Soul-searching, backbiting, recriminations, denunciations: This is the usual stuff of postelection seasons, though few would have predicted a month ago that all of it would be happening on the right. The “red wave” many expected never materialized; Republicans might have won the House, but they utterly failed to win it “bigly,” to borrow a term of art from the man being widely blamed for their underperformance. And there are signs that Trump himself may be looking to switch gears. In his speech announcing a 2024 campaign last week, there were, to be sure, a few references to the cultural wedge issues that shaped—and tanked—MAGA-approved campaigns this cycle, including swings against critical race theory and trans athletes. He spoke about putting drug dealers to death (a provocation in keeping with the tone of his 2016 campaign) and Hillary Clinton. He whined about voting methods and the Steele dossier.
But the bulk of his speech was dedicated to the issues likely to dominate what we might generously call a second-term policy agenda: the economy, immigration, and foreign policy, including more sparring with China. “Every policy must be geared towards, that which supports the American worker, the American family, and businesses both large and small and allows our country to compete with other nations on a very level playing field,” he said. “That means low taxes, low regulations, and fair trade, much of which I’ve already completed, but now we’ll even greatly enhance.” “When given the choice, boldly, clearly, and directly,” he predicted elsewhere, “I believe the American people will overwhelmingly reject the left’s platform of national ruin, and they will embrace our platform of national greatness and glory to America.”
While Trump’s speech was widely framed as an underwhelming salvo in the fight for the soul of the Republican Party, the familiarity of much of the platform he laid out suggests the substantive gap between him and the Republican elites loudly denouncing him again—never very large to begin with—is shrinking further still. At least one of the elite’s preferred standard-bearers, for his part, has spent the last few years moving in Trump’s direction. In all probability, we’ll find the future of the Republican Party in the places where the two meet. And we have every reason to believe the party’s future bodes poorly for our politics, whether or not Trump wins out.
Over the course of his first campaign and presidency, Trump’s vision for bringing “glory to America” shifted from an erratic and occasionally heterodox pseudo-populism toward the familiar platitudes of conservative orthodoxy. Every indication is that the transformation has held—the next campaign, as Trump renders it in his remarks, will be a fight between “freedom, values, individual responsibility, and just plain common sense” on the right and “an extreme ideology of government domination and control” on the left.
And in a notable departure from the bulk of his post-2020 rhetoric—one mirrored by surprisingly conciliatory pro-Trump candidates across the country in recent weeks—he blamed the right’s failure in this particular election less on voter fraud than on an electorate that has yet to grasp the severity of the country’s troubles. “The citizens of our country have not yet realized the full extent and gravity of the pain our nation is going through,” he said. “I have no doubt that by 2024, it will sadly be much worse. And they will see much more clearly what happened and what is happening to our country and the voting will be much different.”
It’s up to three parties whether Trump will have the opportunity to build that case to the public once the campaign begins in earnest: the special counsel just appointed to lead the January 6 and Mar-a-Lago documents investigations, Republican primary voters, and the Republican elites now straining to convince those voters that Trump is a liability—a task made awkward by the fact that there are now few substantive differences between Trump and the party establishment figures trying to disavow him. National Review’s latest and perhaps last major statement against Trumpism, which leads with a summary of his accomplishments, captures that tension well. “To his credit,” editors wrote, “Trump killed off the Clinton dynasty in 2016, nominated and got confirmed three constitutionalist justices, reformed taxes, pushed deregulation, got control of the border, significantly degraded ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and cinched normalization deals between Israel and the Gulf states, among other things.”
But Trump’s mode of politics—“his erratic nature and lack of seriousness,” in their words—has become inordinately costly; the editorial pairs the Review’s putatively principled objections to his disrespect for the American constitutional order with the bare fact that his antics, well before this month’s midterms, cost Republicans the House in 2018 and the Senate in 2020, in turn paving the way for “trillions of dollars in spending” and the appointment of progressive judges under Biden. The GOP’s task now, per the Review, is to face that record squarely and pivot to an already large set of potential candidates: “Republicans who aren’t, in contrast to him, monumentally selfish or morally and electorally compromised.”
“It’s too early to know what the rest of the field will look like,” they wrote, “except it will offer much better alternatives than Trump.”
What does “better than Trump” really mean? The candidate who fits the bill for most of the GOP’s anxious donors and bigwigs at the moment is Ron DeSantis, a man who spent the campaign season stumping for candidates who backed Trump’s election claims and who vowed to take on nonexistent voter fraud within Florida. The GOP partially owes its House majority to DeSantis’s insistence on pushing through a more aggressively gerrymandered congressional map for the state than Republican lawmakers had intended. He inveighed against critical race theory and transgender people as or more aggressively than the party’s Trumpiest candidates in the rest of the country; sending migrants off to Martha’s Vineyard was as wicked and depraved a stunt as anything Trump has ever pulled.
There’ll probably have to be more where all that came from if DeSantis hopes to win over enough Trump loyalists and party activists to make the 2024 primary a real race. Trump, after all, is less an independent font of right-wing extremism than a particular, replaceable conduit for energies that have been shaping Republican politics for decades now. And the establishment’s bet that DeSantis might present a less threatening face to voters troubled by Trump will be undermined if the primary is particularly hard fought—returning Trump to his not-so-old self—or if Republicans in the House capture a large share of the public’s attention. Right now, the new majority, as narrow and fragile as it is, seems poised to antagonize the Biden administration and the Democrats in much the same way Republicans did when a much larger majority swept into the chamber under Obama: a flurry of investigations, a looming fight over the national debt, and sociocultural dog whistles aplenty about decadent cosmopolitans subverting American values.
Conservative media deserves most of the blame for emboldening the party’s fringe, but the right’s hacks have had a hand from some of the right’s putative critics. In the weeks and months before the election, predictions that Republicans would sweep into Congress on the basis of progressive cultural overreach were issued not only by the likes of Fox News but by The New York Times. For three straight elections now, Republicans have staked their campaigns on the exaggerated, imagined, or invented excesses of the left.
For three straight elections, the institutions of the mainstream press have covered Democratic campaigns and policymaking with the expectation and implication that the right’s messaging on cultural issues would largely succeed. And for three straight elections, the anticipated general backlash against cultural progressivism has utterly failed to materialize. Standing against all available evidence—the proof, in surveys and election results, that the electorate had moved measurably left on issues like racial justice, LGBT rights, and immigration over the last decade, the clear tendency of Republican politicians, unlike their Democratic counterparts, to embrace their party’s least popular ideas, like overturning Roe—the center and the right have been locked in a cycle of mutual delusion.
The mainstream press’s dogged insistence that most voters are alienated by the push for transgender rights in particular was belied by the right’s failure—not the first—to take electoral advantage of the issue space this cycle. Republican candidates and conservative groups spent an estimated $50 million on anti-LGBT ads, much of it dedicated to messaging on trans children specifically. They had little to show for it in campaigns across most of the country; in Michigan, where Democrats swept statewide races and secured their first trifecta in decades, state GOP chief of staff Paul Cordes lamented that gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon had seemingly pushed more ads on trans athletes “than inflation, gas prices and bread and butter issues that could have swayed independent voters.”
But measured by the onslaught of anti-trans measures Republicans have advanced across the country and the hatred conservative activists have stoked over the last few years, it’s hard to say that Republican messaging hasn’t worked, in the sense that the party has succeeded in making life more difficult and more dangerous for LGBT people. The motive of the recent mass shooting at a LGBT nightclub in Colorado Springs is still being investigated; it’s possible the attack might soon be appended to the list of massacres against Jews, Latinos, and African Americans that right-wing politics has inspired over the past few years.
The Republican Party understands the climate its rhetoric and strategies have created kills people and will continue to do so; it remains important to Republican politicians that the men being provoked to murder have the right tools at their disposal. It’s of some comfort that many Americans have come to see the right’s degeneracy for what it is and that Republicans continue to pay an electoral penalty for it. But given the mounting structural advantages the GOP enjoys within the federal system, this election barely qualifies as a setback. The 2024 campaign will be hard fought no matter who winds up on top of the Republican ticket. And even if it loses at the polls, we can rest assured that the right will snatch whatever victories it can manage from the jaws of political defeat.