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Kook Waterloo

Election denialism might be fading.

Donald Trump. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.)

A few days ago at the New York Times, Bret Stephens published one of the most jinx-prone, fate-tempting bits of punditry we’ll ever see. Headline: “Donald Trump Is Finally Finished.”

That’s the political equivalent of a teenager declaring “Jason is finally dead” near the end of a Friday the 13th movie.

In my mind’s eye I see a tall man with a machete creeping up behind Stephens as the column is filed, an orange spray tan on his neck unmistakable below his hockey mask.

Maybe I can top Stephens, though. What if I were to tell you that Republican election denialism is now past its prime and will never regain the currency it had circa January 6, 2021?

Not even if Trump were to run and narrowly lose again in 2024.

I regret sounding like such an optimist lately. It’ll wear off once the post-election endorphins subside, I assume. Only a fool would bet on Republican voters finally finding sobriety about the integrity of American elections after spending the last six years blind drunk on MAGA juice.

But the past eight days offer reason to hope. There’s been little serious agitation about ballot-rigging among populists despite Democrats overperforming their polls in statewide races across the country. Such a “suspicious” outcome should be fertile ground for conspiracy theories. And Trump has done his best to seed them, particularly with respect to Arizona. Yet this time, most of his sycophants prefer scapegoating Mitch McConnell to disputing the results. Why?

It may be as simple as Trump himself having not been on the ballot. Passions naturally run hot when power is wrested from the emperor’s hands. They run less hot when no-names like Tudor Dixon and Don Bolduc are beclowned by replacement-level Democrats. “The narrative that the election was stolen—it does not fly up here in New Hampshire, for whatever reason,” a perplexed-sounding Bolduc admitted in September. 

Or it may be simpler. Watch this and marvel at how the Newsmax of 2022 sounds different from the Newsmax of 2020. 

Multibillion-dollar defamation suits have a way of concentrating the mind about which casual smears are and aren’t fit to air.

The optimistic theory, though, is that the miserable failures by election deniers in statewide races have given Republican voters pause about nominating candidates who chase conspiracies, at least publicly. It’s one thing for a guy in a MAGA hat and a crying eagle T-shirt to “do his own research” about election fraud. It’s another thing to make that guy the Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania.

Forced to decide whether “rigged election” believers lost en masse because of serial cheating by Democrats or because swing voters tend not to prefer cranks, the Republican base may at last be mulling the possibility that the second explanation is the correct one.

Don’t believe me? Brace yourself for this.

Wendy Rogers is nuttier than squirrel turds and even she’s wondering whether she might be trapped in a MAGA hype bubble. If Rogers, of all people, is reflecting thoughtfully on the midterm results, it’s a cinch that millions of less nutty Trump voters are, too.

The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. Populists admitting that they might have a problem is halfway to that first step. At the end of the journey lies sobriety.

The MAGA base will never reach total sobriety, certainly not about the integrity of the 2020 election. But a modicum of sobriety about future elections?

I think they might get there.

We’ll know just how wrong I am soon. This morning, as expected, Kari Lake announced the official launch of “Stop the Steal” 2.0 in Arizona.

Reports are circulating that she was seen recently at Mar-a-Lago, presumably to recruit support for her crusade from the election-denier-in-chief. With Trump and Lake now pushing to overturn her state’s gubernatorial election and a colorful array of kooks already blowing shofars in Maricopa County, it’s conceivable that the national populist right will ignite in protest of the results in Arizona. Before very long my thesis might look like that teenager after Jason got done with him.

But I’m sticking with it. Here’s why.

For starters, all of the other election deniers who fell short this year have conceded, even Doug Mastriano. Washington Post reporter Aaron Blake might be right in thinking that they wouldn’t have been as quick to do so had Lake’s race had been called first and she had immediately questioned the results, setting the tone for other MAGA Republicans. But we are where we are. Instead of Lake leading a populist revolt against Democratic cheating in multiple states, she’s out on a limb in insisting that her race—uniquely among all others this year, it seems—was a target of fraud. 

She’ll have to explain why other Republicans weren’t similarly targeted by scheming liberals, including in Arizona. A Republican candidate appearing on the same ballot as Lake easily won the race for state treasurer. And the GOP did well in House races, taking six of nine districts. In the two tightest contests, Republicans Dave Schweikert and Juan Ciscomani prevailed with less than 51 percent of the vote, a strange oversight by Democratic ballot-riggers.

The killer for Lake, though, came a few thousand miles away in Florida.

In 2020, Trump fans had ways to convince themselves that the presidential race had been rigged despite the fact that Republicans down ballot enjoyed remarkable success, winning every toss-up race in the House. Trump showed surprising strength in a key swing state, Florida, winning there with ease; it was hard to reconcile that result with him losing narrowly in traditional red states like Georgia and Arizona. And Trump’s singular status as party leader, populist savior, and unrivaled Democratic hate object also made the conspiracy plausible to those eager to believe it. Because Democrats felt a special animus for him that they didn’t feel for squishy establishment House Republicans, they might have been more willing to take desperate measures, like outright fraud, to deny him a second term.

Lake can’t exploit the same logic. She hasn’t built a reputation as a populist winner the way Trump did by flipping the Rust Belt in 2016 and Florida in 2020. Republicans nationally didn’t have a good night, making her defeat in Arizona look par for the course rather than a suspicious outlier. And there was someone else on the ballot this year who more closely matched Trump’s status as party leader, populist savior, and Democratic hate object. That would be Ron DeSantis, the online right’s second-greatest political hero—and landslide victor in Florida last week. If the all-powerful liberal vote-stealing cabal were inclined to conspire against anyone in 2022, it would have been DeSantis more so than Lake. He’s the “electable” Trump, the man who turned Florida red, a potent general election threat in 2024 if he survives a Republican primary. The time for Democrats to pull out all the stops and cheat him into retirement was now.

He won by 19 points.

Lake would answer that by noting that the secretary of state overseeing elections in Florida is a Republican whereas the secretary of state in Arizona is not only a Democrat, it’s the Democrat who ran against her for governor, Katie Hobbs. In a vacuum, that logic might gain traction. But there’s another confounding factor for her and Trump in trying to get “Stop the Steal” 2.0 off the ground. Namely, there are a lot of Ron DeSantis fans on the right who are eager to play up the scale of the Republican midterm disaster to help their man. Including, by the way, Ron DeSantis himself.

“There were a lot, a lot of disappointments,” Mr. DeSantis told reporters at an event in Fort Walton Beach when asked about Mr. Trump’s planned announcement on Tuesday night. “That’s just the reality. It was a hugely underwhelming, disappointing performance, especially given that Biden’s policies are overwhelmingly unpopular.”

The governor made no mention of the former president. But he appeared to relish contrasting the poor showing last week by many of Mr. Trump’s endorsed candidates with his own landslide re-election victory and successes by other Republicans in Georgia, Ohio and Texas.

“Some of the others,” he said, without naming names or tying them to Mr. Trump, had not fared well. “These independent voters aren’t voting for our candidates, even with Biden in the White House and the failures that we’re seeing. That’s a problem.”

Not coincidentally, fellow 2024 hopeful Mike Pence was also credulous about the disappointing outcome. And unlike DeSantis, he was willing to get specific. “Candidates that were focused on the past, focused on relitigating the last election did not fare as well,” he told Fox News.

Every Republican in America who’s eager to see the GOP pivot from Trump has an incentive to treat last week’s results as legitimate. Another “rigged election” narrative would absolve him of responsibility for the party’s failures, just as it aimed to absolve him of his own failure in 2020. Whereas the DeSantis narrative, that the elections were fair and Trump-backed candidates underperformed everywhere, lays the blame at Trump’s feet.

And, in so doing, it hints that the outcome might have been different if a more broadly appealing politician were leading the party. Like, say, a governor who’d just won reelection in a swing state by 19 points.

If you’re Ready for Ron in 2024, and a lot of Republicans are, you should be very much not ready for “Stop the Steal” 2.0 in Arizona, particularly since Kari Lake was touted as a future national star and potential DeSantis rival when it looked like she’d end up winning easily in Arizona. DeSantis fans were blessed with a dream scenario last week when he crushed it in Florida while almost every other Republican in the country outside his home state (and New York) was going belly up. His electability appeal has never looked stronger.

But that appeal depends on those belly-up results being treated as legitimate rather than the product of Democratic chicanery.

DeSantis fans understand that, I think. And because they do, Lake and Trump will soon find that the populist audience that’s keen for another “rigged election” goose chase is much smaller than it was in 2020.

If the election results don’t suffice as a temperature check on how well election denialism is playing politically nowadays, look at Trump’s speech on Tuesday night announcing his 2024 campaign. Specifically, at what he didn’t say, not what he did.

Somehow Captain Queeg got through more than an hour of live televised remarks without delving into his favorite subject, the allegedly stolen election of 2020. It can’t have slipped his mind; normally it’s all he talks about. His advisers must have spent hours working to persuade him that returning to the topic in his announcement speech would do him more harm than good.

Which speaks volumes about how much of a liability the “rigged election” chatter has become even according to Trump’s own inner circle.

A normal politician would ditch the subject permanently as a matter of rational self-interest and stick to talking about the future. But Trump will return to it on the campaign trail, again and again, waylaid by his own narcissistic insecurity at having lost the world’s most important popularity contest. His hardcore fans will continue to indulge him, but the further away one gets on the right-wing spectrum from Ultra-MAGA, the more exasperation at his obsession there will be.

Imagine how relieved normie Republicans will feel next spring when DeSantis announces his candidacy and starts talking about jobs and the economy. Or literally anything other than 2020.

Their annoyance will grow if and when Trump loses a primary in 2024. The reader may recall how he reacted to losing the Iowa caucus to Ted Cruz in 2016 after months of running first in the national polls. Losing Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina to DeSantis or some other upstart would doubtless draw the same response, forcing populist Republicans into a moment of truth. How many “Stop the Steal” disciples will conclude that the GOP’s own primaries are rigged against Trump? And how many others will conclude that, on second thought, maybe Trump is just a sore-loser man-baby who screams “unfaisir!” anytime he doesn’t get something he wants?

I can believe the first group will outnumber the second. But the second group will exist. And it will be significant.

Trump may win the nomination anyway. If he goes on to lose the general election again and inevitably whines that he was cheated again, furious DeSantis fans will turn on him and MAGA. “We had an electable candidate we could have nominated,” they’ll say. “We told you Trump would lose, and now he did.” Other Republican voters less emotionally invested in the governor will find themselves reflecting on the GOP’s track record over the previous eight years and arriving at the conclusion that Trump really was a drag on the party. Under his leadership Republicans will have underperformed in a meaningful way in every national election since 2016.

Some diehards will go along with his “Stop the Steal” 3.0 campaign, but it won’t be the same. Without populists united behind him, the third iteration will be less a bipartisan clash to control the presidency than a factional dispute on the right. “We were cheated again!” Trump fans will say. “Pipe down already,” the rest of the party will reply, already looking ahead to a Trump-less 2028. Election denialism will lose steam.

If, on the other hand, DeSantis defeats Trump in the 2024 primary, he stands a solid chance of winning the presidency—and that too will vent steam from the right’s conspiratorial culture. Trump will do his best to sabotage the party if he isn’t the nominee, but his fans might choose to show up for DeSantis anyway in the general election in the name of denying Democrats power. Were DeSantis to win, and in particular if he were to win the popular vote, even some “Stop the Steal” diehards may wonder whether Republican electoral fortunes are in fact less a matter of massive vote-rigging than of candidate quality.

Conservative faith in American elections wouldn’t be fully restored but it might rebound. Jason would finally be dead. And Americans could begin debating whether President DeSantis will govern more like a traditional Republican or a populist authoritarian Freddy Krueger.

The fever could break, finally. And it might start breaking sooner than you think, in Arizona.

Just, you know, don’t get your hopes up too much. I’ll leave you with this.

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.