The GOP Has A Problem And It's Not Just Donald Trump

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It could be days, maybe even weeks, before we know who will control Congress. But here’s one thing about the election we know already: It turned out well for the Democrats and terribly for the Republicans.

In a midterm year, when the party in power typically suffers big losses ― and at a time when voters were anxious about inflation and crime, and just plain exhausted from three years of pandemic ― Democrats effectively fought to a draw in federal races while making some important gains at the state level.

My home state of Michigan is as good an example as any. Incumbent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson all won easily. So did ballot measures to keep abortion legal and shore up voting rights. Democrats prevailed in some key, very close U.S. House races and a whole bunch of state races too, allowing them to get full control of the Michigan legislature for the first time since 1983.

The Democratic wins were so convincing that, except in a few places like Arizona, Republicans couldn’t even make their usual conspiracy claims about Democrats stealing elections. Instead, they went right to the recriminations stage, arguing with each other over who’s to blame.

For many conservatives, the culprit is obvious: It’s Donald Trump, for pushing the party to nominate untested candidates with fringe views, for keeping the focus on his attempts to relitigate the 2020 election, and for using his leverage over donations and money to undermine the work of official party organizations.

New Yorkers saw a version of this argument on newsstands Wednesday. The cover of the New York Post depicted “Trumpty Dumpty,” and columnist John Podhoretz wrote inside that “Toxic Trump is the political equivalent of a can of Raid” because he is “perhaps the most profound vote repellent in modern American history.”

The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal ― yes, another part of the Murdoch empire ― was just as harsh. It scorned Trump’s “perfect record of electoral defeat” since his surprise 2016 presidential win, and blamed him for creating a “political fiasco,” all under the headline: “Trump Is the Republican Party’s Biggest Loser.”

Here in Michigan, the GOP chief of staff issued a memo (obtained by the Detroit Free Press) blaming the party’s losses on Trump ― directly, because his influence had alienated some big donors, and indirectly, because the candidate he backed for governor, Tudor Dixon, turned out to be a terrible nominee whose Trumpy affect and extreme views dragged down the rest of the ticket.

“Independent voters were turned off by the top of the ticket and trickled down statewide,” the memo said. “We didn’t have a turnout problem. Middle of the road voters just didn’t like what Tudor was selling.”

As somebody who covered the Michigan campaign and paid close attention to others around the country, I wouldn’t dispute any of this. As in other states, Dixon’s support for abortion bans alienated independent and even some Republican voters. Her attempts to stoke anger about LGBTQ-themed books in schools didn’t win them back. Her refusal to acknowledge the 2020 election as legitimate came off as weird to some swing voters, and downright disqualifying to others.

But as a diagnosis of what ails the GOP, this focus on Trump’s influence strikes me as incomplete ― and, coming from these prominent conservatives and influential party leaders, just a wee bit lacking in self-awareness.

Yes, the Republican Party has a Trump problem. But Trump didn’t create the problem on his own.

Remember, The GOP Embraced Trump

The Trumpification of the Republican Party happened right in front of us in 2015 and 2016, when Trump was running for president. The conservative establishment and key players in the party had a chance to reject his candidacy, and some tried. But many backed Trump or at least made peace with his candidacy, because it was the shortest path to their goal of getting power and implementing their agenda.

They weren’t exactly wrong about that. But once in office, Trump alienated large swaths of the population right away, with a bullying, nasty attitude toward immigrants, communities of color and political enemies ― and a frontal attack on the Affordable Care Act. That effort failed, but he was successful at another project: packing the judiciary with conservatives. And that effort led directly to the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, a highly unpopular decision that was a primary factor ― maybe the primary factor ― in the GOP’s midterm losses.

None of these things happened simply because Trump willed them. They happened because they were what the Republican Party and the conservative movement had wanted to happen for a very long time. Repealing “Obamacare” was a multiyear crusade. The project to end abortion rights ― and, more broadly, to fill the courts with deeply conservative judges and justices ― has been underway for decades.

And it’s not like the GOP or its supporters appear to be rethinking the party’s posture today. The Post’s cover line on the morning after the election was “DeFuture,” over a photo of Florida’s GOP governor, Ron DeSantis ― around whom the party establishment and its allies have been rallying. But while DeSantis may be smarter and less impulsive than Trump, his political posture isn’t particularly different. He’s even got the same mannerisms, which may or may not be accidental.

How this will all play out over the coming months and years is impossible to say, in part because Trump and DeSantis seem to be on a collision course over who should be the 2024 presidential nominee. A lot had to break the Democrats’ way this year, and it’s always possible that something resembling current GOP politics will fare better next time, in a different overall political environment.

But one other lesson of this election is that the Trumpification of the GOP has created what looks like an enduring political opposition, by animating voters to elect Democratic officials who could be in power for a while.

Michigan is once again an instructive example. The class of Democrats who first won in 2018 ― and have now won re-election ― includes Whitmer, Benson and Nessel, as well as Rep. Elissa Slotkin and state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, whose floor speech against anti-LGBTQ bigotry earlier this year went viral and made her a fixture on cable television. It’s not coincidental that they’re all women, relatively young, and in sync with the more open-minded cultural values of a new generation of voters whose support was a critical part of Tuesday’s victories.

The influence of these voters will only grow with time, creating a long-term challenge for the GOP. And it’s not a challenge the party can overcome simply by ditching Trump, even if that’s possible.

The problem for young voters ― and plenty of not-so-young voters ― isn’t that Trump is part of the Republican Party. The problem is that he belongs there.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.