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The Look of a Loser

What roughed-up beast slouches in Mar-a-Lago?

A few weeks ago, I could not have thought of any scenario where I would watch former president Donald Trump announce his presidential bid and feel smug about it. Yet, as the midterm vote counts from the near and far reaches of the United States continued to trickle in and a strangely subdued Donald Trump took the stage on Tuesday, I was watching. And it felt like we were looking at a loser.

Not only had the Red Wave of a triumphant Republican comeback failed to materialize, Trump’s cherry-picked MAGA candidates had underperformed other Republicans by about five percentage points, according to a New York Times report. One of the first to fall was Mehmet Oz, his choice for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, who lost to John Fetterman, who had suffered a stroke during the campaign. And in Arizona, Kari Lake, a former anchorwoman who had managed to charm Trump and his legion of MAGA voters, lost to Katie Hobbs, a woman who had stood up to the MAGA machine during the extended vote count in 2020—though in true Trumpian style, Lake refused to concede and announced she was assembling a legal team to investigate the breakdown of voting machines. I could not have imagined a grimmer scenario for Trump Republicans—but, in fact, a pre-Trump incarnation of Senator Lindsey Graham predicted it well in May 2016 when he said, “If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed . . . and we will deserve it.” The Trump who shuffled onto the stage Tuesday night could well have been walking through the smoking and smoldering wreckage of the Republican Party.

Even Republicans were beginning to have doubts. The growing sense of an imminent end of Trump’s stranglehold over the Republican Party had begun not long after the midterm results began to roll in. Pollsters, among them the Trafalgar Group who had forecast big leads for the party in many races, had helped set the scene for unrealistically high Republican expectations. The first sign of trouble came not long after the polls closed on the East Coast, when one of the cable news channels announced that an exit poll in Pennsylvania had found voters ranking abortion as the most important issue confronting them. This should not have been a surprise—after all, it was only a few months ago that a ballot measure to amend the Kansas Constitution to remove abortion protections had been rejected by voters. But to those misled by the polls, it was surprising.

What had in the summer appeared like it would be an election-dominating issue, Republicans convinced themselves, was actually only a blip. They believed abortion would be overshadowed by economic concerns by the day of the election. They were wrong about this, as they were about the backlash against election deniers, whose trademark chant “Stop the Steal!” was the allegiance the great leader at Mar-a-Lago demanded before he anointed a candidate. In nine of the most prominent races featuring an election denier, all nine lost, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. “The election-denier creed was a stone-cold loser in swing areas,” the Post reported. One candidate who toed the Trump line was Adam Laxalt, who came close to winning a Senate seat in Nevada. But on Saturday night, after a decisive batch of votes came in for Catherine Cortez Masto, the Democratic incumbent, the Senate was called for the Democrats.

The Trump who shuffled onto the stage Tuesday night might have been walking through the smoldering wreckage of the Republican Party.

Naturally, a petulant Trump claimed most of his chosen candidates won when he made his big announcement at the nine o’clock hour, which was true only if you counted all the races where Republicans didn’t have serious competition. When he began speaking, the material was such a rehash—about how powerful and respected the country was during his four years, and how left-wing Democrats like Joe Biden were ruining his legacy—that it was a challenge to pay attention. Mostly reading from the prompter, he was less entertaining if also less abusive. But he seemed to making a speech that he would rather not make. It was long, too, running on for at least an hour and switching somewhere in there to what conservative podcaster Ben Shapiro dubbed “the Festivus section,” where he couldn’t help airing his varied and sundry grievances. Fox News stuck with Trump’s speech longer than CNN, but eventually cut away, intending to return for the ending. When they dropped back in, he was still rambling, and they cut away again, missing whatever Trump had for his grand finale.

It is quite likely that Trump supporters did want to change the date of his announcement, but invitations had long gone out to the apparatchiks the former president tries to draw to his club. He could not risk looking like a loser to them or to his detractors. He had to show up, but two of his children, Ivanka Trump and Don Jr., were nowhere to be seen. (No matter, he had Roger Stone and Mike Lindell on hand.) The scheduling wasn’t ideal, since so many of his congressional supporters were stuck in D.C., where elections for the new House and Senate leadership positions were being held. Being far outside the Beltway may have helped Trump the first time, but now he has four years as president behind him. This time around he is the party establishment that he is pretending to excoriate for Republican losses. Despite the defection of a few Republicans like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, we still don’t know whether the murmurs of disapproval from previously loyal servants like Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo will amount to anything. For now, it still appears that little can happen in the party without his approval.

The day after Trump’s announcement, the House majority was finally called for the Republicans. But power struggles in the House and Senate had already begun. Florida Senator Rick Scott made an unsuccessful run at Mitch McConnell for minority leader in the Senate. House leader Kevin McCarthy won the nomination of GOP members in an initial vote for the House Speaker, but will somehow have to muster 218 votes in January to claim the job, and then will have to work with MAGA adherents like Florida’s Matt Gaetz, Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Colorado’s Lauren Boebert, who looks likely to barely survive a close race.

There have been many requiems for Trump before and many are hesitant to gloat just yet. At the same time, you could say he’s been rebuked in the last three elections: his party lost badly in the 2018 midterms, he lost the presidential election in 2020, and now his candidates did poorly in 2022. The country, reeling from the pandemic, nervous about the economy, and looking at the prospect of a recession, is not in a great mood. There’s not a spirit of levity that might make an entertainer-as-politician worth the risk. Then again, there is the nature of reality television from whence Trump draws his experience; after a while the actions of the once-interesting characters become predictable, the “drama” seems orchestrated by the producer rather than their own internal dynamics, and a general staleness begins to pervade the production. Trump, I would say, has reached that stage. The shenanigans that marked the early part of his career once appeared comical and fascinating to an America for whom he was an unknown quantity. There’s a dark cloud over this man now. It’s hard to imagine that even voters who worry America is broken will believe that only he can fix it.