Don't believe the media hype: Trump's left the GOP in shambles

Even as he helped thwart Democrats down ballot in this election, Trump has badly damaged the Republican Party. Democrats have opportunities ahead.

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The presidential turkey strutting in the White House this week. Photo: The White House

To listen to much of the mainstream media right now, Donald Trump had an enormous election — even as he lost the presidency. He will be leading the GOP in exile, pundits, reporters and TV commentators keep repeating, whether he chooses to run again for president in 2024 or not.

They talk about that possible 2024 run — something no modern former president has done following a shellacking after one term, and after being impeached, no less — as if it’s a done deal and will likely bring Trump back into office. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that Trump will be a “force” in the GOP “for years to come” — as if Trump is going to be alive until he’s 115 years old.

Don’t get me wrong: Democrats, who lost seats in the House and didn’t win the Senate majority as many expected, made mistakes. They have work to do, particularly in regions of the country. But they are in nowhere near the complete disarray the GOP is in — nor remotely suffered as stinging a loss. But listening to the pundits, you’d think it was the other way around. The perennial “Dems in disarray” promoter, Chris Cillizza of CNN, has had a field day.

But most of these assessments can’t be trusted because many editors, producers, reporters and pundits — definitely including Cillizza — have an addiction to Donald Trump, who provided them with endless media stories that resulted in lots of clicks and high ratings. It was, for many, an enticing, exhilarating 24/7 drama, and they can’t let it go — even now. This tweet from a Politico reporter really said it all.

People who are addicted, however, have a very confused sense of the world. They develop rationalizations to support their addiction, selectively choosing facts and ignoring other realities that might be challenging.

The truth is, Donald Trump will only have as much power as the GOP gives him. GOP leaders are in fact already freaking out over Trump’s attempts to have a lock on the Republican National Committee moving forward, unprecedentedly keeping the RNC from being neutral until its next presidential candidate is decided. But whether the GOP gives Trump the power or not, the party is in tatters and looking at long-term disaster. And Trump will hurt rather than help them.

In the 2020 presidential race, Trump lost two previously deep red states, Arizona and Georgia, something unfathomable for a Republican presidential candidate just a few years ago. Though the wins were narrow, demographic trends are continuing as activists have organized. Those states may not come back to the GOP easily — or ever.

Joe Biden took back the three “blue wall” states Trump took in 2016 amid various factors, including low turnout by Democrats and Russian interference — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Biden won the national popular vote by more than 6 million votes and counting, with a vote share by a challenger to an incumbent president — already over 51% — that is larger than that of any challenger since Franklin Delano Roosevelt thumped Herbert Hoover in 1932.

No one seriously saw Jimmy Carter as moving to become a kingmaker in the Democratic Party after he lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980, nor did the media portray George H.W. Bush as someone who could run again in four years after he lost to Bill Clinton in 1992. These defeated incumbent presidents were, to the punditocracy, complete losers.

Sure, neither indicated they’d want to be involved in politics moving forward, while Trump has telegraphed it nonstop. But unlike them, Trump is facing enormous debt (and needs to make a lot of money) and, likely, prosecutions that will overwhelm him. Even if he dangles running for office again for some time, it’s going to be a tough proposition. His niece Mary Trump even speculates that he won’t run because this sociopathic narcissist with a fragile ego couldn’t face the possibility of defeat again.

How much influence would Trump have for GOP candidates while he’s out of office? Let’s just look back at when he’s not been on the ballot himself but trying to help loyalists. He couldn’t save embattled child sexual molester Roy Moore in deep red Alabama in 2017, though he was determined. In March of 2018 Trump went to the then-ruby red 18th Congressional district of Pennsylvania where he’d beaten Hillary Clinton by 20 points in 2016 to campaign for Republican House candidate Rick Saccone in a special election. Democrat Conor Lamb won (and was just re-elected again).

Later, in the 2018 mid-terms, as Democrats mounted campaigns to win back the House amid predictions that they would fall just short — but wound up winning the House back with 40 seats — Trump didn’t help GOP candidates in the slightest, even as he spewed racist warnings about caravans of immigrants coming across the border. The attacks only seemed to hurt Republicans more.

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Then came the loss of GOP Governor Matt Bevin in Kentucky in 2019, even as Trump campaigned for him, and Eddie Rispone, the gubernatorial candidate in Louisiana, whom Trump campaigned for as well. Both red states, both won by Trump — yet he couldn’t help the Republican candidates as Democrats were further energized.

Why Trump helped Republicans down ballot in 2020, however, is because he was on the ballot himself — even though he couldn’t win the presidency. He lost millions of suburban voters but replaced many of them with millions more rural voters than he had in 2016. While it wasn’t enough for him to win the presidency, it was enough — added to the small but significant number of Republicans, Republican-leaning independents and conservative Democrats who split their ticket, voting for Biden for president but for Republicans down ballot — for GOP Senate and House candidates to hold on or make minimal gains.

But it’s doubtful these millions of new voters Trump brought out, people who respond to white grievance appeals and conspiracy theories, are going turn out when Trump isn’t on the ballot. Certainly for any future GOP presidential candidate to even try to get them out, he or she would have to engage in blatant white supremacist appeals, promote conspiracy theories and have mass rallies in which he or she is part crude comedian, part demagogue.

As political writer Amanda Marcotte noted in Salon while discussing GOP presidential contenders like Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, who some GOP strategists have naively suggested are like Trump but without the ugly baggage:

Those guys and other contenders are all missing the secret sauce that helped Trump recruit so heavily among non-voters and infrequent voters. And no, it's not his so-called charisma.

What Trump really has going for him is what I call the "crackpot factor." Trump speaks to voters who share the racism and sexism of typical GOP voters, but who often don't vote because they think politics is boring and are awash in conspiracy theories about how the system is "rigged."

Another factor not noted by political analysts is that Democrats amazingly over-performed in 2018, even in a heavily gerrymandered system. They lost seats in 2020, but it’s still notable they kept the House, still defying the gerrymander. Though the party in the White House usually loses seats in the mid-terms, I wouldn’t necessarily bet on that for 2022, as many Democratic policies and Biden positions are popular with the majority of voters. And the Senate is within reach for Democratic control with the two Georgia Senate runoffs this January where Trump won’t be on the ballot and where the GOP is riven with division after the 2020 election.

There’s no doubt Democrats have work to do, as I noted, particularly with minority groups in different regions of the country, taking into account how there is no monolithic Black, Asian or Latino vote, as the painful loss of a large share of Cuban-American voters in South Florida in the presidential race showed.

But activists have been working on these issues for years, and will be more focused on them now. Among Democrats there’s a least the acceptance of the problems they face and what needs to be done. And activists will push hard, without fear.

In the GOP, however, there’s a visceral fear of Trump that forces leaders into silence, refusing to face reality. They’re deathly afraid of quitting Trump — even though he’s not shown he actually can deliver for them — because they’ll be targeted by a tweet and then possibly followed by angry mobs. But sticking with him, allowing him to own the party, is surely no path to victory either.