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Doomscrolling, Interrupted
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Doomscrolling, Interrupted

A rough year for pessimists.

Former President Donald Trump speaks during an election night event at Mar-a-Lago on November 8. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.)

Last week the New York Times published a quote that stuck with me. It came from the young chairman of a Republican committee in Pennsylvania who twice voted for Trump, first enthusiastically and later reluctantly. After the election he spoke up against other local GOP leaders who’d gotten too chummy with “rigged election” cranks and anti-vaxxers. He lost his chairmanship, of course.

“I just realized how much of a sham the whole movement was,” he told the Times of his experience. “The moment the veil is pulled from your face, you realize how ugly the face is that you are looking at.”

I know that feeling. If you subscribe to The Dispatch, you know it too. The veil of partisanship is thick, so when it’s suddenly torn away you may find yourself overwhelmed by the number of blemishes that mar the face of your former party. You might reproach yourself for not having seen them sooner and resolve to atone by counting every blemish, as loudly and defiantly as possible, in hopes that they’ll be addressed.

My colleague Kevin Williamson put it characteristically well in his piece today about the George Santos debacle: “In the Trump years the GOP showed itself to be not a party infected by the occasional scoundrel and prevaricator but a party with a corporate commitment to the worst and most obvious kind of dishonesty, a party in which embracing lies and furthering lies became, perversely, a test of virtue.” There are many, many blemishes to count.

But in counting, we shouldn’t blind ourselves again by ignoring evidence of improvement. As 2022 ends, there are fewer blemishes than we—or I, at least—expected to find at this stage of the party’s populist devolution. The complexion of our politics has cleared a bit.

A number of MAGA whiteheads have popped.

In fact, the young Republican from Pennsylvania was quoted in the Times story because he was one of many conservatives there who withheld his vote from Doug Mastriano, the GOP’s fringe candidate for governor. He was featured to illustrate the emergence of a small but possibly decisive bloc of conservative-leaning voters willing to punish anti-democratic Republicans at the polls. Our politics is in a better place now than most of us anticipated because the broad American right isn’t quite the caricature sketched by its most loathsome politicians and media personalities.

It was, all things considered, a bad year for authoritarians, a bad year for toxic narcissists, and a good year for the rest of us. And it’s been awhile since we could say that.

A few commenters in yesterday’s post grumbled that it’s tedious and shortsighted to obsess about populist Republicans day after day when they’re weaker now than they’ve been at any point since 2015. One can effectively demonize any group by “nutpicking” the worst elements within it and highlighting their foibles. Why not accentuate the positive about the GOP?

I’m inclined to respond that if you subscribe to a newsletter about the dangers of populism, you should probably expect a healthy amount of content about the dangers of populism.

But intellectual humility requires me to recognize that they have a point. We should all strive to resist being seduced by our preferred narratives. “The sky is falling” is a too-familiar read on the day’s events for anti-populist conservatives after seven years of Trump monarchy. If the sky has stopped falling, we should have the acuity to recognize it and the integrity to say so.

I have said so, though. Sort of.

A pessimist as devoted as me will never convert fully to optimism. The sky will always be falling at some greater or lesser rate. But if you used to read me at my old haunt, you might have been surprised by the sunny tone of some of my post-election newsletters this year. The midterm results were Trump’s nightmare scenario, I insisted, a “kook Waterloo” that amounted to Liz Cheney’s revenge on insurrectionists. I speculated that Trump’s chances at the nomination might collapse, that a crowded primary field could work against him, and that he might end up destroying his own legacy by turning against the party before Election Day 2024.

Even yesterday’s piece was more optimistic than pessimistic, I thought. The prospect of Jacobin deplorables rhetorically guillotining each other was supposed to make you feel warm and fuzzy. 

One must have a heart of stone to read this, for instance, without laughing.

For the record, and for the benefit of those fatigued by negativity and “nutpicking,” I think 2022 will be remembered for several important, inarguably positive developments.

1. Authoritarianism became a liability with voters. Populists won’t be reasoned out of their ruthlessness in angling to seize power even if they end up with fewer votes, but they might have that ruthlessness gradually beaten out of them at the polls. So we’re apt to see fewer Mastrianos and Kari Lakes on the ballot in 2024 as Republican voters turn toward more mainstream candidates. Ideally they would do so because they’ve realized that election denial is corrosive to America’s civic traditions; in reality, they’ll do so because they’ve realized election denial is costing them winnable races. We’ll have to settle for them doing the right thing for Machiavellian reasons, not because they care about democracy in principle. Good enough, I guess.

2. Authoritarianism became costly in other ways. Opinions will differ on whether the January 6 committee’s hearings drove voters away from election deniers but there’s little doubt that the hearings raised the social cost of coup-plotting. John Eastman, Jeffrey Clark, and Mike Flynn are each infamous to a degree they weren’t a year ago. (Eastman may become more infamous still.) Future plotters will now need to worry about their dirty laundry being aired by hostile congressional committees if they abet any attempts at an autogolpe and fail.

The financial cost of coup apologetics has also risen thanks to Dominion, Smartmatic, and other plaintiffs who’ve held election conspiracy theorists accountable in court. My colleagues Sarah Isgur and David French have speculated that one reason there’s so little energy behind Kari Lake’s “stop the steal” effort in Arizona is that conservative media outlets won’t embrace it. The fear of defamation lawsuits is too high, another case of populists finally doing the right thing for grubby self-interested reasons. Their fear may abide going forward, making it harder for election cranks to find an audience.

3. The GOP’s authoritarian drift may have birthed an enduring new bloc of swing voters. To return to the point with which this piece began, once the veil of partisanship has been lifted one never sees his former party the same way again. Having glimpsed the blemishes, the memory will endure. Republicans and right-leaning independents who crossed the aisle this year or in 2020 out of antipathy to Trumpist populism may therefore find themselves more willing to consider Democratic candidates in the future. The taboo against voting for liberals, once broken, might no longer restrain them. If so, they could end up functioning as a durable centrist swing faction even after Trump is gone, forcing the GOP to moderate in order to woo them. Pressure toward the middle should, at the very least, lead Republican primary voters to be more discerning about the culture warriors they put forward as nominees.

4. Trump is now (probably) unelectable. If you worry about a second Trump term, and you should, you’re less worried now than you were a year ago. He remains the favorite to win the nomination, but a diminished one. Some polls show Ron DeSantis ahead of him already; the ones that don’t should see the gap close once DeSantis announces and begins introducing himself nationally. Even if Trump were to hold him off, the fact that so many anti-authoritarian voters turned out in November to oppose lesser election deniers and quash a midterm red wave suggests they’ll be out in force in November 2024 if the crank-in-chief ends up back on the ballot.

Whatever happens, Trump’s legacy among the American right has been damaged. The evidence that he’s been less of an electoral asset to his party than a liability is so overwhelming that it’ll be acknowledged in time by all but the most dead-end MAGA true believers, I suspect. Too many conservatives have invested too much in him emotionally to ever turn on him fully (unless he tanks the next presidential nominee’s chances out of spite), but he won’t have the sort of glittering legacy on the right that Ronald Reagan enjoys. Probably he’ll end up being known as The Great Martyr, the president who would have done great things if the left and the “deep state” hadn’t conspired to hamstring him and steal his rightful 2020 triumph away from him.

Taking all of the above into consideration, even cynics find themselves obliged to grudgingly admit that 2022 was a good year. “The American system is now engaged in a certain amount of healing,” Tom Nichols wrote, and healing does feel like the right metaphor. We’ve been sick for too long, at one point dangerously so, but our condition has brightened. Did you expect to see us on the mend at year’s end?

I didn’t.

Our national fever has dropped. That’s my concession to optimism, and to those demanding more “perspective” about the populist threat.

I wouldn’t say the fever has broken. We shouldn’t exaggerate the strength of populism after Trump’s miserable year and the midterm results but neither should we exaggerate its diminution.

Consider that the coming Republican presidential primary is likely to be fought entirely within the bounds of populism by serious contenders. We may see a Larry Hogan or Liz Cheney enter the race, but they’ll go nowhere. If the nominee isn’t Trump or DeSantis, it’s more likely to be a talented demagogue like Tucker Carlson than it is to be Mike Pence or Mike Pompeo.

Remember, DeSantis’ latest move to improve his odds against Trump has been to position himself as more anti-vax, not less.

If an obviously fake populist like Glenn Youngkin or Nikki Haley overperforms then we might plausibly say that the fever has broken on the right. If populist candidates start to underperform in primaries down ballot, that would be another reason to hope. Until then, we shouldn’t assume from the fact that much of the electorate has developed political antibodies to cartoonish conspiratorial types like Mastriano and Lake that the threat has passed. As long as authoritarians dominate the GOP, authoritarianism stands a meaningful chance of gaining power.

And they will continue to dominate for the near future. They’re a minority of the incoming House majority but enjoy sufficient numbers to exercise a veto over all official business, including Kevin McCarthy’s ascension to speaker. Assuming McCarthy does get the gavel, the Jacobin wing will retain enough power that few House Republicans believe he’ll last the entire term in the role.

There’s a consensus among many House Republicans, one that few would dare utter publicly, that if McCarthy starts the 118th Congress as speaker, he’s not likely to end it that way.

If he’s able to lock down the 218 votes he needs to be speaker, the thinking goes, he likely will have given away the store to conservatives — including the “Never Kevin” crowd’s demand to make it easier to call a vote to oust the speaker. Many Republicans are already predicting the Freedom Caucus will use that tool, known as the “motion to vacate,” against McCarthy as soon as he strays from a conservative hard line.

“You’ve got guys who came in saying they will never raise the debt ceiling. … We’re then going to be forced to go to the Democrats and give Dems concessions to vote for it — and it’s going to be very costly politically,” predicted one senior GOP lawmaker close with McCarthy. “Then they’ll turn around and do a motion to vacate to get rid of Kevin saying, ‘He cut deals with the Democrats!’”

There’s no reason to think they won’t continue to dominate conservative media too. Imagine Fox News jettisoning Tucker, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham and committing to a less populist lineup in primetime. How would that lineup do? Would the Fox audience stick around or would it decamp to Newsmax or streaming platforms adorned with crying eagle iconography to get its evening rage fix?

So long as the demand for conservative media comes mainly from populists strung out on catastrophism, supply will continue to meet it. If you’ve seen anything to suggest that it won’t, let me know in the comments. Nothing would make me more optimistic about 2023 than reason to believe that right-wing media has at last hit rock bottom.

I’ve been waiting for that for a long time. So long that it’s almost enough to convince a man to give up hope.

But that’s too dour a note on which to end a year that brought us Russian fascist hubris meeting its nemesis in Ukraine, Chinese communist hubris meeting its nemesis in the virus, and domestic authoritarian hubris meeting its nemesis at the polls. Insofar as there’s a flaw in Nichols’ analogy about healing, it’s that it’s simply not grand enough to capture the relief and encouragement classical liberals and small-D democrats will have taken away from 2022. If you had lost faith in the basic civic good sense of Westerners generally and Americans specifically, as I had, your faith was restored this year—a little. What a wonderful surprise. Take heart and celebrate.

Happy new year. May 2023 be even better.

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.