President Donald Trump’s theory of politics is dead simple: If he and his Republican Party keep doing the things that won him his first victories, he and they will keep winning.
Tell the American people that immigrants are criminals who want to kill them. Warn about widespread “voter fraud” and illegitimate victories. Say that Democrats want to open the borders, letting in caravan after caravan in a migrant “invasion.”
This was Trump’s closing argument in the 2018 midterm elections. But if you take out the specific reference to the “caravan” that provided Trump with a convenient October news hook, it’s identical to the playbook he uses every other time he feels he’s losing ground, ever since he won the 2016 Republican primary. It is his only argument.
Never mind that he lost the popular vote in the 2016 general election (and won narrowly in the Electoral College); never mind that he’s far less popular than a president presiding over 3.7 percent unemployment would normally be; never mind, now, that polls and analysts correctly predicted Democrats would take the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections. Trump is going to run this playbook every time.
Shortly before the election, he gave the game away. When Axios’s Jonathan Swan asked if members of Trump’s inner circle had asked him to tone down the rhetoric, Trump shrugged and smirked: “It got me here.”
But Donald Trump himself will only be on the ballot in one more general election, in 2020. The Republican Party will need to win elections around him, and after him. And the 2018 midterm results show that the white identity politics that Trump has made the core of Republican appeals, to the exclusion of everything else, aren’t actually sufficient to sustain a majority party.
The 2018 election results defied pat conclusions, but there was one significant pattern: Republicans who won their elections (especially in the Senate) will be more indebted to Trump than their predecessors, but Republicans who lost elections (especially in the House) can just as easily blame Trump for refusing to brag about the economy and instead fear-mongering about immigration and crime.
Those outcomes cast doubt, at best, on the theory that Trump was leading the way to a new Republican map — that his occasional populism and consistent appeals to whiteness would help swing the Rust Belt and upper Midwest to the GOP for good while staving off changing demographics in the South.
The limits of Trump’s political playbook are apparent now: It can entrench Republican dominance but not expand it. It cannot be the only message Republicans run on nationally to win a durable American majority.
But the other thing this election has made apparent is the limits to Trump’s political imagination. Being the party of white identity politics may cost the GOP the suburbs and cede them the Upper Midwest, but as long as he’s in power, Trump will never let the GOP be the party of anything else.
Donald Trump did his best to stop Republicans from running on anything other than Trumpist identity politics
Donald Trump made sure that the Republican Party’s dominant, if not only, message in the two weeks before the elections was that Democrats wanted to open the borders to criminals who wanted to kill you, and would stop at nothing (including stealing elections) to accomplish that goal.
His retread of the greatest hits of his three years in politics — from a relentless focus on the migrant “caravan” that was still hundreds of miles away on Election Day, to an ad about a criminal immigrant so racist Fox News wouldn’t run it, to ominous tweets about voter fraud, to a renewed flirtation with the idea of ending birthright citizenship — took up all the oxygen. He wanted it that way.
Trump rejected, even mocked, the pleas of endangered House Republicans (and their leadership) to talk up the economy and low unemployment rate. He tweeted the racist ad out proudly from his own account, while disparaging an ad cut by his campaign that focused on the economy. He did his best to prevent the Republican Party from running on any messages that weren’t Trump-inflected racial grievance politics.
Senate Republicans were pleased by the pivot to racism, intuiting that it would help turn out rural voters in statewide races. House Republicans risking the loss of suburban districts were nervous.
Both were correct. But Trump didn’t bother to listen to the latter.
The post-2018 map is a Trumpian realignment for the GOP
In the days after the 2016 election, a certain strain of Republican pundit could be found arguing that the GOP had (maybe accidentally) stumbled onto a new path to a durable majority. Trump might have ignored the recommendations everyone remembered from the 2013 “autopsy” report: to build “a more welcoming conservatism” by reaching out to Latinos.
But he ended up finding a path to victory that the autopsy report’s authors had apparently written off (though some of their messaging recommendations presaged it) but other conservative analysts had identified: to mobilize conservative low-propensity voters, specifically whites without a college degree, and gain back ground in the Rust Belt and Upper Midwest — Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa.
In 2018, it turns out that that theory of a new GOP majority was half right. It is the new GOP — but it’s not necessarily a majority. The demographics hold; the geography doesn’t, necessarily. The areas of the map Trump “opened up” didn’t stay open.
Republicans lost governor’s races in Michigan and Wisconsin. They performed so badly in Pennsylvania — losing a net of three House seats, and barely competing in statewide races against Democratic incumbents — that it’s hard to believe Trump won the state in 2016, much less that he campaigned there in 2018. Florida and Ohio outperformed expectations, but the theory of the new Trumpist majority wasn’t just about winning Florida and Ohio.
Nor is this a case of losing candidates being insufficiently Trumpist. While Republican Ron DeSantis is going to get a lot of attention for winning the Florida governor’s race (despite expectations) by tying himself to Trump, the candidates that built their races on the message Trump wanted Republicans to send often underperformed expectations.
Lou Barletta, who has built a career on immigration hawkery, got shellacked in Pennsylvania. Kris Kobach managed to lose the Kansas governor’s race. Corey Stewart managed to turn out working-class whites in Virginia, but Tim Kaine turned out even more of everyone else to oppose him.
All three candidates felt like afterthoughts Tuesday, despite none of them being in deep-blue states. That’s often what happens in races where a candidate is written off as weak or fringe. But their campaigns were in line with the campaign Trump was running on behalf of the national party.
Republicans’ losses in these areas are offset by their gains elsewhere. Missouri, North Dakota, and Indiana seem like solidly red states at this point. More importantly, in close statewide races in the South where Republicans fended off Democratic challengers — like the Senate races in Tennessee and Texas (and maybe Arizona) and the governor’s races in Georgia and Texas — it looks like white voters without college degrees helped secure Republican victories by beating turnout expectations.
But if this election was simply a retrenchment, with electoral outcomes coming into line with demographic realities, that means Trumpism didn’t really expand the map the way that Republicans wanted it to. After all, Democrats are consolidating Obama-era victories in Colorado, Nevada, California, and Virginia — and Texas didn’t go great for House Republicans either.
Trump may have evaded the “blue wall” in 2016; but he didn’t demolish it. A 2020 presidential election in which states vote for president the way they voted for statewide races in 2018, barring any other change, would result in a narrow Democratic victory.
Trump will keep doing what he does whether or not it helps Republicans
If this is what Republicans can expect from running on Trumpism, they’d better get used to it, because Trump is full steam ahead.
Maybe he’s convinced himself he saved Republicans from an even worse shellacking in both chambers. Maybe he likes the idea of divided government because it gives him a convenient enemy at rallies — which is to say, his interests are at odds with his party’s.
But it’s just as possible that Donald Trump and those who advise him aren’t making a primarily political calculus. That is, they’re going all in on white identity politics because they believe in it for its own sake.
Trump’s biggest thinkers aren’t political strategists, but ideologues: former White House chief strategist and executive chair of Breitbart News Steve Bannon and, now, White House policy adviser Stephen Miller. Both of them firmly believe that the Republican Party needs to become a right-wing nationalist party if America as they know it is to survive. Both of them claim that that’s the best way for Republicans to win elections now.
But they don’t have experience running winning campaigns. Neither of them even has life experience in areas where Republicans make up the majority. Their ideology is shaped by being lone nationalists among cosmopolitans.
That isn’t a resume that ought to lend them authority when it comes to mapping out electoral strategy for the GOP in the next three cycles. And the 2018 results don’t count as a point in their favor.
But it doesn’t particularly matter. The Stephen Miller faction declared victory in this election even before votes were cast — because to them, the president listening to them is a victory. Getting Trump “on the record” to reiterate some of the most hardline immigration stances he’d taken on the campaign trail, Politico’s Nancy Cook reported last week, was a “bonanza” for administration hardliners “even if Republicans suffer losses on Tuesday.”
Trump is going to barrel ahead with his playbook — its the only playbook he has.
The idea that Trump’s obsession with the migrant caravan was a cynical midterm ploy that would be abandoned the minute the polls closed was always wrong. The Pentagon may have dropped the mission name Faithful Patriot the day after the elections, but the troops are still there.
The administration is still planning to roll out a policy in the next few days that would totally overhaul asylum, affecting tens of thousands of people a month. Trump’s temper tantrum was real, and it has been felt, and it is going to be enacted as policy.
His immigration policy will continue to follow this pattern: temper tantrum, crackdown, backlash. He’ll continue to get antsy any day he’s not in the news, and consider every day he is a success. You will never get Trump to run on the economy, no matter how great it gets. And most Republicans in national office now will happily follow his lead and swarm around each successive story he fixates on.
Republicans who care about winning a majority didn’t get much good news last night. But now they just have to figure out if they’re going to sit tight and try to wait Trump out, or mount a fight against him in which they’re increasingly outnumbered within their party — while he has the megaphone.