The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The right once again decides to come at the king

Former president Donald Trump during a Save America rally in Vandalia, Ohio, on Monday. (Joshua A. Bickel/Bloomberg News)
7 min

Donald Trump was asked on Election Day how much the Republican midterm results should be considered a function of his own efforts.

“I think if they win, I should get all the credit,” he replied, “and if they lose, I should not get blamed at all. But it will probably be just the opposite.” His picks had “turned out to be very good candidates,” he added, but “if they do badly, they will blame everything on me.”

The first part of that quote got a lot of attention, being from the “heads, I win; tails, you lose” school of blame-acceptance. But the latter part, it turns out, was prophetic. Not only has the surprising Republican underperformance been blamed on Trump, but the moment has expanded into something broader: an insistence in some quarters that Trump should be excised from Republican politics entirely.

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This was most obvious in the parallel excoriations coming from outlets connected to the right’s media kingmaker, Rupert Murdoch. The front page of the New York Post, largely focused on boosting the failed gubernatorial bid of Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) in the weeks before the election, pivoted to a celebration of the reelection victory of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on Wednesday morning and, on Thursday, to mocking the man who leads DeSantis in most 2024 presidential polling: Trump.

That … evocative image was tied to an essay from conservative writer John Podhoretz.

“Trump is perhaps the most profound vote repellent in modern American history,” Podhoretz wrote. “The surest way to lose in these midterms was to be a politician endorsed by Trump.”

For those traveling to work not on the subway but in the back of a sedan, the Wall Street Journal offered a similar assessment, albeit sans cartoon.

“Trump Is the Republican Party’s Biggest Loser,” an editorial from the paper was headlined.

“Since his unlikely victory in 2016 against the widely disliked Hillary Clinton, Mr. Trump has a perfect record of electoral defeat,” it read. “The GOP was pounded in the 2018 midterms owing to his low approval rating. Mr. Trump himself lost in 2020. He then sabotaged Georgia’s 2021 runoffs by blaming party leaders for not somehow overturning his defeat.”

Is former president Donald Trump still the undisputed leader of the GOP, or is the party moving on? (Video: Michael Cadenhead/The Washington Post)

This left out Trump’s failed endorsement in Alabama’s special Senate election in 2017 and the backlash in Virginia’s legislative races that year, but we digress.

Even at Fox News, the network deeply intertwined with Trump’s political rise, reviews were mixed. The network elevated the Post’s celebration of DeSantis’s victory, for example, though prime-time host Tucker Carlson was careful to point a finger of blame at his eternal target: the elites (here meaning the GOP establishment). The party lost races unrelated to Trump, he accurately noted. But this was just a variation on Trump’s rhetoric from the top of this article: If Republicans win, it’s despite the elites; if they lose, it’s because of them.

The static traveled outside the Murdochverse. Various Republican officials and allies gave quotes to The Washington Post and the New York Times — even, occasionally, on the record! — pinning the disappointing results on the former president. Criticism even came from more exotic quarters.

There’s little question that some of this is deserved, of course; research published after the 2018 midterms found that Trump rallies for candidates often had the effect of boosting Democrats by energizing anti-Trump voters. But it has very post-2012 vibes: backlash at the moment when there was the least opportunity to do anything about it.

In that election 10 years ago, you’ll remember, Republicans expected to defy polling and see Mitt Romney easily beat President Barack Obama. But he didn’t. That triggered, first, an energetic round of finger-pointing and, then, a structural effort to reshape the party for success. It was a moment that cleared Trump’s 2016 path: isolating the establishment Republican approach from the angry, fringe, conservative-media-driven one, with both moving forward in different directions for several years. In 2015, Trump proved that the latter path held more political power and used it to seize control of the GOP. He has retained that control since, which is why he earns outsize criticism for the midterm results.

Part of the reason he could, though, was that there wasn’t really leverage that the establishment could exert, especially immediately after the election. The party put together a group that aimed to figure out a better path forward, but that was like carefully drawing out a route on a paper map as the party’s base was going 100 miles an hour in the other direction, radio tuned to Rush Limbaugh.

What does it mean to challenge Trump right now? Challenge him how? When the Journal replies to Trump’s promise that his party would get tired of winning by suggesting that Republicans should instead be “sick and tired of losing,” it’s an unsubtle reminder of DeSantis’s success. But even if the party did decide to circle the wagons around DeSantis right now, what does that mean?

Let’s set aside for the moment that DeSantis’s victory will itself evoke some scrutiny. That Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) won by a similar margin against a stronger opponent has generally been brushed aside by silver-lining-seeking Republicans, for now. Let’s just assess the field of play at the moment.

Trump’s party has long been the group of kids on the playground who could overpower the bully if enough of them worked together — but each of whom individually is wary of being the first to step forward. But even if they were all to step forward together, they have to do so at the right moment, not (to extend the metaphor here) after he’s already gone back inside from recess. If a number of them challenged him now, there’s no vehicle to wrench power away from him anyway. And if only a few step forward, even more will use it as an opportunity to curry favor with Trump. To shift the metaphor in a new direction: Since 2016, the GOP has been a party of remoras, not competitive, man-eating sharks.

Everyone knows that Trump is not the kingmaker he has long pretended to be and that he never has been. But Republicans went along with it through 2017, 2018, 2020 and 2021, because they were worried about 1) his base of support and 2) invoking his wrath. Those points of leverage exist today as they did on Sunday.

Besides, if DeSantis were to use this moment to take on Trump directly, then what? Trump’s been champing at the bit to throw everything he can at DeSantis — and he is no more bound than he ever was to only offer valid criticisms. Perhaps a challenge to Trump now from the party’s most popular non-Trump official would weaken the former president, disinclining him from running at all. It’s more likely, though, that DeSantis would begin his second term in office fending off incessant attacks from his right flank.

Establishing Trump as an electoral disaster in the post-election heat may benefit DeSantis or another Republican in 2024. But Trump has more than a year to reframe that position and to convince his base that elections are suspect and that the candidates who lost were ones who rejected his philosophy and to batter straying Republicans back into line.

This is admittedly fatalistic, assuming that challenging Trump won’t go anywhere. But it is not uninformed fatalism. Trump attempted to subvert the results of a presidential election to seize power, and Republicans expressed frustration for about a week. They still need him to help win primaries — maybe not today, but someday. So even as the bully tried to burn down the school, they stood on the playground and agreed among themselves that someone should do something.

Trump knows this is how it works. He’s seen these small rebellions in the past. He’s pretty obviously angry that Tuesday went badly and mad that DeSantis is getting good press. But he’s seen this before. And he’s still around, hands on at least some of the controls.