The defeat of the Republican senatorial candidate Herschel Walker in a December runoff election in Georgia closes the circle on the most decisive rejection of the influence of any individual politician in our lifetimes. That politician is not Herschel Walker but Donald Trump. The question that now faces the Republican Party is whether its toxic romance with Trump will poison the well for the GOP for a generation or whether it can, as they say in the literature of addiction and recovery, break the cycle of abuse and begin to heal.
What happened in Georgia from Election Night in November 2020 until the runoff Walker lost in December 2022 was the perfect distillation of what happened across the country during the same period inside the party Trump has commandeered for his own personal use. Once the election results on November 8, 2020, showed Trump had lost to Joe Biden in Georgia by 12,000 votes, he began to create a narrative according to which the state’s electors had been stolen from him by Democratic chicanery through illicit early and mail-in ballots.
That narrative had the effect of convincing gullible Republican voters choked by disappointment and still sick with love for Trump that there was no way the January 2021 runoff to decide the state’s two Senate races could possibly be fair. As a result, nearly 500,000 voters who had come out for the general election in November stayed home when the runoff came around. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution study found that “the most precipitous declines occurred among Republican voters.” The falloff was steepest in places, like Valdosta County, where Trump had held rallies nominally in support of the Republican Senate candidates, in which he spent his time railing against the supposedly monstrous injustice that had been done him.
In the November 2020 general election, incumbent Republican senator David Perdue led Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff by 1.8 points. In the January 2021 runoff, Perdue lost by almost 2 points, a nearly 4 percent shift toward the Democrats. The evidence was plain: Trump had single-handedly depressed GOP turnout and thereby cost Republicans control of the Senate. This proved to be an utterly calamitous turn of events for conservative governance, since it gave Joe Biden and the Democrats the means and ability to pass $6 trillion in new spending between January 2021 and November 2022.
Trump’s destructive behavior on this score alone should have been enough to demonstrate to rational Republicans that he had become nothing but poison—but it wasn’t, for various reasons. And Trump was hardly done with Georgia. In fact, the extent to which Trump would play a key role in the 2022 midterm elections became horrifyingly clear early in 2021 through his continuing interest, or perhaps his obsession, with the Peach State.
First, Trump was determined to see the sitting Republican governor and secretary of state go down to defeat in the 2022 primaries as punishment for foiling his ludicrous conspiracy scheme to “find” 11,000 ballots that could have flipped the state’s electoral votes into his column. (Not that it would have mattered; if Georgia had become a Trump state, Biden would still have won the Electoral College, 290–248.)
Second, he capriciously and vaingloriously decided he wanted Herschel Walker—a 60-year-old man who had never run for anything but had played for Trump’s team in the United States Football League in the mid-1980s after winning the Heisman Trophy at the University of Georgia—to be the Republican candidate for senator.
And how did that all turn out?
When it came to punishing Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Trump proved to be a paper tiger. He recruited David Perdue—the man who lost his Senate seat due to Trump’s feckless assaults on the electoral system—to run against Kemp in the May 2022 primary. The result: Kemp beat Perdue by an astounding 51 points. At the same time, the Renfield-like Representative Jody Hice, who gave up a safe House seat to do his master’s bidding and try to unseat Raffensperger, lost the primary by 20 points.
In that same primary, Walker ran for the Senate seat in Georgia all but unopposed. Even though nearly everyone in Republican politics thought Walker’s candidacy was a terrible idea, it would have been a declaration of war against Trump if Mitch McConnell or anyone else had dared suggest there might be better choices than Walker in the crucial and winnable Georgia Senate race. And so, by October 2021, McConnell was offering a warm endorsement of Walker, who had once claimed to have multiple personalities. “Herschel is the only one who can unite the party, defeat Senator Warnock, and help us take back the Senate,” McConnell said.
Every clause of that sentence proved to be wrong. The person who “united the party” was not Walker but Kemp, who won reelection by 8 points on Election Night as Walker was running a point behind his rival, Raphael Warnock. Walker did not “defeat Senator Warnock.” The Democrat not only ended Election Night in November with a one-point lead; he won the runoff by three.
Nor did Republicans “take back the Senate,” though in this case you can’t actually blame Walker’s nightmare of a candidacy. By the time the Georgia runoff had taken place, Republicans could not have taken back the Senate in any case because other Trump-endorsed candidates had already blown that chance for McConnell in November—despite running in the most favorable political environment for the GOP in 42 years. That’s not to say Walker’s defeat was meaningless. It has ensured Democrats will have enough power with their one-seat majority to end the Senate filibuster at will. Great work!
So that’s what Trump did in Georgia.
Now let’s take a look at what he did elsewhere. The GOP’s inability to generate a wave election was most evident in the fact that Democrats succeeded in actually gaining one seat in the Senate. Why did that happen? The answer is multicausal, but the fact remains that Blake Masters in Arizona, Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, and Adam Laxalt in Nevada were all endorsed and supported by Trump (and New Hampshire’s Don Bolduc effectively ran as Trump)—and they all lost. In the conventional wave election that observers expected 2022 would be, most of those seats would have tipped the GOP’s way. But in a conventional wave election, these men would not have been the GOP’s candidates.
Trump also personally anointed Republican candidate after Republican candidate in House primaries, largely on the basis of displays of loyalty to him personally. And, unlike in Georgia, when he targeted a Republican for defeat and replacement, he mostly prevailed. By doing so, he solidified his unprecedented standing as the still-standing leader of his political party despite having lost the White House. As Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution notes, “Trump dominated the Republican Party’s congressional primaries—his endorsed candidates almost always won their races. Many of the candidates he did not endorse tried to get some of the Trump magic into their campaigns by featuring Trump and/or MAGA/America First on their website. They did less well than the candidates Trump actually endorsed.”
Most satisfying to him and his acolytes, he rid himself of the meddlesome Liz Cheney in Wyoming, in this case with no cost to the GOP, as her no-name replacement was also a Republican. But he also went after other Republicans who had voted to impeach him because of his disgusting actions on January 6, and there the results were bad for the party. Peter Meijer of Michigan lost his primary to a man named John Gibbs, a deranged conspiracy theorist who believes that the Hillary Clinton acolyte John Podesta is some kind of a Satanist. Gibbs was blown out by a Democrat. The same pattern repeated itself when Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington State was ousted in a complex primary by Joe Kent, another novice who played political footsie with white supremacists and then lost the same seat Beutler had won by 13 points two years earlier. In a newly drawn district in Ohio that should have gone Republican, a candidate named J.R. Majewski who had attended the January 6 rally was blessed by Trump. He believes in the QAnon conspiracy theory and lied about having served in Afghanistan after 9/11. A veteran Democratic leftist who otherwise has no business representing the district slaughtered him.
All in all, in the House, there were seven seats the GOP would have won in a normal midterm election that went to the Democrats due to wild and cracked candidates whose sole reason for being there at all was their fealty to Trump’s election denialism.
The broader point is this: Because Trump refused to accept his defeat, and refused to leave the stage, and continued to bigfoot the GOP in pursuit of his own personal agenda, he was every bit the subject of the 2022 election that he had been in 2020, when he lost by 7 million votes and 74 electors, and in 2018, when the GOP lost 40 seats in the House. As a result, the 2022 elections were nationalized not against the sitting president, Joe Biden, and his appalling record (excepting Ukraine) but against the former president and his appalling behavior.
Biden’s great insight as a presidential candidate was to run as the least crazy person in the race, whether he was doing so against Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren or whether he was working to oust Trump. By remaining at the center of the American political discussion, Trump allowed Biden and the Democrats to run pretty much the same race in 2022 that they ran in 2020—despite a record of fecklessness, national humiliation, and parlous economic choices.
It worked then. It worked now. And it will work again, if need be.
What, then, can be done?
To understand where to go from here, we need to visualize Trump’s support as a series of concentric circles. The red-hot center is made up of the people he once said would not care if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue. People have taken to calling it the “Republican base,” but it isn’t. It’s the Trump base, and it’s a new political force—overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly rural, almost entirely outside the country’s education-industrial complex, and relatively voiceless until Trump came along to speak for it.
The next circle, which is by definition larger, is the traditional Republican base. Until Trump came along, it was issue-driven: pro-life, anti-immigration, extremely distrustful of big government, and supportive of strength when it comes to the military abroad, to ICE at the border, and to law enforcement close to home. These voters threw in their lot with Trump and allowed his personal obsessions to overwhelm them. During his presidency, the Republican base was thrilled by him, and the evidence of the past couple of years suggests it still views him with sympathy as a victim of the Deep State’s pursuit and the media’s would-be assassins.
While the Trump base believes with all its heart that the 2020 election was stolen, I suspect the Republican base is willing to go along with the idea because it believes that the Democrats and liberals are so perfidious, they would have stolen it if they could have—and so, even if they didn’t, they deserve the blame for wanting to.
These two bases do what bases do. They’re neck-deep in politics. They live it, breathe it, and they staff it. They make up the people who drum up support for candidates in contested primaries, and then they vote in them. Trump’s successful seduction allowed him to shift their usual approach in primaries away from promoting candidates they might think would be best for the causes they supported and more toward candidates whose primary focus was their passionate fealty to Trump.
These bases dominate the party’s internal decision-making. But they do not dominate its numbers. According to CNN’s Harry Enten, something like 22 million Republicans turned out to vote in the 2022 primaries. That’s 40 percent of the overall number of people who voted Republican in the general election (around 55 million). Who makes up the other 60 percent? That’s the Republican electorate, combined with independents who are Republican in all but name.
All things being equal, people in the Republican electorate will vote for a Republican every time. If they don’t, they will stay home. Or, in some extreme cases, they will refuse to vote for anyone even though they show up at the polls. That’s how Herschel Walker lost. On the same night that Brian Kemp got 53.4 percent of the vote in the Georgia governor’s race, Walker got 48.5 percent. Five percent of those who voted for Kemp would not vote for Walker, and only a relative handful split their vote and went for Warnock. Most left their selection blank or voted for the libertarian candidate (who got 2 percent).
That pool of non-base Republican voters, that 60 percent—they are the key to the Republican Party’s salvation. Motivating them, involving them, and using their commonsense approach to politics will be the challenge for Republicans who understand that moving beyond Trump is the only way to save their party.
This is the only way forward if the GOP is to contest on an even playing field for the hearts and minds of Americans who do not believe in the increasingly radical Democratic agenda but cannot stomach the Republican craziness. Addressing the subject of the Trump craziness head-on before Biden and the Democrats take full advantage of it for their own ends—this is the needle the GOP will have to thread.
When the intentionally shocking radio personality Howard Stern exploded on the airwaves in New York City in the early 1980s, it was said that audience members who liked him tuned in for an hour a day—while those who said they hated him listened twice as long. Stern had hit upon a brilliant commercial formula. When your job is to provide content for the sole purpose of holding people’s attention between the paid ads, it doesn’t matter whether people are listening with rage or with love—only that they’re listening.
In almost every respect, Donald Trump brought Stern’s act to American politics, and it worked because he shared Stern’s talent for sucking up attention. Like Stern, he has a rare ability to occupy the thoughts of those who hate him even more than those who love him—and, due in large measure to that hatred, to receive even more love from his fans since they are often driven by passionate detestation of the people who passionately detest Trump.
Trump has weaponized, and harnessed, and addicted people to, and himself become addicted to, the unparalleled attention he generates. For the better part of eight years, he has completely dominated our national conversation. That could have been of great use to him if he had had a larger set of policies to promote, but his dominance is not due to substance, and therefore its utility was limited merely to the garnering of attention itself. For him, issues and ideas are like cornstarch in an otherwise spicy but insubstantial soup, stirred into the pot to thicken it some.
That is why the grand intellectual project to build an agenda around him—call it “American Greatness,” or MAGA, or National Conservatism, or whatever portmanteau might be pleasing to you—has produced nothing of substance and is now fast descending into a low-comedy civil war fought with pop guns being waged on a narcissistic battlefield of small differences. However nobly intentioned it might have been, the effort was doomed to fail because you can’t build a foundation on quicksand.
There is a crucial difference between Trump and Stern: Politics is not the stuff that goes on between ads. It’s the most important thing we do together as Americans—even if it has been degraded over time by the slop-over of celebrity culture, and even if the two parties no longer seem to represent the views of a majority of their members but rather the vocal minorities in their coalitions. And the larger American electorate takes its responsibilities seriously. That is why, in the Republican Party especially, that larger electorate needs to be brought into the process earlier. It needs to be convinced it must play in the primaries so that it’s not stuck at the end with the unpalatable choices made for it by the GOP’s red-hot center and its addled base.
How? Surely the techniques that have led to the remarkable increase in the size of the national electorate over the past 20 years can provide a guide. Remember that from 1972 until 2004, we never saw voter turnout in presidential years exceed 60 percent, but it has hovered there and spiked as high as 67 percent in the five presidential elections since. Midterm election turnout in 2018 was an astonishing 118 million—just a few percentage points off the 2016 presidential numbers. And while it fell to around 105 million in 2022, that’s still 20 million more than voted in the 2014 midterms.
Americans have joined the national electorate in the first two decades of the 21st century in a way they didn’t in the last third of the 20th because they have learned that the stakes are high.
For Republican voters who have every reason to worry that the GOP is going to repeat the same mistakes that led to the results in the last five elections—by which I mean the 2018 and the 2022 midterms, as well as the 2020 general election and the two Georgia runoffs in 2021 and 2022—the stakes could not be higher.
Recent history suggests that when a political party appears to lose touch with the general population as it pursues the demands and interests of a less palatable minority, the long-term effects can be ruinous. The Democratic Party took a sharp left turn after 1968 following an election its moderate presidential candidate lost very narrowly—and as a result, Democrats held the presidency in only four of the subsequent 24 years and ceased their long-standing ownership of the national ideological agenda for a generation. That could be the Republican fate for a generation if the party remains in the thrall of Trump and whoever follows in his footsteps.
The work that must be done to move the traditional Republican voter—who believes in limited government, free markets, social order, strength at home and abroad, enduring values, and American exceptionalism—from the periphery to the center of the political conversation must begin now if conservatives and the country’s conservative party are to stave off the GOPocalypse.
Photo: Gage Skidmore
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