| US Midterms: 2022 |

Wave of the Future

As the midterm fiasco convulses the GOP, can a buoyant DeSantis power past Donald Trump?

Illustration: Menachem Weinreb


was two days before the midterms, and as Republicans across the country campaigned to send a “red wave” washing over Washington, to win back control of Congress and frustrate the Biden administration’s agenda, Donald Trump was busy with even bigger things.

At a rally in swing-state Pennsylvania for MAGA candidates Dr. Mehmet Oz and Doug Mastriano, the former president entertained the faithful with a two-hour riff on American decline and stolen elections.

But then Trump came to the main item: a warning shot across the bows for Florida governor and presidential rival Ron DeSantis, delivered in trademark style — with a put-down.

“Today I have the highest poll numbers I’ve ever had,” he claimed, pointing to numbers on giant screens that ranked him against his closest rival in a presidential race. “Trump at 71 percent. Ron DeSanctimonious at 10 percent.”

Days later, Trump woke up to find himself the target of derisive word-play.

Despite Joe Biden’s unpopularity and a terrible economy, the much-hyped red wave proved barely a trickle as Republicans failed to take back the Senate and were left scrambling to win a majority in the House.

“Trumpty-Dumpty,” blared the irrepressible New York Post. “Don (who couldn’t build a wall) had a great fall — can all the GOP’s men put the party back together again?”

“DeFuture,” the tabloid headlined the next day, signaling the Murdoch media empire’s shifting allegiance to the Florida governor.

The election disaster — astounding, given that voters historically hand the president’s party a drubbing at the midterms — unleashed a dam-burst of anti-Trump feeling even from the former president’s erstwhile supporters.

From the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal to Laura Ingraham at Fox, the verdict was clear: It was time to move on from a man whose obsession with relitigating the 2020 election had sunk the Republican Party.

Conservative Trump critic John Podhoretz spoke for many when he called the former president “the political equivalent of a can of Raid — the most profound vote repellent in modern American history.”

Results seem to bear those critics out. Even in races in which MAGA true believers lost, moderate Republicans up and down the ballot won — pointing to Trump’s endorsement as a decisive negative.

A week after the midterms fiasco — with the fate of the House still in the balance — the GOP finds itself at a crossroads. Gone is the inevitability, the sense that the 2024 nomination is Donald Trump’s birthright.

A YouGov poll shows that DeSantis has pulled ahead of Trump in popularity — 42 to 35 percent.

The torrent of criticism for Trump points to a sea change in the GOP. For the first time since 2015, Trump is simultaneously weakened and faces a credible rival in DeSantis — one who is no Mitt Romney-esque throwback, but “Trump with brains,” as he’s been widely labeled.

But as ever, when it comes to Donald Trump, caution is in order.

Like the forces of nature, all things Trumpian move in cycles. As sure as the tides rise and fall, controversy washes over Donald Trump, only for it to retreat. Time and again, the 45th president has shrugged off scandals that would have sunk ordinary politicians.

Trump also retains formidable strengths — not least a hold over his base, and the showman’s flair that propelled him to the top.

So as Democrats celebrate their unexpected salvation, the Republicans face a nightmarish set of questions: Is Podhoretz right that Teflon Trump is now a terminally unelectable Toxic Trump?

Buoyed by his resounding reelection win, can DeSantis take on the big beast of Republican politics?

And would a defeated Trump swing behind his former protégé, or take the Republican Party down in flames with him?

These questions frame a political moment that is both a generational battle within the populist movement and a tale of two Floridians.

As the 2024 race begins, it’s defined by the plummeting stock of Mar-a-Lago’s master, and the rising fortunes of the Trumpian from Tallahassee.


Living in Denial

The smoke and tear gas that drifted over the Capitol on January 6, 2020, as thousands of “Stop the Steal” protesters swarmed over Congress attempting to stop Vice President Mike Pence from certifying Joe Biden’s win, probably marked the moment of the “unmaking” of Donald Trump.

By the evidence of the popular vote, which gave Biden 81 million votes to Trump’s 74 million, more than half the electorate was already dead set against him.

But it was the sight of his ragtag followers trashing the heart of American democracy and beating Capitol police that shocked many moderate Republicans.

Courtesy of the January 6 congressional committee that investigated the events, we know that as they watched the events unfolding, important conservative figures attempted to get the president to call his supporters off.

“Hey Mark, the president needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home,” Fox pundit Laura Ingraham texted then White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. “This is hurting all of us… He is destroying his legacy.”

The days after the riot were Trump’s nadir, as Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told the House that the outgoing president “bore responsibility” for the violence.

But by the end of that January, the storm had passed, from Trump’s point of view, as McCarthy visited Mar-A-Lago to reset relations.

Over the next year, Trump made election denial claims the litmus test of loyalty and the precondition for endorsement ahead of the midterms.

That, says conservative commentator Matt Lewis, is what made Trumpian candidates unelectable. “Trump created a catch-22. What it took to win the Republican primary made you unelectable.

“The midterm results are clear — Trumpier candidates did worse than generic Republicans. Compare Georgia governor Brian Kemp — a conservative who opposed Trump’s attempt to overturn the election and who won his race — to Herschel Walker’s Senate bid in the same state, which is heading for a run-off. Or take Chris Sununu in New Hampshire, who won re-election as governor, where Don Bolduc lost his Senate bid.

“Voters signaled that they didn’t want election denial.”

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan added that “Team Normie” had a good day wherever moderate Republicans had got on the ballot.

But in their absence, “the weirdness of the Trump candidates — their inexperience and fixations, their air of constant yet meaningless conflict, their sheer abnormality — asked too much of voters, who said no.”

Set against the historic record, the Republicans’ midterms failure is astounding.

Since 1932, the party in power has lost on average 28 seats in the House of Representatives and four seats in the Senate. That pattern held up as recently as 2018, when, two years after taking the White House and both houses of Congress, Republicans lost 40 House seats and control of the chamber. Democrats suffered a bloodbath in 2010, when they lost 63 seats. In 1994, they lost 54 in the House and eight Senate seats.

In this election, by contrast, Democrats’ gain of a seat to retain control of the Senate, plus extremely modest Republican gains of 12 House seats, represent a sharp rebuke for the GOP.

The national picture obscured important regional trends.

In New York, a relentless Republican campaign that cast Democrats as soft on crime resonated with voters, handing the GOP four House seats crucial to the knife-edge battle to take back the lower chamber. The messaging was so effective that it almost carried a Republican, Lee Zeldin, to the governor’s mansion for the first time in 20 years.

That messaging failed to resonate with voters elsewhere, though. Even with Republicans on track to gain the six seats needed to take the House, the tally falls far short of the red wave that political analysts of all stripes had predicted.


Nothing to See Here

As the scale of Republican losses became clear last week, and conservative op-ed pages came out against the former president, Trump himself denied that anything had gone wrong.

Pressed on Fox News whether he would hold off his widely trailed announcement of a presidential run, he pointed to the Senate victory of J.D. Vance — a Trump endorsement — and responded “We had tremendous success. Why would anything change?”

But according to the New York Times, Trump was privately angry about the results, blaming Fox host Sean Hannity, among others, for his endorsement of Mehmet Oz, the defeated Pennsylvania Senate candidate.

According to Matt Lewis, the former president should have looked for the culprit closer to home.

“It’s anecdotal, but if you look at polling leading up to the midterms, there’s a pattern: Whenever Trump is in the news, Democrats rise. When he’s not in the news, Republicans do better. Around the time of the Mar-a-Lago raid in August, Democrats got their mojo back. Then when Trump went dark in September and October, Republicans recovered. Then Trump started to hold rallies, and indicated a presidential run, and there was a bad midterm.”

That kind of analysis is far from scientific. The Cook Political Report, for example, highlighted stabilizing gas prices, the Supreme Court decision reversing Roe v. Wade, and Biden’s legislative wins as factors that led to the Democrats’ modest summer bump.

But looking at the bigger picture, the 2022 midterm results add to the long series of reverses that Republicans have suffered in the Trump era.

“It looks like Trump’s 2016 victory — when he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton, a very weak candidate — is an outlier, in which he got lucky,” says Lewis. “In 2018 he had a bad midterm, but okay, that happens all the time. Then in 2020, he claims that the election was stolen. Then Republicans lost the Georgia runoff and the Senate. Now with the midterm results, Republicans are starting to say, ‘Wait a minute, is Trump good politically?’ ”

Shock over the midterm setbacks has prompted a rare moment of public debate in the Republican Party over Trump’s leadership.

The effect is reminiscent of the immediate, stunned aftermath of January 6, and it contains lessons for this round too.

“Trump’s hold on the Republicans is based on a narrative that he has a magic touch,” says Lewis, “and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that he can’t be beaten.

“The GOP is captive, but every so often, there’s a moment of vulnerability and a chance to break for the door and escape. January 6 was one chance, and here’s another.”


Governing Philosophy

In the standard retelling of Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s rise to political prominence, children’s building blocks feature prominently.

The reference is to a 2017 campaign video that the then-congressman released in a naked bid for a Trump endorsement, in which DeSantis sits playing with his children, and teaching them to “build the wall” — that now-forgotten campaign pledge to build a barrier on the Mexican border, with the Mexicans expected to foot the bill.

The obsequiousness of the video might make DeSantis’s stomach churn today, and is evidence for Trump’s claim that the Florida governor owes him his current standing.

When he ran for governor in 2018, DeSantis was a relatively unknown congressman, who had entered the House of Representatives in 2012 under a Tea Party ticket, but was by no means a star. Trump’s endorsement was certainly crucial in making it to the governor’s office the first time round.

Yet those building blocks are symbolic in another way, because DeSantis has proven adept at taking Trumpian — and more broadly populist — ideas and making them reality.

Where Trump campaigned to build a wall to stop illegal immigration across the southern border, but failed to deliver, DeSantis has proven adept at keeping the issue in the news by eye-grabbing moves such as flying migrants into wealthy Democratic enclaves.

On issues such as BDS, he has been the first mover. Once of his first acts as governor in 2019 was to order the state to cease business with AirBnB after the latter delisted Jewish-owned rentals in the West Bank.

In what was to become a wider campaign against “woke corporations,” DeSantis went after Ben and Jerry’s after the ice cream company bowed to BDS pressure and stopped selling their products over the Green Line.

Yet it was Covid that supercharged DeSantis’s rise to national prominence.

As the Biden administration and big Democratic states stuck to a raft of invasive pandemic control measures, DeSantis flew the flag for an alternative public health approach. Throughout 2021, DeSantis and Joe Biden played ping-pong with Covid restrictions: The White House issued mask mandates, and the governor banned them, putting financial penalties in place for local school districts that went along with Washington.

“The distinction between liberal states and states like Florida has never been stronger,” DeSantis told Ben Shapiro. “We took the approach that we wouldn’t kneecap a whole society with lockdowns and mandates, which don’t stop the virus.”


Against the Stream

That willingness to buck liberal trends and take on mainstream media in pursuit of conservative policies — not merely rhetoric — is what has drawn attention to DeSantis.

“Populist or nationalist Republicans can look at him as a more effective strongman than Trump, because he has a record of governing well,” says Matt Lewis. “He dealt with Hurricane Ian in a professional and competent manner.”

There’s no doubt that DeSantis is cast in the populist mold, says Lewis. In that sense, the Florida governor is very much a disciple of Trump, having analyzed and assimilated the core elements of Donald Trump’s strategy.

DeSantis has demonstrated an appetite for using government power to go after corporations for ideological reasons, such as his attack on Disney over its promotion of alternative lifestyles. That caters to a segment of the right that is hungry for a leader to use the authority of his office to vanquish enemies.

“The Republican base craves someone who is strong and tough against the media, and DeSantis delivers on that.”


Decision Time

Like the battlefield clashes between Russia and Ukraine that have exposed Moscow’s Great Power pretenses as a sham, the midterms have highlighted Donald Trump’s tenuous claim to be a winner as more narrative than reality.

As Trump looks weaker than ever, is it DeSantis Time?

A lane has certainly opened up for a challenge to the former president’s hegemony. Such has been Trump’s transformational effect on the GOP that tribunes of the old Republican order such as Mike Pence don’t poll well. That means that a challenge needs to come from within the populist sector of the party.

A DeSantis-like candidate combining nationalist strength with an aura of competence stands a chance of making the argument that Trump himself has become a loser, not the winner he once was.

A challenger would be aided by the fact that much of Trump’s ability to both shock and entertain — his willingness to challenge norms and be nasty — are now part of the political playbook.

Thus, the Trumpification of politics could end up destroying Trump himself.

But underlying the scale of the challenge that anyone — including DeSantis — faces in taking on an era-defining politician like Donald Trump, are the words of freshman Ohio senator J.D. Vance.

“Every year, the media writes Donald Trump’s political obituary,” he said. “And every year, we’re quickly reminded that Trump remains the most popular figure in the Republican Party.”

Whether Trump once again defies his eulogizers and rises from the ranks of the political dead is now the defining question for the Republican Party.

There’s no guarantee, says Matt Lewis, that the GOP will be able to shake off its current king, even if it’s time to say goodbye.

“We are getting close to the Republicans being reduced to a rump party of Trump’s base. Maybe it’s become like a cult, where even their own sense of self-preservation won’t be enough to save them.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 936)

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