The MAGA Bubble Finally Bursts
Back on 7 Apr 2021 I wrote a piece titled “The Decline of the Republican Party - First Gradually and then Suddenly.”
For those who haven’t been paying attention lately – the suddenly part has now finally arrived.
And then, back in May of 2021, I wrote a second piece, entitled “Where, Exactly, Are the Republicans Headed?”, more explicitly questioning the wisdom of the party’s continued insistence on claims of election fraud.
And so now, approximately one week after the midterm elections, where do the Republicans find themselves?
With not just Trump having lost, but with many candidates he personally backed having failed, including most of the election-deniers.
Somewhat oddly, though, where one might expect to hear fresh claims of election fraud from Republican leadership, all we hear are… crickets.
Which might lead one to believe… if one were given to bouts of critical thinking from time to time… that Republican claims of Trump having lost due to election fraud in 2020 were never actually… well, sincere.
Instead, they were just attempts to mobilize their base and keep them fired up and to prop up their fallen-but-not-about-to-be-forgotten leader.
The Democrats were relatively vulnerable in the 2022 elections. There is the usual backlash against the president’s party in the following midterms. Inflation has been at historic highs for a couple of months. Our president is the oldest in history, and is starting to show his age. Global relations have been tense, to say the least.
And yet the Democrats defied expectations in the midterms, and Republican candidates massively underperformed. As just one example, according to Fox News, “Democrats have wrested power from Republicans in four states that previously had politically divided governments to take full control of state capitols following Tuesday’s midterm elections.” And a Democratic majority in the Senate is now assured, with a chance to grow even stronger following the coming runoff election in Georgia.
And so now Republican leaders are facing a number of troubling questions.
How do Republicans manage the divorce? If Trump is indeed a loser – as has now been proven in the 2016 elections, in which he trailed Clinton in the popular vote, in 2020, when he lost to Biden, and now again in 2022 – then exactly how and when should the party go about helping Trump to make a somewhat graceful exit stage right? As opposed to watching him continue to throw gasoline on the dumpster fire, as he now seems determined to do?
How do Republicans now go about forming some new and meaningful relationship with what most of us would simply term reality? Republicans have drifted farther and farther away from this often-troubling subject of late, but now, after years of denying the failure of the war in Iraq, denying the reality of climate change, denying the results of the 2020 elections, and then denying the successes of Democrats, it now appears that they may need to actually come to grips with some actual shreds of what most of us would consider to be truth – as opposed to formulating increasingly fanciful alternate realities.
How do Republicans choose new leaders and a new direction? Keep in mind that the Republicans left in office have pretty much abandoned all forms of collegial relations, and have fully embraced a back-stabbing, never admit defeat, last-man-standing style of leadership. The 2016 primaries that led to Trump’s nomination were pretty much a barroom brawl in which Trump defeated all comers through a process of successive humiliations, and Trump ensured over the next six years that everyone left in the party would fully embrace that same sort of aggressive, winner-take-all style. So how do such leaders come together to regroup and plot the future of the party?
Can the Republicans continue to rely on “owning the libs” as their primary vote-getting strategy? It can certainly be successful in pockets of America where right-wing media outlets are dominant. And it can certainly be successful when liberals in power focus obsessively on appearances rather than substance. And it can certainly work when liberals in power make unforced errors. But is it still a viable national strategy? I think a lot of people have just grown tired of the game. And Elon Musk’s take-over of Twitter – the primary playing field on which the game has been played – is only likely to drive people further away from this sort of social media one-upmanship.
Are voters becoming disillusioned with political strongmen? After the high visibility of his multiple military failures in Ukraine, Putin is no longer credible as a powerful leader. No one other than Trump was ever much attracted to Kim Jong-un in North Korea. Boris Johnson is out in the UK, after making a hash of Brexit. In Brazil, Bolsonaro has lost to Lula.
So the public taste for the posturing of coercive national leaders seems to be on the decline. In the long run, it still seems that voters want to see signs of meaningful success at governing a state and, when the curtain is finally pulled back to reveal nothing more than a posturing Oz, they tend to lose faith rather quickly. We seem to be in such a phase now.
What happens when the goose stops laying golden eggs? Republican politicians have formed a powerful dependence in recent years on funding from wealthy businessmen to buy ads to influence voters. But they may have successfully killed the goose this time around. As one example, despite the highest levels of spending ever in a Washington state congressional race, their attempt to boost Republican challenger Tiffany Smiley over incumbent Senator Patty Murray saw Murray cruising to an easy victory, helping to cement the Democratic majority in the Senate. And successful businessmen don’t like to be played for chumps, continually throwing good money after bad. So what happens when the coffers of money stop working, and then what happens when the coffers dry up?
What, exactly, do the Republicans actually have to offer our country? I’m not suggesting that they don’t have anything, only that they need to package something that will actually appeal to a majority of Americans at a national level, and will still be sufficiently differentiated from what the Democrats are offering. And as of today, it’s certainly not clear what this would be. (Hint: a national ban on abortions and a defunding of Social Security are probably not going to be winners.)
Looking Ahead to 2024
A lot can happen over the next two years, before our next election cycle, so I certainly wouldn’t count the Republicans out at this point.
For one thing, a lot will depend on who the presidential candidates turn out to be.
Trump certainly can’t win a national election at this point. And I don’t think the Ron DeSantis style of bluster will play well on a national stage, even if he survives the repeated attacks from Trump. And I don’t really see any of the other current Republican leaders being able to win nationally. So there’s a lot still to learn here about who emerges to lead the ticket in '24.
But the Democrats also have their work cut out for them. I think they have a lot of very strong potential national leaders in the stable. But what they learned in 2020, when they had an incredible total of 29 major candidates running in the primaries, is just how hard it is for a strong regional leader to break through and achieve national acceptance and recognition.
Biden easily won that last round of Democratic primaries for two reasons: people were already familiar with him, and they were reasonably comfortable with him as a sensible moderate. But Biden may be getting a little too old for another four years, and there’s no clear heir apparent, and no current Democratic leader who has those same two qualities.
But, as I’ve been saying for some time now, the Republicans have dug themselves into a pretty deep hole and, now that they’ve pretty much decided to stop digging, it’s not yet clear how they plan to get themselves out.
November 13, 2022