Republicans have been effectively stuck in an abusive relationship, unwilling or unable to extricate themselves from a toxic situation. Donald Trump and his MAGA movement have had a virtual stranglehold on the GOP for six years, and now the consequences for the party are becoming increasingly apparent.
From the circumstances surrounding the FBI’s August search for classified documents at Trump’s home at Mar-a-Lago, to his refusal to repudiate his recent dinner with antisemites, and his recent comment that the Constitution might need to be “terminated” in order to suspend the 2020 presidential election results, more and more Republicans are quietly and begrudgingly acknowledging the seriousness of their plight and the implications for their present and future.
Republicans entered this midterm campaign running against a deeply unpopular Democrat in the White House, with job-approval ratings in the low-to-mid 40s in most polls and even worse approvals on key issues like the economy and crime. For every one person who strongly approved of the job President Biden was doing, there were often more than twice as many who strongly disapproved.
In the Gallup Poll for the month of October, Biden’s approval rating was just 40 percent. Look at that in a historical context: Five out of Biden’s 10 elected post–World War II predecessors had job approval ratings under 50 percent in the final Gallup Poll before their first midterm election. They lost an average of 39.4 House seats. In the more idiosyncratic Senate, the average was a three-seat loss. This year, Biden’s party lost just nine House seats and (pending the outcome of Tuesday’s Georgia runoff) gained one in the Senate.
As veteran Republican consultant Bruce Mehlman put it to me this week, “Voters were angry at Democrats and Biden, but afraid of Republicans and Trump. … They went with the folks who pissed them off rather than those who scared them, especially given the past three years.” Yes, many were upset about the inflation that spiked under Democratic rule. But as powerful an emotion as anger is, fear is even stronger. Anger is about the past; fear is about the future.
Part of that fear stemmed from the Supreme Court’s Dobbs abortion decision, which voters laid at the feet of Republicans. What most thought was settled law for almost a half century was suddenly and pretty radically reversed, in a way that some found disorienting. But aside from those who cared deeply about the right to an abortion, others began wondering what other rights or laws could be cast aside by courts or legislatures.
Americans have tended to favor incremental change rather than radical change. But just as this Dobbs decision and its implications seemed radical to some, others might well have found the sight of hundreds rampaging through the corridors of the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021, to be alarming or even radical, or the widespread denial of the results of free and fair elections and a peaceful transfer of power to be a very serious divergence from our history, traditions, and practices. (Thankfully, in last month’s election, a signal seemed to be sent and received, with very little denialism taking place.)
One does not have to be a Democrat or a liberal, an independent or a moderate, to see that things have taken a turn in this country. Now, Republicans are seeing it as well, albeit reluctantly. They know there’s a problem, but they remain hesitant to file for divorce, to end a relationship that’s costing them not only elections, but their very identity as a party. Voters seemed to realize this and acted on it, in almost every case.
The specific choices of Republican nominees, coupled with the more general convergence of the Republican brand and that of the MAGA movement, may have cost them winnable Senate contests in Arizona, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania, not to mention at least a half dozen gubernatorial seats, dozens of congressional races, and a slew of contests for attorney general and secretary of state in any number of states.
It is far too early to write former President Trump’s political obituary, but judging by signs from some of the party’s biggest donors, some of his traditional allies on Fox News, in the New York Post, and the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, something seems to be happening. The mostly winner-take-all nature of the Republican presidential nomination process works to his advantage, but he has to get from here to there, and that path looks anything but clear. Maybe the MRNA (“Make Republicans Normal Again”) movement will give MAGA a run for its money.
The article was originally published for the National Journal on December 6, 2022.
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