The Trump delusion has finally started wearing off


Former President Donald Trump Votes In Midterm Elections
Former President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump walk together after voting at a polling station setup in the Morton and Barbara Mandel Recreation Center on November 08 in Palm Beach, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Trump delusion has finally started wearing off

Maybe the system is working after all.

In a democracy, being equivocal about democracy turns out to carry a price. In Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Maryland — all over the country — candidates who went along with the claim that the 2020 election had been stolen were rejected. Voters were prepared to listen to Liz Cheney when she endorsed such Democrats as Elissa Slotkin and Abigail Spanberger.

As everyone has pointed out, the midterm elections were bad for Donald Trump. The Republicans he had backed underperformed. He spent the final days of the campaign sneering, in that petulant, wheedling tone that his supporters mystifyingly applaud, at Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. DeSantis went on to win Florida by a whopping 20 points.

So, does this herald the end of Trump? Of Trumpery? I used to think that losing would be the one thing that would snap Trumpsters out of it. They didn’t mind his silly fibs about the yuge inauguration crowds or releasing his tax returns. They didn’t mind his mocking of fallen American servicemen. They didn’t mind his neediness or narcissism. They didn’t even seem to mind when the wall didn’t get built. But surely, I reasoned, they would mind losing.

I know many Republicans who strenuously opposed Trump during the primaries but who made their peace with him on essentially transactional grounds. They were elated when Hillary Clinton unexpectedly lost in 2016 and projected their elation onto the winner. If he could keep delivering, they would overlook his character flaws.

I understand that reasoning, though I don’t go in for it. But here’s the odd thing: It was never true even on its own terms.

If you compare Trump’s performance against senatorial and gubernatorial candidates, in both 2016 and 2020, he was a net drag on the ticket. If, as this column suggested more than once, the GOP had removed Trump and replaced him with the patriotic and high-minded Mike Pence, it would almost certainly have won the White House and both chambers in 2020.

Backing a winner purely because he is a winner — that I get, even if it makes me uncomfortable. But backing a loser? Carrying on with the whole MAGA obsession after 2020? That’s just downright weird. There were no Nixonians after 1974, no Carterites after 1980.

“When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse,” said Osama bin Laden. The Trump equine is looking pretty spavined right now. But will his supporters see it, or will they tell themselves that these latest results, too, were rigged? After all, if the supposed fraudsters were clever enough to knock Trump out in 2020 while still letting the Republicans win in several simultaneous down-ballot races, who knows what fiendishness they are capable of?

Still, I can’t help feeling as if the enchantment is wearing off. The strong warhorse now is DeSantis, whose results speak for themselves. I have my criticisms of the Florida governor. He has shifted as Trump has moved the dial. As fiercely as I opposed vaccine mandates, I disapproved when the Florida governor said that business owners should not be allowed to have whatever regimen they wanted on their own property. There was a time, before these ghastly culture wars, when Republicans would have respected the principles of freedom and ownership.

Still, DeSantis deserves immense credit for holding out against the lockdown hysteria and sparing Florida the disastrously costly and repressive restrictions that were imposed elsewhere. He looks and feels recognizably Republican: a former serviceman who thinks in terms of individuals rather than collectives, who takes his oath of office seriously, and who acknowledges that the republic is bigger than he is.

My guess, looking in from the outside, is that he is now the man to beat — the younger steed, pulling ahead of the two winded old nags. Maybe he will cross the finish line, or maybe he will stumble. But, either way, the public seems at last to be rejecting the idea that democracy is contingent, that elections should count only when they happen to go your way.

If voters don’t police the system, no one else will do it for them. “We have no king; we are our own governors,” said the Texan jurist Hatton Sumners when FDR pushed his powers to the limit. “If We, the People, fail, representative government falls.”

Deep down, I think the public knows it. Even some of those who have been going along with the Big Steal farrago are starting to sense, uneasily, that the institutions of a free republic are easier to tear down than to restore. Whisper it, but America — the frank, bold, optimistic America that the rest of us love — is coming back.

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