Politics

Does the President’s Party Still Lose the Midterms if the Other Party’s Platform Is “Our Deadly Riot Was Good”?

Trump speaks at a lectern in front of a backdrop of CPAC logos.
Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas on Sunday. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

It’s a rule of politics that has held true in all but two instances in the post–World War II era: In midterm elections, the president’s party loses a big old chunk of seats in the House of Representatives. It is thus not difficult right now to find punditry that warns or assumes that Democrats will face significant losses in 2022, whether because of crime, undocumented immigration, “wokeness” (somehow), or simply because of Biden fatigue—whatever topic the pundit wishes to attach to the underlying principle that the voters, having empowered a president, can be counted on to decide after two years to disempower him a bit, so the system remains in appropriate two-party equilibrium.

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There has also been speculation, cutting the other way, that the persistent high turnout and partisan polarization of the past decade will reduce the effect of swing voters whiplashing away from Biden and/or Democratic voters becoming apathetic and staying home. But another, less systemic factor shaping the 2022 campaign has come into focus in the past week: that the strategy being pursued by the people most likely to control Republican news cycles next year—namely, Donald Trump and the potential candidates trying to get him to endorse their campaigns by waiting outside his West Palm Beach and/or New Jersey golf and buffet spaces with signs that say “Sir, we loved your deadly riot”—is overtly deranged in a way that combines the most electorally disastrous elements of the opposition party’s position in each of the postwar years, 1998 and 2002, in which the rule that the incumbent’s party loses seats failed to apply. By making themselves into the sore-loser/pro-insurrection party, Republicans are re-creating both the conditions of their most recent election-cycle loss—which both polls and common sense suggest was driven by voters’ exhaustion with Trump—and the worst losses suffered by other recent parties.

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The history is this: After the 1996 presidential election, Bill Clinton had approval ratings in the high 50s. But the Republican Party, which controlled both chambers of Congress, was trying to remove him from office when the midterms were held; partisan independent counsel Ken Starr’s vaunted Report About Blow J’s* (*not its real title) was issued in September 1998, and the House voted a month later to begin impeachment proceedings. Immediately after that, Democrats gained five seats in the chamber. In 2002, George W. Bush’s approval rating, having risen after 9/11, was still in the 60s, and many voters perceived al-Qaida terrorism as a serious threat to the United States. That November, the Republican Party picked up eight seats in the House as a nation in a crisis (TM) rallied behind the sitting president.

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In the first instance, the incumbent’s party benefited when the opposition pursued an unpopular vendetta against him. In the second, the incumbent’s party benefited from the perception that it could provide stability and security. Heading into 2022, meanwhile, Donald Trump is fixated on claiming 1) that the (popular) current president, Joe Biden, is illegitimate; and 2) that there was nothing wrong with his supporters’ attempt to overturn voting results through violence. He appears intent on carrying this message into and through next year’s election season.

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Trump, obviously, has never stopped whining about 2020, but his public elevation of the issue has intensified in the last 48 hours. In a Sunday speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he complained a number of times about “the rigged election,” which he said was marked—and be forewarned that none of the things in the rest of this sentence happened—by “schemes to illegitimately and illegally boost the Democrat vote,” including malfeasance in Detroit and Philadelphia, the deletion and falsification of votes in Georgia, and a purported operation backed by Mark Zuckerberg (?) to deploy “unmanned and unprotected drop boxes that were deployed in Democrat-run cities and heavily Democrat precincts to scoop up ballots.” In a Fox News appearance on the same day, the former president defended Capitol rioter and QAnon conspiracy theorist Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed by police while attempting to climb through a smashed-out window into a hallway where members of Congress were being evacuated. (Trump described her as “innocent” and “peaceful” and suggested she was targeted by an unnamed Democrat’s security detail, which is made-up; he referred to the Jan. 6 crowd as a whole as “patriots” who were moved by “spirit and faith and love,” which, have you seen the videos?)

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These sorts of claims are treated, outside the hardcore Republican base, as real banana-bonkers shit. A May Reuters/Ipsos poll found that independent voters believed the 2020 election was legitimate by a 53–16 margin and disagreed with the claim that Jan. 6 protesters were “mostly peaceful” 56 to 22; more than 60 percent of independents said Trump was “at least partly to blame” for the riot. Even if this and similar polls are underestimating Trump support by the margins by which pollsters missed the mark in 2020, this remains a super-losing position for Republicans.

Nonetheless, the sole criterion on which Trump judges others in the party is whether they support his claims about such matters. At CPAC, he attacked Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy and Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney for voting to impeach him over Jan. 6, while a Wall Street Journal piece adapted from a new book by reporter Michael Bender, who interviewed Trump in Florida in March, says he “redirected almost every question back to his claims of a stolen election” and interrupted one interview to conduct a phone call about specious allegations of fraud being made in Arizona. As elucidated in recent pieces in the Washington Post, HuffPost, and the Atlantic, early-declaring 2022 Republican candidates across the country are putting “fraud,” and their total agreement with whatever Trump says in general, at the center of their campaign messaging. This is not just the case in deep-red areas; it includes challengers to Republican incumbents in lose-able House districts and candidates seeking the party’s nomination for Senate in key states like Arizona, North Carolina, and Ohio. As depicted in a Tuesday Politico story, meanwhile, many of the MAGA movement Republicans who took over state parties during the Trump era make Trump himself look like a model of restrained, strategic decision-making.

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Basically, what is going on is like if Democrats in 2002, fueled by 90-minute Al Gore rally speeches and sycophantic MSNBC interviews, had run on the position that Bush really did 9/11 and that America deserved it. Does it mean that Republicans absolutely can’t gain House seats? Maybe not, because half the states in the country have been gerrymandered into absurdities like “the city of Austin is represented by multiple hard-line conservatives,” and every state legislature Republicans control is passing laws making it illegal to vote unless you have identified yourself, via driver’s license or embossed “Platinum Select VIP Card,” as a member of a Trump golf club or “elite-tier Buffet Access Tranche.” It’s uncharted territory, and perhaps swing voters will, in fact, decide that it’s more important to punish middle-of-the-road House Democrats for the existence of cringey “white privilege” trainings than to address the threat to the country presented by the party whose leader is constantly requiring its members to join him in making literal threats to the country. Certainly, stranger things have happened—hell, Donald Trump was the president for a while!

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