Republicans are doubling down on trumpism; it's going to work

Party's candidates for US Senate, Herschel Walker and Mehmet Oz, are celebrities as is Kari Lake, a former Phoenix area news anchor

By Daniel McCarthy

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Published: Tue 8 Nov 2022, 11:41 PM

If Republicans have many things going for them in next week’s elections — an economy that’s like a millstone around Democrats’ necks, fear in the electorate about crime and a chaotic immigration system, President Biden’s low approval ratings — they are also taking what appear to be some enormous risks: having candidates on the ballot who many observers see as too inexperienced, extreme or scandal-burdened to win in November.

But they forget that Republicans already took an enormous risk, in 2016, by nominating Donald Trump for president. And not only did they avoid ballot-box suicide to win the election, but it was the beginning of a renaissance for the Republican Party. Trump’s approach, gleeful culture war combativeness atop core conservative principles, delivered both short-term policy wins and long-sought victories for his party’s base, like tax cuts, a long procession of conservative federal judges, a Supreme Court majority that overturned Roe v. Wade, the American Embassy moved to Jerusalem. He also pleased the Republican right by giving the party a new focus on immigration and shifting its foreign policy away from wars and nation-building in the Middle East.

The Republican Party’s strategy in 2022 has been to double down on the Trump approach. Its candidates for the US Senate in Pennsylvania and Georgia, Herschel Walker and Mehmet Oz, are celebrities without political experience, as is Kari Lake, a former Phoenix area news anchor who is now the Republican nominee for governor of Arizona.

Blake Masters, running for the US Senate in Arizona, has never held office and is perhaps best known for his association with Peter Thiel, a billionaire co-founder of PayPal, for whom Mr. Masters once worked and with whom he co-authored the 2014 book “Zero to One.” Also close to Mr. Thiel, and likewise a first-time aspirant to office, is the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, J.D. Vance, famed for his own best-selling book, the 2016 memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.”

Mitch McConnell may question “candidate quality,” but the Republican Party’s embrace of apparently high-risk candidates is a sign of confidence, not weakness. The party’s voters feel strongly enough about the populist, pro-Trump positioning that they have supported them over more experienced and less controversial figures.

This reinvention is presenting midterm voters with something that looks fresh and new, at a time when the old party identities, and old norms and institutions, seem feeble and impotent.

Joe Biden is a living symbol of that. In 2008, the Democrats branded themselves as the party of hope and change. President Biden is the farthest thing from a face of change, and fear of Trump has characterised the party’s messaging far more than any sense of hope. The Democrats are defensive, and what they’re defending seems to be naturally decaying — a political consensus that has disappointed Americans, fulfilling neither the demands for justice of the passionate left nor the middle class’s expectations for economic growth and stability at home and abroad.

In these crumbling conditions, risk may be more attractive than hopeless defensiveness. And the G.O.P. is exciting, for good and for ill, in a way that the Democratic Party has not been since Barack Obama’s re-election. Boldness pays dividends, especially when the fundamental conditions of a midterm election make the risks smaller than they seem.

Nominees like Mr Masters, Mr Walker and Ms. Lake have been controversial even in some quarters of the Republican Party. They have staked out hard-right political positions and have not backed down from aligning themselves with Mr. Trump even during an election season in which the former president’s conduct during the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 is the subject of ongoing congressional hearings and his handling of classified material at his Mar-a-Lago residence under scrutiny by the Justice Department. Except for Mr. Walker, these candidates faced early competition in their primaries from experienced Republican officeholders.

The party’s gambles look increasingly likely to pay off. Encouraged by recent polls, Republicans expect the right-wing populist approach of 2016 to produce midterm results like those of 1994, when the party picked up both chambers of Congress. Even so, sceptics of Trumpian reinvention of the Republican Party might wonder if its success — assuming it materializes — is not despite, rather than because of, Mr. Trump and his style of politics.

Democrats contemplating a “red wave” next week might console themselves with the thought that nothing they could have done would have changed the fundamental forces giving Republicans an advantage this cycle. After all, the president’s party almost always loses seats in midterm elections.

If Democrats under Bill Clinton could lose both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate in 1994, and Republicans under George W. Bush could lose both in 2006, it may seem like destiny for the Democrats to lose their razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate under President Biden this year. Democrats lost the House in Barack Obama’s first midterm elections in 2010 as well, and the Senate in his second in 2014.

What’s more, some Republicans who have defied and opposed Mr. Trump, like Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, are also poised to do well on Nov. 8. The former president’s critics in the party might well believe that any version of the Republican Party could do well in this environment, and they might do even better without the new populist right.

These thoughts are a comfort to those who would like to see American politics revert to what had passed for normal in the years before 2016. But they don’t overturn the daunting reality faced by both Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans: The Republican Party has chosen to remake itself in Trump’s image, and the political gestalt he created can win. It won the White House in 2016 and it has held on to the Republican Party as an institution even after the defeats of 2018 and 2020. This year Republican congressional and gubernatorial candidates are more Trump-like than ever, from their views on immigration and foreign policy to their disdain for the Republican Party establishment of the time before Mr. Trump. Experience counts far less than before, certainly in Republican primaries, while candidates like Mr. Walker, Mr. Oz, and Ms. Lake suggest that celebrity appeal will play a growing part in Republican politics, and thus the country’s, in the future.

Mr. Vance, 38, and Mr. Masters, 36, for their part show that the reinvented Republican Party is attracting highly talented and intelligent young candidates who are likely to further accelerate the party’s ideological transformation. For its supporters, and perhaps for a wider curious public, the Republican Party has become exciting and evolutionary. While Democrats have taken some risks of their own this cycle, with candidates such as Pennsylvania nominee for US Senate, John Fetterman, the party still seems more reactive than creative.

The Republican Party has nominated and primed set to elect a wave of right-wing candidates who will shape American politics in the years ahead with or without Mr. Trump.

The Republicans, in short, are taking entrepreneurial risks and have the initiative. And while the conditions of the 2022 midterms allow them to capitalise on it, the impetus itself is what matters most for our future.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times

(Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review)

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