Published November 9, 2022
When I was an argumentative young man, my father would sometimes ask me if I wanted to be right or happy. I don’t know where he picked up this bit of pop psychology, but in my case, it was on point. Happiness often requires letting things go; and eventually the lesson took, at least a little. A lot of battles just aren’t worth fighting, even if you’re right (which I sometimes was, even as a teenager).
Following the disappointing midterm results, Republican voters may need to contemplate the same lesson. Outside of Florida, where Gov. Ron Desantis led the GOP in a rout of the Democrats, the party largely fell short of expectations. The red wave that seemed inevitable given Biden’s unpopularity and the decaying state of the nation was barely a splash. Republicans need to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.
While the data are still coming in, the predictions of the most ideological Democrats that a backlash to the overturning of Roe v. Wade would save them do not seem born out. Democrats haven’t won, they’ve just lost less than expected. Additionally, the results don’t fit a pattern of pro-life Republicans being punished by voters across the board. Rather, the significant ticket-splitting, from Georgia to New Hampshire to Ohio, points us in the right direction and highlights what Republicans need to let go of in order to have the happiness of political victory.
In particular, competent and conservative Republican governors did well; culture war issues often even helped them. In contrast, celebrity candidates and those hailing from the louder parts of the MAGA wing of the GOP struggled. This suggests that the voters who decided these races are sick of the circus and its ringmaster, former president Donald Trump.
Part of the Republican base longs for Trump’s return, dreaming of a triumphant 2024 run (which he keeps teasing). It would be a vindication for Trump, and for them. Many of them believe, or half-believe, that he won last time, only to have the election stolen from him.
But if they want to enjoy winning again, and the exercise of political power to protect their interests and advance their ideal of the nation, they should look elsewhere. Specifically, they should look to Florida, where DeSantis is seemingly gearing up for a run of his own. The governor can contrast the crushing margin of his victory with the bellyflops of many of Trump’s preferred candidates.
Naturally, Trump has already begun taking shots at his presumptive rival — and a bevy of other Republicans who have displeased him. But his wrath may longer cow Republicans into compliance, not after this midterm debacle.
There are many reasons why Republicans may want someone other than Trump at the helm, but the most compelling are doubts about his ability to win, and his ability to govern competently if he does. Notably, Trump’s continued focus on 2020 diminishes him on both points. Dwelling on an election he lost makes him look like a loser, and insisting that he actually won but was conned out of the White House doesn’t make it better. If Trump, with all the powers of the presidency and the resources of the Republican Party at his command, allowed an election to be stolen from him, then he is incompetent.
Thus, the more Donald Trump insists that he won the last election, the less likely he may be to win the next one. Furthermore, the more Trump makes the 2024 election about his 2020 grievances, the less persuasive this will be to voters. After all, focusing on 2020 shifts Trump’s pitch away from what he promises to do for his voters, and substitutes an appeal to them to help vindicate him.
But there just aren’t enough voters interested in validating Trump’s claims. Although the voters that Republicans need to win are not obsessed with the Capitol riot, neither are they particularly interested in stolen-election theories.
Furthermore, even if Trump won in 2024, it is unlikely that he would make the most of a second term. Trump was great at generating drama and excelled at provoking establishment institutions and leftist scolds. But those are not the same as winning on policy. Trump’s big domestic achievements — tax cuts and originalist judges — were in line with the GOP establishment and institutional conservatism. Thank Trump for the judges, but also thank Mitch McConnell and the Federalist Society.
However, Trump struggled with the more Trump-specific parts of his agenda. It often seemed that no one did more to sabotage Trump’s policies than Trump himself. He couldn’t complete negotiations for an immigration-enforcement deal. He couldn’t get the troops out of Afghanistan, leaving that for Biden to botch. Trump never got control of the permanent bureaucracy and its allies, despite railing against the deep state. And even Trump’s most ardent defenders struggle to defend his personnel picks, given how often Trump ended up publicly feuding with the people he chose to work for him.
This is why DeSantis is a credible challenger to Trump. DeSantis picks his battles carefully, prepares thoroughly, and then wins decisively, especially on hot-button culture war issues that other Republicans shrink from. Where Trump blusters about wokeness, DeSantis takes it on and wins, proving that he’ll beat everyone from the corporate media to Big Business.
Whether this will be enough for him to eclipse Trump in Republican hearts (and more importantly, on GOP ballots) is not yet known, but from Covid to education he has taken the right tack to win over conservatives who want political victories. Republicans need a leader with an agenda and message that can win — and DeSantis’s victory has proven that he can fill that role going forward.
In contrast, Trump, with his fixation on the 2020 election, and the failures of many of his handpicked candidates in 2022, increasingly seems like yesterday’s man, rather than a winner who will fight to give conservative voters what they want.
Of course, the question is what GOP voters want: to vindicate the ego of an old man, or to win? Do they want to try to prove themselves right about 2020, or to be happy in 2024?
Nathanael Blake, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His primary research interests are American political theory, Christian political thought, and the intersection of natural law and philosophical hermeneutics. His published scholarship has included work on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Alasdair MacIntyre, Russell Kirk and J.R.R. Tolkien. He is currently working on a study of Kierkegaard and labor. As a cultural observer and commentator, he is also fascinated at how our secularizing culture develops substitutes for the loss of religious symbols, meaning and order.