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Do Republicans Want to Win?
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Do Republicans Want to Win?

Thoughts on ‘the culture of losing.’

Supporters of former President Donald Trump gather outside of Trump Tower in New York City on June 13, 2023. (Photo by Yuki Iwamura/AFP/Getty Images)

If Republican voters were guaranteed to win the presidency in 2024 by nominating Nikki Haley, would they do it?

They would not, I suspect. And that’s okay.

There’s more to politics than winning. There are many circumstances in which it would be reasonable to choose a less electable candidate with better policies over a more electable candidate with worse ones. I wouldn’t begrudge any Republican voter for preferring a pro-life nominee, for example, even if one could prove that a pro-choice alternative would be more likely to capture the presidency.

Given that I’m committed to supporting Joe Biden over Donald Trump next year, I’m not the guy to throw stones at the right for not prioritizing GOP victory over all things.

On the other hand.

I’m also not a “Flight 93” conservative as so many right-wingers are, having convinced themselves that America’s survival depends on keeping Democrats out of power. (Incidentally, since the concept of the “Flight 93 election” was introduced, Republicans have at various points lost control of the White House and both chambers of Congress. Yet the republic endures, teeing up another “Flight 93 election” next year.) If you’re committed to Republican victory at all costs, up to and including hamfisted coup attempts to facilitate it, the prospect of a 100 percent chance of winning by nominating a particular candidate should be awfully enticing.

Nikki Haley might not be Donald Trump, after all, but she ain’t Larry Hogan either.

While electability isn’t everything, it is something. An appealing candidate with a 45 percent chance of winning might rationally be chosen over a less appealing one with a 55 percent chance, but as the probability gap changes, so does the calculus. If Trump has 1-in-3 odds to beat an unpopular enfeebled incumbent while Haley’s odds are 2-in-3, one would think a party of “Flight 93” Republicans would give her verrrrry careful consideration.

They do not, in fact, appear to be giving her any consideration, careful or otherwise.

Would Republicans … prefer to lose with Trump than to win with Haley?

My colleague (read: boss) Jonah Goldberg considered the GOP’s “culture of losing” on Friday, introducing the brilliantly subversive idea of “Critical Trump Theory” as a way of thinking about politics on the American right. Jonah was springboarding off of a line Ron DeSantis often uses in his stump speech, nudging Republicans to worry more about electability. “Governing is not about entertaining. Governing is not about building a brand or talking on social media and virtue signaling,” he told an Iowa crowd in May. “It’s ultimately about winning and producing results.” It’s a smart pitch from a candidate who’s promising to deliver on the two great ambitions of old-school politics, prevailing in elections and delivering policy gains in office. We’ll have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with the winning, the governor is saying—ironically, given who first got elected running on that pitch.

But what if new-school politics doesn’t care much about winning, weird as that may be?

Jonah’s point about “structural anti-Trumpism” isn’t perfectly apt although I relish how it turns one of the MAGA right’s intellectual hobby horses against it.

Structural anti-racism holds that racial bias is so intrinsic to American institutions that even young adults who’ve come of age learning all the right things about equality will be co-opted into it. It doesn’t allege a knowing conspiracy so much as a sort of original sin: We should try to redeem ourselves however much we can by enacting reforms to address its worst excesses but there’s no purging “structural racism” completely. No matter how much is done, true justice will remain forever out of reach.

That’s a progressive way of thinking.

Structural anti-Trumpism isn’t really “structural.” It does allege a knowing conspiracy, a government-wide operation targeting one man and his followers. The “deep state” isn’t persecuting Trump because its agents are unconsciously driven by biases insidiously cultivated in them by a corrupt society. They’re persecuting him with purpose, to protect the interests of a wicked establishment. And unlike the case of original sin, there is a way to conclusively end structural anti-Trumpism. Reelect him and he’ll sit in judgment of the wicked, smiting them for their sins.

That’s an authoritarian way of thinking. Give the strongman power and he’ll solve everything. Only he can fix it.

Whatever you think about “structural anti-Trumpism,” however, there’s no debating Jonah’s point about a culture of losing on the American right. DeSantis supporters complain about it often, as one would expect from a cohort that’s desperate to refocus Republican voters on the candidates’ relative chances in a general election. I thought of it yesterday when this tweet began circulating, evidence of how pitifully some MAGA fans have lost the plot of electoral politics.

Preemptively spinning defeat as a moral victory so long as you get to dunk on members of your own party in the primary is a solid illustration of a “culture of losing.” How did we arrive at a point where owning the RINOs is a priority at least as urgent as owning the libs?

It starts with the fact that the modern right has a split personality on ideology. There’s unity on some matters, like securing the border. But on subjects as diverse as the size of government, free markets, funding Ukraine, and to some degree abortion and gay rights, meaningful differences in populist and traditionally conservative opinion persist. There’s no clear ideological vision to rally around; even Trump himself is plainly more passionate about his grudges than advancing an agenda. 

That makes the ideological stakes of losing a presidential election lower for the right than they used to be. If you’re a post-liberal populist, your investment in a Biden-Haley race would be low. (I doubt we would see any “Flight 93” calls to back Haley over Biden if she ended up as the Republican nominee.) Ditto for a small-government conservative in a Biden-Trump matchup. DeSantis enthusiasts would eagerly remind us, in fact, that Trump’s first term delivered more for white-collar right-wingers via tax cuts and COVID lockdowns than it did for populists. No one really knows anymore what they’re going to get from a Republican presidency.

A culture of losing is easier to nurture when the policy costs of losing are lower. Or at least less clear.

It’s also easier to nurture when electoral disappointments have piled up over time. Losing hurts—unless losing is virtuous, sort of. The culture of losing is a coping mechanism.

We all know the GOP’s record in presidential elections. Since 1992, the party’s nominee has earned more votes than his Democratic opponent just once, the post-9/11 election of 2004. Republicans’ most dominating electoral performances in recent years came in the 2010 and 2014 midterms, before the Trump takeover. The surprise victory of 2016 is arguably better understood in hindsight as a national backlash to Hillary Clinton than evidence of Trumpism ascendant in light of the results in 2018, 2020, and 2022. Even in 2016, Trump took a smaller share of the popular vote than Mr. Establishment, Mitt Romney, did against Barack Obama in 2012.

Losing elections is hard. For populists, having conquered the GOP with Trump seven years ago, it’s especially hard. The worse the Trump-era right performs, the stronger the case against populist stewardship of the party grows. And so losing becomes valorized, a fate reserved for MAGA heroes who threaten the establishment too much to be “allowed” to win. (Don’t ask me how they reconcile this with Trump’s victory in 2016.) As Jonah said:

The political right has convinced itself that winning is a sign of failure. The system is so rigged against “us” that if you win, it must be the result of some sinful capitulation. Losing is proof that you are pure, that you stuck to your principles. Winning is appeasement. Success is proof you sold out. These people are caught in a mobius strip of dysfunction, a non-falsifiable worldview that basks in the idea that they are heroes because they lose.

Dig around on Twitter long enough and you’ll find Trumpers convinced that DeSantis’ 19-point landslide win in Florida last fall explains why he shouldn’t be nominated. No true populist could build a majority that impressive. He must be a quisling.

If losing can’t be valorized, it’s simply wished away. The “rigged election” nonsense of 2020 began as a product of Trump’s febrile narcissism but caught on among his base, I think, because it excused ardent populists from having to explain why The People preferred establishment dinosaur Joe Biden to the right’s greatest champion. They didn’t prefer Biden, it turns out; the election was stolen. Trump remains undefeated, the many valorous defeats by lesser populists aside.

The culture of losing also pays well. Really!

As perverse as it seems that underperforming in an election might make a candidate more popular rather than less, indignant defiance about your defeat is a fast track to stardom in the GOP. Kari Lake has a nonzero chance of parlaying her own denialism and obsequiousness toward Trump into becoming his running mate. But if not, she’ll be making bank for years to come on the belief that a MAGA star losing an important race narrowly can only be explained by a dark conspiracy to keep true change agents from gaining political power.

A culture of losing is also lucrative for conservative media. Having a generic Republican in the White House would force right-wing outlets into an indefinite defensive crouch, parrying left-wing criticisms and explaining to discontented activist readers why the new administration has failed to enact this populist policy or that. Trump returning to office would be easier for them, as he’s forever engaged in partisan warfare with Democrats, but having him back would leave them stuck once again having to excuse one inexcusable act of self-sabotage after another. 

Better to have a charismatic Democrat in office feeding Republican grievances and creating opportunities for the right to go on offense. Partisan media runs on outrage and outrage runs on powerlessness. For the propaganda wing of the culture of losing, nothing would be sweeter than a Michelle Obama presidency.

Most of all, the culture of losing is a byproduct of the GOP evolving from a political entity into a cultural one. Its core mission is no longer to make policy. How could it be with someone as fickle and ignorant as Trump in charge? Its core mission in 2023 is to supply right-wingers with a comprehensive victimhood narrative upon which to build their identities as citizens.

If you’re frustrated that a majority of Americans keep voting against your worldview, if you luxuriate in suspicions that all complex problems derive from elite forces conspiring malevolently, you’re a Trump Republican. And, importantly, whether or not the Republican Party wins or loses elections has no effect on the value you find in that identity.

In fact, insofar as electoral outcomes matter, losing is preferable to winning since it confirms your priors about victimization. Given a choice between Trump returning to office in 2024 and embarrassing the right in myriad ways and Trump being “robbed” of another rightful victory, wouldn’t a Trump Republican stuck in a culture of losing logically prefer the latter? Another malevolent conspiracy to steal the presidency from him would only prove how right you and he are to feel victimized by elites.

And what’s more important than being right?

The Washington Post published a long story on Monday alleging in painstaking detail how the Department of Justice spent more than a year slow-walking the January 6 investigation into Trump and his cronies. Only when the House January 6 committee turned a spotlight on Trumpworld’s “fake electors” scheme in 2022 did the DOJ resolve to pursue that angle. That’s hugely important news, contradicting Trump’s screeching about a politicized federal “witch hunt” aimed at the 2024 campaign and suggesting the feds proceeded in their investigation with integrity and caution. (Maybe too much caution.)

But most right-wing media sites aren’t going to cover it, its news value notwithstanding. Because it confounds the Republican victimhood narrative about malevolent elites, it’ll be gatekept into oblivion. Preserving the culture of losing and persecution trumps all other right-wing interests, no pun intended. “Large swaths of the right like to be lied to,” Jonah wrote on Friday, although I’d go further: When the eternal quest for victimhood runs into reality, they all but insist on it.

Which is why, incidentally, I think it’d be foolish for DeSantis to attack Trump over the ethics of concealing classified documents, however morally gratifying it would feel to all of us. If the governor were to side with the Justice Department on that subject, he’d be rebuking the modern right’s fundamental belief in its own victimhood. There’s no graver, more disqualifying offense in a Republican primary.

It’s way more disqualifying than concealing classified documents, certainly.

We arrive at one last irony in closing. Although everyone to the left of Marjorie Taylor Greene tends to agree that Trump would be a singularly weak nominee, the candidate most likely to ensure that the culture of losing produces one more loss, the evidence for that assumption is … pretty thin, actually. For all the energy DeSantis has put into his electability pitch to Republican voters, he leads Biden by just 1.3 points in the RealClearPolitics average. Trump leads Biden by 2.4 points.

Maybe in a general election the governor would win over more Biden 2020 voters in the suburbs than he’d lose Trump 2020 voters in rural areas. Maybe he’d inspire the same number of low-propensity voters to turn out for him as Trump managed in the previous two elections. But as he veers ever further to the right on policy to try to ingratiate himself to Trump’s populist base, embracing unpopular policies like a six-week abortion ban and “constitutional carry,” the hole he’s digging himself with swing voters gets deeper. It may end up deep enough that DeSantis is no more likely to end the culture of losing than Trump himself.

If it does, it’ll be because Republican voters have grown so indifferent to the electoral consequences of their policy preferences that any nominee, not just Trump, will be all but doomed by them in a general election. Having repurposed their party as a cultural identity rather than a political outfit designed to gain and wield power, they no longer have an incentive to compromise on policy—and thus neither do their most formidable candidates. The culture of losing may last a while longer before something finally breaks.

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.