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Why Donald Trump is the Midterms’ Real Loser

Staff writer Matteo Cardarelli argues that Donald Trump, someone not even on the ballot, was the biggest loser of Tuesday’s midterm elections in the United States.

When Donald Trump took the podium in the hours leading up to the midterms’ climax, he was all smiles. Beaming from the stage, a giant American flag in the background, he promised supporters a “very big announcement” on November 15. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Trump was teasing the official opening of his re-election campaign. Though it lingered in the air, Trump refrained, saying, “we want nothing to distract from the importance of tomorrow.”

And why not? According to most pundits and GOP (Republican) wonks, the midterms were going to be a cakewalk, a lap of honour for Republicans on their way to reclaim both House and Senate. It seemed Trump could afford to wait, formally announcing his run for nomination to his adoring supporters in the aftermath of a major victory for the party, for his party.

It’s funny how politics works out sometimes. One moment, you’re surfing the red wave into the House, Senate and edging ever so close to the promised land of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Then the alarm rings. Republicans around the nation woke up on Wednesday morning to find that their expected landslide victory had not materialized. Far from it; as of right now it seems likely that Democrats will hold onto the Senate after all, and protect key gubernatorial positions in battleground states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy’s attempt to find a silver lining in pointing out that the Nancy Pelosi speakership is all but over seems disingenuous and slightly pathetic. Republicans began the night with high hopes of success across the board; they ended it meekly, trying to conjure up the five seats needed to flip the House. Inevitably, they will ask two questions: why they underperformed, and who is to blame. The answer is the same for both.

This was Trump’s midterms from the start. Since his ignominious departure from the White House, Trump has never really faded from the public eye and has essentially remained the GOP’s uncontested Supreme Leader. He flexed his muscles in the Republican midterms by endorsing a slew of controversial and often seemingly outmatched candidates that all generally had one thing in common. They publicly and fervently bought into Trump’s big lie: the rigged election fable.

In rewarding loyalty over credentials, Trump’s goal was clear – to fully Trumpify the Republican Party establishment to avoid the spasms of self-conscious morality that flared up in some of his party’s officials towards the back end of his first term. The ire he directed at Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, both of whom will not be returning to Capitol Hill in January, was emblematic of his megalomaniacal streak, frustrated at the presence of enemies inside the gates.

For a time, Trump’s strategy seemed to work. Trump’s chosen candidates all performed well and generally secured their party’s nominations. His word was law and, like Midas, everything he touched turned to gold. There was no one too damaged, eccentric or mediocre that Trump could not simply resuscitate, like a paleoconservative messiah. His endorsement was key to celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz’s successful primary run in the Pennsylvania Senate race, and for J.D. Vance’s run in Ohio (Vance’s is yet another case of how even a devoted Trump critic can turn sycophant when granted a sniff of power). Political inexperience in candidates like Herschel Walker and Bo Hines was compensated for by Trump’s tap on the shoulder.

Having secured the party’s consensus, it was onto the midterms, and the odds seemed auspiciously stacked in favor of the Trump revolution. The economy, racked by inflation, was in tatters. Republican fear mongering over crime had seemingly had its desired effect, painting liberals as soft on crime President Biden’s approval rating was (and remains) underwater. Even history was on Trump’s side – the incumbent President’s party usually performs poorly in the midterms, and this is not even countenancing the current President’s unpopularity.

Nonetheless, Trump’s strategy blew up in his face, spontaneously combusting in front of the greatest hurdle. In impetuously elevating a class of extremist ideologues, Trump managed to sufficiently alienate enough of the electorate to mess up what looked like a sure thing. Most Democrats were not fired up by their party’s messaging – Biden hardly stirred passionate commitment, even among their own – but they were scared of the monsters under the bed. And it seems like Trump’s choices were enough of a turn off for the small cross-section of genuinely undecided Americans that normally swing elections.

Democrats were largely successful in demonising their opponents as fundamentalist radicals, spending big on ads that emphasised Republicans’ anti-abortion stance and their belief in a stolen election. Paradoxically, they donated to election deniers’ primary campaigns, surmising (correctly) that they would be easier targets than more centrist conservatives. Major election deniers have not fared well so far, with Democrats managing to claim most of the races in which they had donated to their Republican counterpart. Despite Americans’ greater faith in the GOP to fix the economy, central to determining electoral success, the sheer liability posed by Trump’s acolytes proved overwhelming.

Trump’s nightmarish night has been compounded by Ron DeSantis’ double digit triumph in his reelection campaign as Florida Governor. DeSantis has been tipped as Trump’s main challenger for the Republican nomination ahead of 2024, and right now he seems like the strongest politician in America. Immensely popular in Florida, he is also one of the most prominent Republicans nationwide. His Hollywood-esque stunts, like flying immigrants out to Martha’s Vineyard, attracted plaudits from like-minded conservatives around the country. And on Tuesday he became the first Republican to win in Miami-Dade County for over two decades. The Florida Governor’s success is particularly stark in contrast to Trump’s dismal night. If there’s ever a time for blood and betrayal, it’s now for DeSantis.

November 15 is not a long way away, and the shadow of a bungled campaign will probably loom large over Trump’s big announcement day. Despite his insistence that “if they win, I should get all the credit; if they lose, I shouldn’t get blamed”, most Republicans will probably see it very differently. Though he will inevitably try and spin a different narrative – one where he is the hero, the midterms were a smash success and everything is made of cotton candy – it remains to be seen whether the party buys his spiel in the long term. As long as he promised victory, establishment Republicans publicly put up with Trump’s antics – but when they start to believe that he can no longer guarantee success, his days as the village headman are numbered.

Listen to Matteo discuss this on our Mainstream Media podcast released today and available here.

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