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Georgia Exposed the Trumpist Scam
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Georgia Exposed the Trumpist Scam

There’s life left in conservatism yet.

Former football player and political candidate Herschel Walker interacts with former president of the United States Donald Trump prior to Game Four of the World Series between the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves Truist Park on October 30, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Michael Zarrilli/Getty Images.)

This is take two of my midweek newsletter. I had almost an entire newsletter drafted and ready to go—an explanation of the latest developments in the Hunter Biden laptop story and what the MAGA right gets wrong about the true impact of Twitter’s censorship—but then Georgia happened. And the outcome of Georgia elections has the potential to be far more consequential than anything Twitter did for two days in October in 2020. 

So here’s take two, and I’m going to make three points. First, each new MAGA loss impacts the understanding of all the losses that came before. Second, each new MAGA loss exposes the weakness of the Trumpist approach to politics. And third, the MAGA losses combined with the normie Republican wins shows there’s life left in conservatism yet. Let’s take each in turn.

Each new MAGA loss impacts the understanding of the losses that came before. Ever since the GOP’s profound November disappointment, I’ve been asked countless versions of the same question: “After everything that’s happened before, why only now are Republicans breaking with Trump? Did one election matter that much?”

My answer is simple: “This one election impacted how people view everything that happened before.” Let’s put it this way—Trump’s surprise 2016 victory understandably imprinted on the Republican mind the idea that Trump was a winner. He was the “only” GOP candidate who could’ve vanquished the hated Clinton dynasty. 

This was of course an unfalsifiable assertion, because he was the only GOP candidate who did in fact run against Hillary. But the perception was there. And, for a time, no election outcome could disrupt that conclusion. The GOP could write off 2018 as a “normal” midterm setback, but it did keep the Senate. Millions of Republicans didn’t view 2020 as a loss at all, and besides, didn’t the GOP do better than expected in the House?

But when Republicans couldn’t take the Senate and barely took the House in 2022—and the disappointing outcome so clearly turned on specific MAGA candidates for Senate—I watched in real-time as the scales dropped from people’s eyes. 

Wait, he barely beat an unpopular candidate in 2016. His party was shellacked in the House even though the economy was much stronger and the world seemed far more stable in 2018 than 2022. Then in 2020 he lost the White House and Senate, completing the dreaded “Hoover”—the loss of every elected branch of government in one four-year cycle. 

No one doubts the loyalty of Trump’s base, but millions of traditional Republicans are finally grasping the reality of Trump’s electoral weakness.

Each new MAGA loss exposes the weakness of the Trumpist approach to politics. If you’ve spent any time in Republican circles since 2016, you’re familiar with a particular pattern of GOP political pressure. No, pressure is perhaps too mild of a word. The better word is bullying. 

The pattern works like this. Trumpist activists seize disproportionate power in the grassroots, work with the Trump team to nominate Trumpist candidates, and then browbeat every conservative who raises objections in the general election. They use negative polarization (with a helpful assist from Democratic extremism) to present voters with the “binary choice.” 

Are you pro-life? Then you can’t vote for the Democrat. Are you worried about the border? Then you can’t vote for the Democrat. Even if the Republican’s character is so deficient that you wouldn’t want your kid working for them if they managed the local McDonald’s, the MAGA movement will yell, “Still better than the Democrat!”

It turns out that people don’t want to be bullied into the ballot box. It turns out a significant enough number of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters will turn to their own party and say, “Do better.” They’ll call the Trumpist bluff and turn the challenge back to them—if these issues are so vital, why are you nominating obviously deficient candidates? Why aren’t you taking the high demands of public office seriously? 

But this point becomes truly powerful only combined with this last observation. MAGA losses combined with normie Republican wins shows there’s life left in conservatism yet. Here’s the tale of the tape in Georgia: Walker was the only Republican this year to lose a statewide race. 

Brian Kemp won re-election by 7.5 points. Brad Raffensperger won by 9.2 points. They both won after defeating Trumpist primary challengers, and they’re both robustly conservative. Walker, by contrast, is losing by 2.8 percent with 99 percent of precincts reporting. The complete Georgia results tell the tale:

The pattern of traditional Republicans doing better than Trumpists holds in state after state. Kari Lake lost in Arizona, a state that GOP governor Doug Ducey won by 14 points in 2018. Ohio governor Mike DeWine won his re-election by an incredible 25 points, far outpacing the electoral performance of J.D. Vance. 

Ron DeSantis’s big victory in Florida represents a mixed message. Yes he has Trumpist tendencies, but he’s also Trump’s main Republican rival and still a conventional conservative in many respects. Few voters saw a vote for him as a sign of support for Trump. Marco Rubio won a comparable victory against a stronger opponent, and while he’s grown more populist, he fits solidly within the Republican mainstream. 

These results refute one of the central Trumpist talking points of the last six years—that the old GOP represented a losing coalition. Only the new Trump GOP could win the future. In reality, however, the old GOP could (and did) do quite well before Trump. By the end of the Obama years, the GOP held the House and Senate and had picked up hundreds of state legislative seats. 

We’ll never know what would have happened had a candidate from the “old GOP” captured the 2016 nomination—the experience of the last six years tells us that he would have likely outperformed Trump—but we know that the old GOP outperforms MAGA now. Of course there are tweaks and changes that accompany any evolving movement, but politicians like Kemp, DeWine, and Ducey are easily recognizable as conventional conservatives and respectable Republicans. And for the first time in six years, the words “conventional” and “respectable” are making a comeback.

I’m encouraged. I haven’t said that much in this Trump era, but Georgia is showing America that there’s life left in conservatism yet. Late last night I tweeted this:

The true test of the 2024 primary season hasn’t yet begun, but soon enough other candidates will join Trump in the race. And when they do, Republicans need to remember states like Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. The message is clear—conservatism can still win, Trumpism loses, and no amount of bullying will push the most reluctant Republicans into supporting candidates who are not fit for public office. 

One more thing …

I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to finishing my newsletter about Hunter’s laptop. I find the topic a bit overblown for two reasons. First, the fact that we’re talking more about Twitter’s censorship than the contents of Hunter’s laptop demonstrates that the laptop never truly contained important damaging information about Joe Biden. It was humiliating for Hunter, but not for Joe. 

Second, Twitter’s censorship was unjustified, incoherent, and inconsistent (as I argued at the time), but Twitter didn’t succeed in suppressing the story. Its censorship supercharged public interest. As the Washington Post’s Phillip Bump noted, Google searches for Hunter Biden skyrocketed after Twitter locked down. 

I agree with the online right that Twitter’s censorship was wrong. We part ways when it comes to evaluating the impact of Twitter’s actions. Parts of the right seem to think that Twitter helped sway the election. In other words, Twitter’s actions were both bad and decisive, a key part of the case that Big Tech “rigged” the 2020 outcome. 

I think Twitter’s actions were bad and backfired. Twitter ironically demonstrated the limits of Big Tech’s power and its vulnerability to external pressure. Not only did public interest in the story skyrocket, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey capitulated after two days of censorship and allowed users to post links to the story. 

The online right’s emotional attachment to the Hunter laptop story (and believe me, there is a  deeply emotional attachment to the idea that Twitter turned the election) is rooted not just in a commitment to Trump but also in a particular worldview that treats Big Tech as the great, malignant power that presents a unique threat to American democracy. It’s part of the “Flight 93” narrative that rationalized Trump and maintains Trumpism. 

If Twitter’s actions were ineffectual, then that undermines the case that America lives under a Big Tech tyranny. Indeed, there are far more ways to approach the public square than existed a generation ago. There is no monopoly in the marketplace of ideas.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.