectable white people, the voters who determine electoral outcomes. They once gave the Republicans the benefit of the doubt.
Yeah, sure, they rejected Trump.
But not him alone.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.