The walls are closing in on Donald Trump. Again. But this time it’s different. Again. In the wake of the Republicans’ performance in the midterms, which ranges from lackluster to biblically awful depending on how many drinks the GOP consultant you’re asking has had, Trump is taking all the blame. The conservative media has declared that they are done with him, that it’s time to move on.
There are two problems with this. First, it’s not really true that it’s all Trump’s fault. And second, it is very likely to backfire and empower an otherwise somewhat floundering 45.
As to the issue of blame, yes, Trump promoted some primary stinkers. Dr. Oz and Don Bolduc in the Pennsylvania and New Hampshire Senate races respectively performed particularly odiously. But he did get a win with J.D. Vance and could score another overtime touchdown with Herschel Walker in Georgia. It’s also worth noting that Trump was hosting fundraisers for New York gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin when nobody thought he’d get inside double digits. The coattails of that narrow loss flipped four House seats to the GOP.
Meanwhile, there is plenty of legitimate criticism to level at Mitch McConnell regarding the shallow showing in Senate races. Spending money to help your guys win — that’s normal. What isn’t normal is calling a spate of your own party’s candidates poor quality. Even if it was true, why say it? He’s the Senate minority leader, not a New York Times columnist. To say nothing of the fact that his hand-picked Colorado candidate Joe O’Dea didn’t exactly set the world on fire.
The bottom line is that with the notable exceptions of Florida and New York, it was a rough election for the GOP across the board. Kevin McCarthy’s Commitment to America failed to resonate, MAGA candidates lost, non-MAGA candidates lost. Republicans lost a disproportionate number of tight races, maybe because of abortion, maybe because of sad get-out-the-vote operations, maybe because of all of it. It strains credulity to suggest that Donald Trump owns this entire debacle.
So why the rush to not only blame him but insist it means he must be flung into electoral exile to save the party? The purpose of this is to knock out, or at least badly damage, his candidacy now, before the primary fight is really joined. This desire is born of a very real fear that should Trump lose that contest, he will refuse to support the winner and keep his most loyal voters with him. But therein lies the rub. Trump’s exact argument in this case will be that party elites and the media conspired to crush him — and more importantly to suppress the will of his supporters. If Trump voters see a coordinated effort, specifically designed to thwart Trump, they will rightfully be suspicious of it, angry about it, and far less willing to “move on.”
Take the current call — just days after the midterms, mind you — for every Republican to clear the field for Ron DeSantis after his glorious victory in Florida. Let’s set to one side that this requires a slew of lean and hungry Republicans named Cruz, Rubio, Christie, Haley and Pence to selflessly sacrifice their own ambitions and anoint DeSantis their new God King. Maybe they will, but that itself will be a signal to Trump voters that the fix is in.
As great and popular as DeSantis is, and he is, we have no idea what his national agenda is, or his foreign policy, or his plan to fix the border. Is it OK to wait and find out these things before attempting to consign Trump to the dustbin of history? Or is it just “anyone but Trump?”
DeSantis has wisely ignored the little jabs that Trump has begun throwing his way — so why can’t the media follow in his footsteps? After last week’s eruption of anti-Trump ink, it doesn’t really matter if DeSantis claps back, Trump has his favorite foe in the ring again, the conservative press.
Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with criticizing Trump. The problem comes when the conservative intelligentsia stands atop a rhetorical Siani Mount, with the tablets of the law in their hands, declaring that the break with Trump has officially been made. They don’t have the authority to announce any such thing.
This come to Jesus moment so eagerly anticipated by so many is never going to happen. That isn’t how this story ends. Tens of millions of Trump voters aren’t going to suddenly, en masse, say, “I was wrong about Trump, I think he’s awful now.” But if these voters see a fair fight, if by the Republican convention in 2024 they lost a good clean race without the party’s and the media’s thumbs on the scale, they will move on from a Trump they still love to a new champion, whether Trump deigns to take that stage or not.
Trump won because he promised voters that unlike the previous iteration of the GOP he would get what they want done, not what he knew to be best for them. Trump voters and even Republicans more broadly now demand this level of responsiveness. They are going to have a say in the 2024 election; they will not hand the keys back to the elites.
The Republican Party needs the primary that is coming. But it also needs to be on the level. The fundamental reason why there is such a thing as Trump voters is that he sensed their feelings of being ignored and disrespected by the elites. Listen to them, treat them fairly. And may the best candidate win.