When Liz Cheney, flanked by her father, the former Vice-President Dick Cheney, went to vote in Jackson, Wyoming, on Tuesday, there was little doubt regarding the outcome of her reëlection bid. Cheney had long since chosen the path of bridge-burning opposition—chosen to “lead the effort to make sure Donald Trump is never again near the Oval Office,” as her dad had put it, in a closing ad for her doomed campaign in one of the country’s most pro-Trump states. A few hours later, it was official: Cheney’s once promising career in the House of Representatives was over, at least for now, a casualty of her refusal to prostrate herself at the altar of Trump. The former President’s revenge amounted to an absolute trouncing of Cheney by Wyoming Republicans—she did not even crack thirty per cent of the vote in the G.O.P. primary, two years after receiving more than seventy-three per cent of it.
By Wednesday, Eric Trump was bragging about his father as one of the all-time great political assassins. “Last night, my father killed another political dynasty, and that’s the Cheneys,” he told the Newsmax host Eric Bolling. “He first killed the Bushes, then he killed the Clintons. Last night, he killed the Cheneys. He’s been RINO hunting ever since he got into politics, and last night he was successful again.” Trump’s story, as narrated by his son, is that of a political axe murderer—a grim reaper of the “Republican in Name Only” establishment. In the Trump lexicon, “killer” is a compliment. Donald Trump himself has bragged about this, explaining that the term constituted high praise from his ruthless father, Fred, who taught him to be one.
The family must be so proud. Trump has zealously stuck to the paternal creed. From the start, he has been an almost uniquely destructive force in American politics, a leader not only willing to blow anything up that stands in his path but one who glories in the act. The result has been a Republican Party transformed almost entirely into Trump’s Republican Party. Nearly all of those who stood against him have been purged or defeated or have cravenly renounced their previous views. “She may have been fighting for principles,” Taylor Budowich, a Trump spokesperson, said, after Cheney’s loss, “but they are not the principles of the Republican Party.” Which is as close to an inarguably true statement as has ever been issued by the Mar-a-Lago government in exile. The Republican Party’s ideology these days is simply whatever-Trump-wants-ism, as it made clear when it did not even bother to issue a new policy platform at its 2020 convention, settling instead for a simple resolution saying that it was for Trump. Being a classy winner, though, is clearly not part of the emerging party doctrine. After the Wyoming results came in, Budowich posted to Twitter a video compilation of Trump dancing, set to the tune of “na, na, na, na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye,” along with the message “Bye bye, @Liz_Cheney.”
The results of this midterm season so far have shown how nearly complete Trump’s Republican triumph already is. Dozens of election deniers who have adopted the former President’s lies about his 2020 election loss have won Republican nominations, up and down the ballot. Only two of the ten House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for his role in the January 6th insurrection are still in the running to remain in Congress. And, of course, polls show that Trump himself remains a strong front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2024. The headlines after Tuesday’s voting would have been inconceivable in the immediate aftermath of his failed effort to hold onto power: “Trump’s dominance in GOP comes into focus,” the Washington Post said. “Cheney’s Wyoming defeat is a win for Trump and a decisive blow to fading GOP establishment,” the Los Angeles Times declared. “Cheney’s defeat end of an era for GOP; Trump’s party now,” the Associated Press said. So why are Trump’s opponents—at least some of them—feeling in any way optimistic?
Seven years after Trump formally entered politics—capturing a hold on the national imagination, which remains undiminished despite defeat and disgrace—historical precedent and a full battery of metrics suggest that Trump’s Republicans are poised to reap significant gains in this fall’s midterm elections.
The conventional wisdom in Washington would indicate that the Democrats are all but certain to lose the House in 2022, and very likely the Senate, too. The yearlong collapse in Joe Biden’s approval ratings has been seen as a virtual guarantee of this outcome. Biden has become the most politically unpopular leader at this point in a Presidency since the advent of modern polling—even more unpopular than Trump was during the “blue wave” election of 2018. That and a worst-in-four-decades inflation outbreak on Biden’s watch have convinced almost all political observers that the elections this fall are a sure thing for Republicans.
But, over the summer, a new school of what might be called “Trumptimism” has taken hold among some Democratic strategists and independent analysts. In the mess of our current politics, they discern a case for optimism—history-defying, experience-flouting optimism that maybe things won’t work out so badly after all in November. “In the age of Trump, nothing is normal,” Simon Rosenberg, the president of the liberal think tank the New Democrat Network and a veteran strategist, told me, on Thursday. “Nothing is following traditional physics and rules, so why would this midterm?”
Rosenberg, a staunchly public proponent of this view for the past few months, argues that Trump’s continued hold over the Republican Party is actually good news for Democrats this fall—and beyond. Trump, he posits, is not so much killing off his political enemies as he is destroying his own host organism, the G.O.P. itself.
Recent events, according to Rosenberg, have started to prove his case, including what appears to be the easing of inflation, lower gas prices, and Congress’s passage of Biden’s long-stalled signature climate-change-and-health-care legislation. The horrific school-shooting massacre in Uvalde, Texas, upset pro-gun-control Democratic voters across the country, and the Supreme Court’s decision to toss out Roe v. Wade is giving millions of Americans a reason to vote in November. “It’s a new, bluer election,” Rosenberg tweeted, on Thursday, as part of a long thread of upbeat-for-Democrats data points. Or, as he put it when we spoke: “There was never really a red wave.”
The Trump factor, according to Rosenberg, is key. For the past several election cycles, nothing has united Democratic voters more than the chance to vote against him. And all summer Trump has been back in the news, thanks to revelations from testimony in the House’s January 6th hearings; the F.B.I. search of Mar-a-Lago, for classified documents improperly taken from the White House; and endless speculation about whether Trump will be indicted or run again for President—or both. “It awakened the anti-MAGA majority in the country,” Rosenberg insisted.
Rosenberg sees this fall as a genuinely competitive election, not a foregone conclusion. And his predictions for the long-term fate of the Trumpified G.O.P. are bleak. Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven of the past eight Presidential elections, and Trump was the first incumbent President running for reëlection since Herbert Hoover to have his party lose the White House, Senate, and House in just four years. Rosenberg said he remained convinced that divisive primaries, such as the Wyoming election this week, are disastrous for the Republican Party in general elections—even if pro-Trump candidates beat out the few Liz Cheneys every time. “The Republican coalition,” he asserted flatly, “is cracking.” At this rate, he insisted, the Trump party could even become just as much of a “noncompetitive national entity” as the post-Hoover G.O.P. of the nineteen-thirties and forties.
After hearing Rosenberg’s case, I called Amy Walter, the editor-in-chief of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, for a reality check. She joked that there’s nothing wrong with “taking a hit of the hopium.” But Walter and others are not ready to abandon the laws of political physics just yet. “All the fundamentals are telling us not that much has changed,” she told me. “There is not a blue wave, no. The question is: How big is the red wave?” On Thursday, the Cook Political Report moved its prediction for control of the Senate from favoring the G.O.P. to a tossup; Walter still sees Republicans taking the House.
It’s not that Walter thinks Trump is a positive for Republicans. The question, in a midterm election, is more about how much he really matters. Republicans have been betting that voters are “more upset about gas prices than Donald Trump,” she told me. They may yet be right.
It is a ritual of the political cycle that, every two years, the party facing grim forecasts will experience a bout of summer sunniness. Trump spent the months before Republicans lost the House in 2018 insisting, against all the evidence, that a big red wave was coming. Defying gravity does not work in physics—nor, experience has taught us, does it really work in politics. Then again, Isaac Newton never had to reckon with Donald Trump. ♦