The Republican Party had a good 2020 election. And prospects are bright for an even better 2022. But as Donald Trump files suit after suit challenging the election results, an impediment to Republican hopes is taking shape.
The impediment might be labelled the myth of the “Lost Cause.”
In American history, the “Lost Cause” refers to the myth that emerged in the wake of the Civil War. According to this lore, the South’s attempt to secede from the Union was a great, heroic epic fought, not to preserve slavery, but to protect a higher, gentler civilization. Outnumbered and outgunned, the South relied on skillful, chivalrous commanders who waged a noble, but ultimately doomed, struggle against an enemy with far greater economic and military resources.
Today a different Lost Cause myth may be arising from the ashes of Donald Trump’s defeat.
According to this developing lore, Trump was a plain-spoken man of the people, whose brash ideas and style terrified, first, the Republican Party establishment, and then, after he had secured that Party’s nomination, the nation’s ruling elite. Out-organized and outspent, Trump won a gloriously unexpected victory in 2016, but that victory served only to spur his enemies to even greater lengths to destroy him. Trump waged a noble but ultimately doomed campaign to protect his presidency, against enemies with far greater financial and media resources.
The lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign are part of this developing Lost Cause myth. Most observers, including many of Trump’s own supporters, see no possibility of those lawsuits changing the results. But they are missing the point. Trump has not ordered the filings because he believes he can win them. On the contrary, he has ordered the filings because he knows he will lose them. Losing in court will corroborate the emerging myth of the Lost Cause. It will allow Trump to argue that he won the election, then saw that victory stolen away by corrupt election officials and equally corrupt judges.
The ability to make such an argument is vital to Donald Trump’s very being. Trump may not care much about political issues. He has frequently changed his positions when it has suited him. He may not care much about party allegiance. He became a Republican late in life, and switched away from and then back to the Party multiple times thereafter.
But there is one thing Trump cares very much about. He cares about losing. Losing is anathema to him. The myth of the Lost Cause allows Trump to reconcile himself to that unacceptable fate by casting him as a tragic hero. Such paragons never really lose. They may suffer defeat on the battlefield. But, like Hector, Joan of Arc, and the Light Brigade, their struggle is so gloriously heroic that posterity deems them the true victors.
If this Lost Cause myth takes hold, then Trump’s grip on the Republican Party will remain firm. It might give him the inside track for the presidential nomination in 2024. Even if he decides not to run, his stature would be such as to enable him to wield decisive influence over the Party.
The Republican Party may be tempted to accept the Trumpian Lost Cause myth. After all, it does not want to lose the millions of new voters Trump brought to its ranks. Moreover, some elements of the myth – like some elements of most myths – are based on fact. It is true that Trump’s presidency was under attack from the day he took the oath of office, by political, cultural, and business leaders who never accepted its legitimacy.
Nevertheless, the Party must resist the temptation. Put simply, Trump is bad for the Republican Party.
Trump did not lose the election because of the limitless resources of his nefarious enemies. Trump lost the election because he was viewed, justifiably, as a man of low principle and lower character. He lost to a man with no record of accomplishment, who failed to generate any excitement in his own Party. Joe Biden’s one and only selling card to the American electorate was the fact that he was not Donald Trump. That was all he needed.
Republicans should celebrate their success in 2020, but they should recognize that they succeeded not because of Donald Trump, but despite him.
The Republican Party was not expected to do well in congressional races. Political handicappers projected a loss of as many as 15 House seats. Instead, as of this writing, the Party has flipped 5 seats, and Real Clear Politics projects a total pickup of 10 to 13 seats. The Republican Party achieved this success while Trump was losing the popular tally by nearly 5 million votes.
The Republican Party was not expected to hold on to the Senate. On election day, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog gave the Democrats a 75% chance of winning control. But the GOP emerged with a 50-48 majority. If they win just one of the two Senate runoff elections in Georgia, they will retain control over the chamber, even with Vice President Harris casting the deciding vote in case of ties. While Trump was narrowly losing Georgia, Republican Senate candidate David Perdue was winning, albeit without the +50% that would have allowed him to avoid a runoff.
Trump under-performed in other closely watched Senate races. Susan Collins of Maine was expected to lose. Instead, she won her race by 9 points, at the same time Trump was losing the state by 9 points, an 18-point differential. In Texas, John Cornyn faced a strong challenge, but ended up winning by 10 points, while Trump carried the state by only 6, a 4-point difference. Trump won Nebraska by a healthy 20-point margin. But Ben Sasse, a frequent critic of the President, held his seat with a 42-point margin, 22 points better than Trump.
Republicans won signal victories at the state level, without any help from Trump. The stakes were high because in 2021, the states will vote on redistricting. The Democratic Party poured half a billion dollars into an effort to flip some Republican legislatures. They failed. Instead, the Republicans flipped both legislative chambers in New Hampshire, while Trump was losing the state by over 7 points. The GOP also flipped the Montana governorship. As a result, in the midst of a presidential defeat, the Republicans gained two new “trifectas” (states where the same Party controls the governorship and both legislative chambers).
Republican control of a majority of governorships and state legislatures in a redistricting year could generate significant benefits. According to one study, the Republicans gained 16 – 17 seats in the House as result of their victories in the 2010 elections. The same could happen again.
There were other notable down-ballot conservative victories, for which Trump can take no credit. In bluest-of-blue California, voters rejected Prop 16, which would have ended the ban on racial and gender preferences in state college admissions, employment, and contracting. The measure was backed by the entire Democratic Party establishment, including then Senator now Vice President-elect Harris. It lost by a decisive 57 -43 margin. It also appears that when all the votes are counted, the GOP will flip 3 Congressional seats. All this in a state Trump lost by 31 points.
If Trump had coattails, they were well hidden.
These Republican victories should comfort Party members disappointed by the loss of the White House. The election was a repudiation of Donald Trump, the man. It was not a repudiation of the Republican Party or its policy positions.
The Republicans have a good chance to build on their 2020 successes in 2022. Democratic administrations have a habit of coming into office with inflated notions of their popularity, causing them to lurch far to the Left and then to pay for their extremism in the midterms. In 1994, two years after Bill Clinton’s election, the Republicans flipped 54 seats in the House and 8 seats in the Senate. In 2010, two years after Barack Obama’s election, the Republicans flipped 63 seats in the House and 6 seats in the Senate.
The Republicans will enter the 2022 midterm elections in a much stronger position than they had in 1994 or 2010, so they will not need to flip as many seats to secure control of Congress. Joe Biden may wish to govern as a centrist, but he faces a progressive wing of his Party, convinced that they and their hard-Left policy positions accounted for his victory. They believe Biden owes them. The Democratic Party will be pressured to push for the same unpopular policies that apparently hurt them in 2020: defunding the police, a ban on fracking, reparations, court packing.
The Republicans will need to keep the emphasis on these policy disputes if they hope to build on their 2020 successes. An active, visible Donald Trump will interfere with that emphasis because when Donald Trump is involved, the emphasis is always on Donald Trump.
Keeping the emphasis where it belongs means rebuffing the lure of the Lost Cause. The Trump presidency was not a glorious chapter, and his defeat was not some heroic tragedy. The Trump presidency was an embarrassment. The sooner the Republican Party can consign the Trump era to the dustbin of history, the better for its future.