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Blame Game
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Blame Game

If Democrats lose, they’ll eat their own. If Republicans lose, it’ll be business as usual.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris participate in an event celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 20, 2024. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

No one has fewer friends than a leader who’s just lost a national election.

For a reminder, look to Europe. The knives are already out for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, whose Tories face obliteration in the U.K.’s July 4 election. And they’re being unsheathed for French President Emmanuel Macron, who shocked his country by calling snap elections on June 30 after recent far-right gains in the European Parliament. 

Blame is the price of leadership. Especially for a leader who leads his party to ruin in a race it was favored to win.

In 2024 America, both parties are in a sense favored to win the presidential election because both parties are favored to lose. New data from Pew Research confirms that this is “the most dreaded election in modern political history,” as Axios put it, with fully a quarter of Americans holding unfavorable views of Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

The incumbent is elderly and infirm. The challenger is amoral and unwell. Had either party nominated someone healthier and more likable, they’d win the election comfortably.

And that grim fact will define the eventual loser’s political legacy. Only a candidate as weak as Joe Biden could have lost to Donald Trump, historians will say, and only a candidate as weak as Donald Trump could have lost to Joe Biden. 

That being so, we might expect the loser and the party he leads to plunge into an unusually bitter spectacle of post-election blame-mongering. Both sides have been primed to view this contest in existential terms, to fumble it away knowing that it might have been won easily had they nominated someone else will be intolerable. Either the left or the right will be pointing fingers at each other for years to come.

In theory.

“It would require world-historical political incompetence to lose to 2024 Joe Biden,” National Review’s Dan McLaughlin tweeted on Saturday. “It would require world-historical political incompetence to lose to 2024 Donald Trump. One of them will manage it. The recriminations will be breathtaking.”

I agree that the recriminations will be breathtaking—for one side. The one that still behaves, a la Sunak’s and Macron’s parties, more or less like a normal political faction.

But for the side that doesn’t? Why would anyone expect recriminations?

“Breathtaking” arguably undersells how bitter and extravagant the recriminations among Democrats will be if they blow this election to Trump.

Biden will take the brunt of it, of course. In the end, his party will say, he was too mulish and arrogant to retire gracefully at the end of his term. Poll after poll showed huge numbers of voters believed he wasn’t fit to serve another four years. Yet he ran again anyway, knowing no one in his party could stop him.

His electoral strategy will be pilloried no matter what he does. If he emphasizes Trump’s unfitness for office, he’ll be attacked for not having devoted more time to abortion and kitchen-table issues like inflation. If he emphasizes abortion and inflation, he’ll be attacked for not having focused on Trump’s unfitness for office.

Instead of being remembered as the man who slayed the authoritarian dragon in 2020, Biden will be remembered as the man who restored it to power in 2024. In hindsight Democrats will wonder if it wouldn’t have been better for Trump to have prevailed in 2020, sparing America the ordeal of January 6 and depriving the post-liberal right of four years they’ve used to plot and get organized.

Kamala Harris will also be savaged. The Democrats’ “Biden problem” is a “Harris problem” too, after all: If the president had a VP who was well-liked and in whose abilities the public had confidence, the case for him retiring at the end of his term would have been more persuasive. But Harris hasn’t achieved either distinction despite having had three and a half years to try. Ultimately, even an enfeebled Joe Biden was a stronger candidate against Trump than his beleaguered running mate.

The recriminations will extend to congressional Democrats. Why didn’t they do more with their governing majorities in 2021 and 2022 to advance the most popular elements of the left-wing agenda? Why didn’t they take aggressive action to “Trump-proof” the presidency by reducing certain forms of executive power, such as by amending the Insurrection Act?

The newly retired Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema will be cursed for having blocked Democrats from eliminating the filibuster, which would have made some of those reforms possible.

After that will come a series of nasty recriminations among the left-wing base. Democrats have a diverse, unruly coalition, demographically and ideologically, and each component of it will be eager to offload blame for the defeat onto the others. Centrist liberals will surely point the finger at progressives: If only so many hadn’t cast protest votes for Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Jill Stein, and Cornel West, Biden might have had the votes he needed in swing states.

Progressives will point the finger back. If Biden and the liberals hadn’t taken the party’s left-most voters for granted, they would have shown up for him on Election Day. They needed more from the White House than “We must not let Trump win!”

That dispute will become a policy dispute, likely with immigration in the middle. Thanks to progressives, liberals will say, Biden was pressured into maintaining an insanely unpopular de facto open-borders policy for the better part of four years. He alienated so many Americans in the process that they became converts to mass deportation.

Progressives will reply that Biden had a legal duty to follow the forgiving asylum laws on America’s books and a moral duty to admit impoverished people seeking better lives for their families. They voted for him in 2020 precisely because he was offering something different from Trump on immigration. If liberals are so hot to deport everyone, they’ll say, they should have voted for the Republican. Or did they?

The fight will spill over into other policies. Liberals will accuse progressives of having turned undecided voters against Biden by overstating the cost of living for working-class families. Yes, they’ll say, inflation is painful, but lower-class wages have more than kept pace; if the left hadn’t been so keen to accentuate the negative, maybe the rest of the country wouldn’t have developed such a distorted view of how the economy is doing.

Progressives will resent being scapegoated for a momentous political problem like inflation and will point to how well Jimmy Carter fared when he ran for reelection with it hanging around his neck. It ain’t the left’s fault that normally reliable nonwhite Democratic voters have taken an interest in Donald Trump after prices at the supermarket skyrocketed under Biden. If congressional Democrats had made redistribution more of a legislative priority, lower-class Americans wouldn’t be struggling as much.

The war in Gaza will become a flashpoint too. The boorish anti-semitic antics of the “from the river to the sea” crowd ended up scaring moderates into Trump’s camp, liberals will fume. The fascist Israeli “genocide” campaign backed to the hilt by the White House ended up scaring leftists into voting third-party, progressives will counter.

All of this will leave the Democratic coalition torn, frightened, and leaderless. How can the party find consensus on immigration and foreign policy, they’ll wonder? Is there a way to win back younger nonwhite voters or are the partisan racial voting habits of the past 60 years finally fading along with memories of the Civil Rights Era?

The urgency to assemble a new anti-Trump “resistance” before Inauguration Day will help the left paper over some of these disagreements. However, clearly visible beneath the surface will be a party that’s in turmoil. That turmoil could plausibly last years.

“Breathtaking” recriminations, just like McLaughlin said. What about on the right if Trump loses?

There’s a reason you don’t hear much “defund the police” chatter from progressives in Congress anymore. That reason is the recriminations that followed the 2020 election. Centrist Democrats were irate that left-wingers in the party had spooked normie voters by fantasizing about hobbling law enforcement. They believed it had cost them congressional seats in that year’s election. And they made sure progressives knew it.

Mind you, this was after an election in which Democrats won the presidency, regained the Senate, and held the House. A normal political party seeking to maximize its vote share will look for ways to do better going forward even after taking back total control of government.

That must have been the first race in American history in which the losing party engaged in fewer recriminations than the winning one did.

We’re all well aware of how Trump’s party handled its defeat in 2020, but don’t forget that was the third in a series of four poor electoral performances for the GOP. He lost the popular vote in 2016, receiving a smaller share than Mitt Romney had four years earlier. As president he endured a Republican wipeout in the House in 2018, then lost the White House and the Senate in 2020. Two years later, a number of populist candidates he backed blew winnable seats in a midterm in which the right was expecting a landslide. Democrats ended up expanding their Senate majority as a result and very nearly held onto the House.

As I write this, Trump is less than a point ahead of an incumbent whose job approval has slipped below 40 percent and whom much of the electorate believes is senile.

After four election cycles ranging from incredibly lucky to terrible to poor to really terrible, and now at real risk of fumbling away a race that should be unloseable, here’s what recriminations look like in Donald Trump’s party.

Giving the instigator of January 6 a hero’s welcome at the scene of his crime is low-key one of the most repulsive political spectacles in the history of the United States. “Political” isn’t even the right word: Between Trump’s dismal electoral record and the fact that his followers very nearly murdered some of the people applauding him in that clip, the reception can only properly be understood as Stockholm syndrome.

Normal political parties experience recriminations after losing an election. In Trump’s party, leading it from one disappointing defeat to another is no obstacle to easily winning its nomination for president a third time. In a normal political party, politicians aim to impress their base by crafting productive legislation. In Trump’s party, they impress it by doing this:

When McLaughlin says he foresees “breathtaking” recriminations for Trump if he loses to Biden, what I think he means is a round of told-you-so’s from the Ron DeSantis fans among the conservative commentariat. And fair enough, I guess—there will surely be a spate of post-election columns along those lines in his own magazine, National Review. If only Republicans had been Ready for Ron, they’ll say, the party would have waltzed to victory. And that’s probably true.

You know who won’t be making that point after the election, though? Ron DeSantis.

He wouldn’t dare. As the GOP has mutated into a cult of personality, blaming Trump for his own failures has become a grave ideological sin. DeSantis dared to commit that sin by opposing Trump in this year’s primary, but even he was careful not to cross certain lines. Now that he’s looking ahead to 2028, he surely realizes that there are only two acceptable answers he can give after the election to explain a Trump defeat.

One is that Democrats effectively cheated by engaging in “lawfare” that tanked Trump’s support. The other is that Never Trump conservatives are “human scum” who didn’t turn out for their party like they should have. The truth—that Trump is an erratic miscreant whom sensible voters refuse to trust with power—will be unutterable for anyone looking to climb the party’s ranks.

In 2020 Trump’s failure was blamed on Democratic fraud. In 2022 it was blamed on supposedly fickle pro-life voters. In 2024 a new excuse will be contrived to spare him from recriminations. And anyone hoping to hold a position of influence in this party someday will be expected to embrace it.

At best, we might get a week or two after the election of Nikki Haley types cautiously dipping a toe into criticism of Trump just to see how the base reacts. Hope springs eternal that Republican voters will come to their senses someday and conclude that they’ll need new leadership to win elections. But if they weren’t willing to do that after January 6, there’s no reason to think they’ll do it after another Trump loss to Biden.

Ultimately, there’ll be no meaningful recriminations for Trump within his party for the simple reason that there’s no reason to think he won’t remain its leader after his defeat, as happens in normal political outfits like Rishi Sunak’s. This is more a monarchy than a political party. And in a monarchy, no one seeks recriminations against the king unless they’re prepared to risk everything.

A losing Trump would begin the next cycle as the favorite for the GOP nomination in 2028. (There’s a reason he keeps insisting that Biden, at 81, isn’t too old to run for president again.) Even if he opted not to run, it’s inconceivable that he’d quietly retire and not try to anoint a successor in the next primary. DeSantis wants to be that anointed successor, as do many others. And they all know that blaming Trump for another defeat will foreclose the possibility.

Besides, even in defeat, there will surely be electoral gains Trump and his disciples can point to as proof that the party continues to benefit from his leadership. He’s all but certain to win more electoral votes this year than he did in 2020, is quite likely to receive more popular votes, and is on the cusp of historic gains with black voters. Why should we punish Trump by choosing a new king, his fans will ask, just because Democrats managed to use a weak conviction in Manhattan to scare enough independents away from him?

To be sure, in the days after the election the pages of the New York Times and Politico will fill up with quotes from disgruntled Republican operatives complaining that the party shouldn’t have nominated Trump again, that it should have repudiated the insurrection and its foot soldiers, that it shouldn’t have indulged in all the “retribution” rhetoric, and so on. But those quotes will all be given anonymously, rest assured. In a party that’s been conditioned to treat loyalty to Donald Trump as its ideological sine qua non, no one will want to jeopardize their careers by gambling that in 2024, at long, long last, the GOP base might finally be done with him.

To believe that Trump will face recriminations for losing, let alone “breathtaking” ones, you need to believe that a party that’s grown far more radical over time is prepared to do something in 2024 that it wasn’t willing to do after each of the last three elections.

In 2016, the Republican speaker of the House refused to defend Trump when the Access Hollywood tape emerged. In 2024, the Republican speaker of the House calls on the Supreme Court to “step in” and do … something (it’s not clear what) after Trump is convicted of dozens of felonies by a jury of his peers in New York.

In 2016, the Trumpiest guy in the Senate insisted on doing things by the book when a conflict of interest arose after he became attorney general. In 2024, the Trumpiest guy in the Senate is sore that his party didn’t engineer a constitutional crisis in 2020 to keep Trump in power.

Earlier this month Ron Brownstein imagined how the next January 6 might play out now that the Republican Party stands for little more than Trump’s empowerment. “In the entirely plausible scenario that Republicans win both chambers [of Congress] in November, while Trump loses to Biden,” he wrote, “the GOP could still reject the election results by a simple majority vote in both the House and Senate.”

I wouldn’t bet my life that that will happen but I sure wouldn’t bet that it won’t, either. In fact, I think there’s a greater chance of a Republican Congress categorically refusing to certify a second Biden victory than there is of Trump suffering meaningful recriminations from those same Republicans or from his base.

Populism simply doesn’t do introspection. It’s forever in search of enemy tribes on which to blame its failures; the closest it comes to self-reflection is concluding that it wasn’t nasty enough in pursuing its agenda. The reason Trump’s 2020 campaign ended with “rigged election” propaganda instead of recriminations is because that’s all a movement like his can muster to explain its defeats, particularly when it’s led by a creature like him. It won’t be any different in 2024. Or in 2028, perhaps.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.