On Tuesday night, Donald Trump made explicit what had previously only been implied: Republicans are his hostages. Or at least, Republican voters are his to command. If the GOP has any hope of electoral success, its members will have to bend to his demands—more, somehow, than they already have.
“If we don’t solve the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020 (which we have thoroughly and conclusively determined),” the former president said in an October 13 statement, “Republicans will not be voting in ’22 or ’24.” It’s not clear what Trump wants Republican officeholders to do, and maybe that’s the point. The directive may be vague, but the sentiment is plain: Make of me a godhead or suffer at the polls. But in making the threat explicit, Trump has made two mistakes that he and his allies could come to regret.
First, the tactic he is adopting undoes months of work that his indefatigable apologists did on his behalf following the Republican Party’s surprise losses in two runoff elections for U.S. Senate in Georgia. Trump’s threat is toothless without the implication that he can discourage Republican voters from heading to the polls—something he and his supporters insisted for weeks after the Georgia races that Trump did not do.
When Democrats retook the U.S. Senate, Trump’s allies contended that the president’s endless pronouncements that the 2020 vote was “rigged” and elections in the United States have been corrupted by a cabal of shadowy bureaucrats did not have a depressive effect on the Republican electorate. After all, even as he was indicting Republican election officials in Georgia, alleging that they were actively sabotaging Republican prospects, he also halfheartedly urged Georgians to vote.
It could not be that Trump contributed to these candidates’ underperformance—an unusual circumstance given the GOP’s historic overperformance in Georgia runoffs. It must be that the GOP only overperforms when Trump is also on the ballot, that David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler were bad candidates, and that Mitch McConnell erred when he refused to write Trump’s demand for individual stimulus checks into a COVID relief bill at the very last minute. Everything was thrown against the wall to absolve Trump of blame for the abject state in which he left the Republican Party after his presidency.
With Trump’s latest admission, all that work is out the window (demonstrating once again why lending your credibility to bolster Trump’s arguments only mortgages your credibility). With this ultimatum, Trump has admitted that he is responsible for the GOP’s minority status and, thus, all the Democratic Party’s legislative successes this year. He did it. What’s more, he can do it again. And that’s his second mistake.
In this brief but explicit hostage letter, Trump claims that his command over Republican voters is such that he can make or break the Republican Party in the upcoming midterm elections. But he cannot. Barring a historic reversal of fortune that upends everything we know about political dynamics, Republicans will gain seats in Congress next November. Trump has not narrowed his focus to a set of bellwether races. He’s saying plainly that Republican voters will stay home. But they won’t. And when Republicans win despite Trump’s subversion, it will only help the GOP see through the unnavigable fog that descended over the party when Trump glided down the escalator.
Now, whatever the outcome of the 2022 elections, Trump and his fans will surely insist that the Republicans could have done better. But that is an unfalsifiable assertion. The demonstrable contention will be that Trump’s exhortations did not stop Republicans from winning seats. Moreover, given the Democrats’ narrow margin in the House, they may well be able to say that Trump’s hectoring didn’t even prevent Republicans from becoming the majority party in the House. That’s a strong argument to present to Republican voters who insist that winning is all that matters and winning is what Trump and Trump alone can deliver.
Now, Republicans could accede to the president’s demands, but it’s not at all clear how. The GOP’s most prominent members have already succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome. Right-wing populist activists are already leading the Republican Party into a moral cul-de-sac in which the events that followed Trump’s election loss were either no big deal or somehow righteous. The January 6 riot was just “one day in January,” according to Mike Pence. That day was either unremarkable or near-sacred, depending on the audience to which Republicans are appealing. Ashli Babbitt, a rioter at the head of a mob who was shot climbing through a broken window into a secure section of the Capitol, was a martyr for a noble cause. Trump is the de facto leader of the party, according to just about any GOP officeholder willing to talk about the former president on the record. What more does Trump want?
That’s simple. He wants revenge. And the target of his ire is the party that would not break the country to salve his wounded ego. He will not stop until this sleight and all who participated in it are punished. He’s now pushing all his chips in on the claim that he can destroy the party’s political prospects if its members don’t turn back the clock. Neither of those two unrealizable requests will be satisfied.
The Republican Party’s electoral prospects in the upcoming midterm will be determined not by the former president but by the current one and his party. Trump isn’t a determining factor. If Republicans manage to retake one or both chambers of Congress next November, that is going to become incredibly important to GOP voters. Those Republican lawmakers will serve as an indispensable bulwark against Joe Biden’s agenda. Trump’s relevance to that dynamic will be nebulous to the point of meaninglessness. By desperately inserting himself into that milieu, Trump is setting himself up for failure.
Republicans who have any interest in extricating themselves from the corner into which they’re painted should make the most of this opportunity.