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Opinion Kevin McCarthy’s odd Trump-worship on Fox News hints at GOP midterm strategy

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

So are Republicans really going to shape their 2022 strategy around the orthodoxy that the Donald Trump presidency was glorious and infallible in just about every conceivable way?

You’d think so, if you watched House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s strange Fox News appearance on Thursday night.

“If President Biden had done nothing in office, America would be stronger today,” the California Republican told Sean Hannity, after making a pilgrimage to visit Trump and thanking him profusely for boosting GOP chances in 2022.

That’s a remarkably worshipful claim: The America that Trump bequeathed to us was better than right now by any standard or metric you can name. Bar none.

Which hints at an important element of the GOP’s midterm strategy.

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Republicans admit that a chief challenge is sustaining the engagement of the voters Trump brought into the GOP coalition. So if Republicans can’t have Trump himself on the ballot, then perhaps Trump-worship is the next best thing.

This claim from McCarthy is being voiced elsewhere, and it will become more widespread. Trump adviser Stephen Miller recently declared: “No president in history has been dealt a better hand on day one than President Biden.”

The 2022 environment

To understand why this storyline has upsides and downsides for Republicans, listen to Dan Sena, who ran the House Democrats’ campaign arm in 2018.

Sena says the 2022 elections will be fought in a fraught politico-psychological environment, one laced with anxieties about the aftermath of the covid-19 trauma.

That has several components: whether people feel the vaccination campaign successfully restored social normalcy, whether the transition back to school is smooth, and whether the economy is recovering from its self-imposed covid deep freeze, restoring workplace normalcy.

Democrats, at least, believe the suburbs will be key to this.

“It’s clear the midterm elections will be heavily influenced by covid recovery,” Sena told me. A key decider, Sena said, will be whether suburbanites feel their lives have been brought “back to balance.”

Yet on these topics, Sena continued, Republicans have a problem: The GOP base is fully in thrall to Trump. Their mythology dictates both that covid was a liberal hoax and that his heroic vanquishing of it showed his towering strength and leadership.

So everything Biden has done since then must be dismissed as having taken the country downhill in every way. Voicing this is essential, Sena says, because “the base agrees” with this premise, and Republicans are “speaking directly to their base.”

Yet it’s our recovery from covid that exposes the absurdity of this GOP talking point. Under Trump, tens of thousands of covid deaths arguably could have been prevented but weren’t. Almost steadily since Trump left office, daily cases have fallen dramatically.

As President Biden urges Americans to get vaccinated, Republicans who previously touted the vaccines have started questioning their efficacy. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Trump deserves some credit for that drop, because his administration laid the groundwork for the vaccination campaign. But under Biden, a great deal of important work has been done to speed up its implementation.

Meanwhile, the economy gained millions of jobs since Biden took office. Both the $2 trillion covid-relief bill and stepped-up vaccinations making workplaces safer played a major role.

While covid cases are edging up again and the recovery can’t be taken for granted, the idea that we’d be better off if Biden had done nothing, or that Trump dealt Biden a historically stupendous hand, is insultingly stupid.

The claim that it’s all been downhill since Trump has other dimensions. On Hannity, McCarthy insisted the border is out of control. Yes, under Biden, the border is creating serious challenges, but that’s in part because he is slowly undoing Trump’s efforts to push all asylum seekers away, which created humanitarian catastrophes.

Make no mistake: Republicans view those catastrophes as successes, because they resulted in fewer people seeking asylum here. Biden is trying to reverse that deranged posture, and if anything, he deserves criticism for doing this far too slowly.

McCarthy also painted a dire picture of decline by citing inflation, which is a real concern, though it’s too early to say whether it will really be the scourge Republicans claim. He cited rising crime, which is also very real, but he followed it with the dumb lie that it’s due to Democrats who have “defunded the police.”

So the GOP strategy is not all about the base. Appeals on immigration, inflation and crime are to some extent about frightening suburban voters back into the GOP fold.

Trumpified fictions

But telling the GOP base an absurd, lurid, emotionally charged fiction is central to GOP midterm hopes: The Trump era represented an idyllic age that has been torn asunder from Republican voters, who in their fury, deprivation and victimization should storm out in 2022 to avenge it all.

Comically, during McCarthy’s appearance, Hannity sighed, “We gonna go back to the better days?”

The continued GOP humoring of the lie that Trump’s loss was illegitimate sustains that sense of profound loss. Plainly, Republicans think extreme gerrymanders will ensure that enraging the base alone could take them much of the way back to a House takeover.

Along these lines, Sena, the Democratic strategist, made an interesting point: During the 2010 midterms, you didn’t hear many House GOP candidates treating the disastrous George W. Bush presidency as a lost golden age.

But Trump has enthralled GOP voters in a new way, requiring a much more worshipful approach this time.

“The Republican base has never had someone like Trump, in his ability to turn them on and move them,” Sena told me. “The Republican base eats, breathes and sleeps Donald Trump.”