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Get In, Loser. We’re Going Losing.

Do populists want to win?

Former President Donald Trump embraces Kari Lake at a campaign rally in October 2022. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

We all have bad luck sometimes. For someone who writes about politics, bad luck is when news breaks that illustrates the point of your latest column perfectly—right after that column has been published.

What a sweet lede this would have made for yesterday’s piece about the end of Reaganism.

We’ll have to settle for it being a sweet lede to today’s piece instead.

“Outrageous choice for speaker,” tweeted Ronald Reagan’s son Michael upon seeing the announcement. Is it? It’s outrageous that CPAC has remade itself as a populist freak show, a major stop on the right-wing vaudeville circuit that caters to an authoritarian personality cult, but that’s an old story by now. And really, we should temper our expectations of propriety from any event organized by a guy who’s being sued for sexual assault.

Frankly, I think Kari Lake is the perfect choice for a dinner named after Reagan.

She’s a performer by trade, as the Gipper himself famously was. Like Reagan, she’s a tireless and passionate advocate for her most deeply held, uh, beliefs. And just as Reagan did in 1980 and 1984, she delivered an election result that thrilled her strongest supporters.

She lost. 

CPAC won’t tout the fact that she lost. To justify their decision to honor her they’ve been forced to resort to argle-bargle about how Lake “exposed widespread election fraud” when she’s done no such thing. No doubt lip service will be paid at the event to her claim that she received the most votes in Arizona’s gubernatorial election but had her rightful victory cruelly stripped away by the deep state or whomever.

The uncomfortable truth, though, is that Kari Lake is being celebrated because she lost. She’s a martyr according to MAGA mythology and there’s nothing populists love more than a martyr.

Last week the Washington Post noticed the curious trend on the American right of idolizing candidates who lost their most recent elections. Not all candidates: Mehmet Oz, for instance, won’t be turning up on the vaudeville circuit. Populists won’t grant martyrdom status to someone who isn’t much of a populist, and they certainly won’t grant it to someone who conceded his own defeat.

To become a glorious loser requires a degree of pugilistic authoritarian bravado combined with an adamant belief that your defeat was the result of unprovable chicanery by the enemy. That’s Lake. It’s Trump too, of course. And it’s Jair Bolsonaro, who proved recently that American right-wing media loves a loser even if that loser lives in another country.

Normally political movements dispense with candidates who let them down at the polls, the Post pointed out. Yet MAGA populists continue to cling to their vanquished idols, enough so that CPAC felt obliged to give a plum speaking slot to someone who lost a race in a state Doug Ducey won four years ago by 14 points.

Why are populists so drawn to defiant losers?

Partly it’s the nature of populism. When you purport to represent The People against a sinister elite, it’s unthinkable that the actual people would go to the polls and choose those elites over you.

Trump is unique because his narcissism gives every sign of being more pathological than political, rendering him unable to believe that he might fairly lose any sort of popularity contest. Lake, however, comes off as someone who ended up high on her own ideological supply. She converted at some point to the creed that Trump and Trumpism are the truest expression of the popular will and that belief now appears unshakable. She can’t compute that an electorate like Arizona’s would opt for a Democrat over her, let alone a bland establishment Democrat like Katie Hobbs.

To believe Hobbs won in a state in which more Republicans turned out than Democrats, you need to believe that a meaningful chunk of GOP voters defied hyperpolarization and voted Democratic. Which is precisely what happened, as it turns out: Some conservatives repelled by Lake switched to Hobbs, just as they switched to Biden in 2020 after being repelled by Trump. But because most Republicans have remained slavishly loyal to Trump and his movement throughout his political odyssey, the idea of thousands of righties crossing over to oppose a MAGA candidate is hard for devotees to fathom.

Take it from the lady herself:

Another reason populists cling to denialist losers is to soothe their despair at the GOP’s ongoing underperformance at the polls. When a party loses the popular vote in seven of eight presidential elections, its members naturally begin to worry that it’s at an irreversible disadvantage. All the more so if it changed its agenda during its losing streak to try to grow its support and kept on losing anyway.

Trump was supposed to be the cure for the GOP’s electoral malaise. The party nominated an establishmentarian who ran on zombie Reaganism in 2008 and lost badly. It doubled down on that M.O. in 2012 and lost badly again. Then came Trump preaching a new gospel of protectionism, avoiding endless wars, and treating Social Security and Medicare as sacrosanct. He won—not the popular vote but the Electoral College, which was good enough for most Republicans. Trump had finally figured out the secret recipe to turning out “missing” white voters and building a muti-ethnic working-class coalition that could compete cycle to cycle with Democrats, they believed. That recipe was populism.

Except it wasn’t. Trump’s party lost the House in 2018, then the Senate in 2020. Trump himself lost both the presidency and the popular vote to a thoroughly pedestrian Democrat who barely campaigned. He supported a variety of outspoken populists made in his own image in the 2022 midterms, Lake the most prominent among them, and they got their collective clock cleaned. If you had converted in 2016 to the gospel of MAGA as the path to electoral salvation, you were faced last November with the horrifying possibility that any right-wing agenda, establishment or populist, is doomed to be unpopular in an America that’s less white and Christian than it was in the past. In hindsight, maybe it wasn’t zombie Reaganism that cost the GOP the 2008 and 2012 elections. Maybe Trump just got lucky in 2016 by facing a Democrat whom everyone hated.

That’s a bitter pill for populists to swallow, so some refused. They gagged on it instead by choosing to believe that Trump and Lake had been cheated. If the secret recipe developed by Trump no longer worked, it could only be because Democrats surreptitiously slipped poison into the pot on Election Day. The alternative, that the GOP still hasn’t found an agenda that can make a majority after ditching Reaganism for Trumpism, is too terrible to confront.

Combine that anxiety over losing political influence with the right’s chronic anxiety about having lost cultural influence and you’re left with a movement that’s stewing in alienation yet unwilling to make the political compromises needed to persuade swing voters. With no obvious path out of that alienation, they choose to valorize it instead. Arc Digital editor Berny Belvedere explained it elegantly in a recent essay.

A core element of Trumpism, and of populism more generally, is the incurable conviction that you and your movement are condemned to exist in a kind of permanent outsidership.

When people who subscribe to historically successful ideologies, ones that have been socially dominant, go on to experience a decrease in influence, it can qualitatively feel like an existential threat. And the regime presiding over the shrinking of their influence can get construed by them as a tyrannical force, as the instrument of their persecution.

So they end up catastrophizing their situation because even a temporary “unprivileging” of their perspective feels to them, from the inside, not as an acceptable loss but as an intolerable form of subjugation.

They adopt a framework of suppression when all that’s really happening is society is adjusting to more and different voices acquiring a share of political power.

No matter how much political influence populists amass, no matter how robust and influential their media organs are, they’re so invested emotionally at this point in the unfairness of their own disempowerment that they can no longer process legitimate setbacks like losing elections. At least not when they’re being egged on by leaders like Trump and Lake. “The victimization culture is definitely at the core of this trend,” said Bulwark writer Tim Miller recently to the Post about Republicans extolling electoral losers. “The base has determined that the ‘elites’ are unfairly targeting conservatives and must be treated as enemy combatants.” 

It flows quite logically from all of that how a populist mob might have ended up outside the Capitol as Congress prepared to officially declare their hero the loser of the 2020 election. If populists losing power is inherently unfair, if all legal and political constraints designed to limit their ability to hold power are on some level corrupt and illegitimate, the only option is to break those constraints. By any means necessary.

What makes all of this interesting and germane to Republican politics in 2023 is that we’re about to embark on a primary in which populists’ infatuation with losers will be challenged directly by someone they admire.

The title of this piece comes from a meme popular with liberals and anti-Trump conservatives. It’s existed since Trump’s defeat in 2020, I believe, but I’ve seen it more often since the cranks he backed last year went belly up in race after race in November. Republican voters who were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt about having been cheated in his own election have new reason to wonder after the midterms whether he really is a terrible drag on the party, just like the RINOs always said.

But not just the RINOs. Not anymore. I know a guy who’s going to confront primary voters with the possibility that Trump really did lose and that, if they want to avoid that outcome again in 2024, they should opt instead for a candidate who won reelection by nearly 20 points in what’s supposed to be a swing state.

He might be laying the groundwork already, in fact.

No issue in the coming campaign will be as fraught for all parties involved as election fraud. The danger to Trump is obvious: The more Queeg-like he sounds in babbling endlessly about the grand conspiracy to defraud him three years ago, the more likely weary Republicans are to wonder that he’s lost the plot. Whether you believe the election was rigged or not, Team DeSantis will tell them, we learned the hard way last fall that swing voters do not.

Do you want to maximize your chances of winning and wielding power or do you want to maximize your chances of losing to feed your victimization fetish? That’s the question that’ll be posed to Republican voters by the new guy from Florida.

But the issue is dangerous for DeSantis too. Trump has exploited his base’s victimization fetish by making election denial the sine qua non of right-wing authenticity. If DeSantis ducks when asked whether he believes Trump was cheated or (gasp) alleges that Biden won fair and square, it’ll be treated by some voters as a smoking gun proving that the governor isn’t a populist after all.

Dig around on Twitter, in fact, and you can already find some of Trump’s nuttiest cultists speculating that DeSantis’ own stupendous victory last fall was … suspicious. A Republican winning in a landslide? In a state like Florida? Such things aren’t possible—unless the nefarious elites want them to be possible. One DeSantis fan has begun flagging the most absurd examples:

For conspiratorial populists, the size of DeSantis’ margin in Florida will become an argument against nominating him, not one in favor. Electability, his great advantage over Trump, will be twisted into a perverse liability by a cult of right-wing losers that treats poor performance at the polls by their candidates as evidence of political virtue. If a broad swath of voters likes you, their thinking goes, then you must be doing something wrong. Failure is the touchstone of a truly successful populist.

All of that being so, doesn’t it make sense after all that this loser is keynoting CPAC’s Reagan dinner instead of successful governor Ron DeSantis?

We’ll know by next summer whether a majority of this degraded party still wants to win elections and make policy or whether we’re so far from Reaganism that they’d prefer to lose and revel in their dispossession. I know which way I’m betting.

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.