In the aftermath of the midterm elections, there was a very clear assessment made of the fortunes of Donald Trump.
The 76-year-old was a drag on the Republican Party, said “sources”, forcing on it unsuitable candidates such as Herschel Walker and Mehmet Oz. He talked endlessly about the presidential election in 2020, ignoring the interests of most voters. He had proven himself out-of-touch.
Such a view was augmented by the fact that Florida governor Ron DeSantis was the standout success of the night, putting a whole 20 points between himself and Charlie Crist, and breaking Jeb Bush’s 13-point record when he secured reelection for the job in 2002.
The apparent ascendancy of DeSantis was underscored by a middle-of-the-night tweet by Mike Cernovich, a right-wing commentator who used to be a major Trump fan. “Trump has zero shot at 2024 in general. After tonight, this isn’t up for debate,” he wrote. “DeSantis in 2024 or accept total defeat.”
Yet, there is another way to see assess the fallout of these elections. Indeed, while there were several winners to emerge aside from DeSantis — John Fetterman and the Democratic Party among them — Donald Tump himself may have been the biggest winner of all.
Consider this: When the numbers tallying up the Republicans reached a number that predicted they were now set to take control of the House of Representatives, it meant several things. One was that Kevin McCarthy, currently the minority leader, will replace Nancy Pelosi to become Speaker. And one of the first things McCarthy will do is scrap the January 6 Committee that has been seeking to prove before America and the world Trump’s culpability over the storming of the US Capitol.
Another is that the new Republican caucus will be filled with the MAGA-breathing presence of Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz. Greene has vowed to launch impeachment proceedings against Joe Biden and his administration on her first day — and though she is only a one-term congresswoman, she has such sway over the far-right Christian nationalist chunk of the GOP base that McCarthy will be terrified to defy her.
Another thing in Trump’s favour is that several of the candidates he backed did perform very well — JD Vance in Ohio; Ted Budd in North Carolina, where he won the Senate seat; and Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, who appears set to hold on to his spot. The former president said — with classic Trumpian honesty — that he’d take credit for those who won, while feeling no responsibility for those who lost.
Things were too close to call for Herschel Walker’s efforts in Georgia at the time of writing, and the state looks set to go to a December runoff. Another Trump booster, Kari Lake, is still in the race for governor of Arizona.
Trump certainly thinks he had a good night. “While in certain ways yesterday’s election was somewhat disappointing,” he wrote, “from my personal standpoint it was a very big victory — 219 WINS and 16 Losses in the General — Who has ever done better than that?”
Another thing is playing out very nicely for Donald Trump. Many of the Republican elites and donors are saying it is time for him to be gone, and that the party should back someone like the Yale-educated DeSantis for 2024, who has plenty of MAGA swagger but less of the baggage. Trump will have little problem using that to his favor, labeling Ron “DeSanctimonious” as the candidate of the conservative elite, much in the same way he managed to disparage Ted Cruz all the way back in 2015.
None of this is certain. DeSantis has a lot of strengths in the way that Cruz did not. Yet he has yet failed to show a genuine emotional connection with the base of the party, in a way Trump so clearly has.
“This is when the rubber hits the road,” Yascha Mounk, of Johns Hopkins University, told The Independent. “DeSantis has been very aggressive in fighting the culture war and lots of Republican elites may like him, [but] it is unclear if he has yet developed enough of a visceral connection with the rank-and-file.”
How many times have Republicans and Democrats and independents and even people who have no interest in politics asked if “this” is the moment Trump is caught out? Was it after his bragging about sexually assaulting women on the Access Hollywood tapes all the way back in 2016? Was it when he threatened to ban Muslims from entering the US? Was it when he was impeached the first time, or even the second time?
There was a time after the January 6 riots, a moment measured more easily with a stopwatch than a sundial, when it appeared senior Republicans were done with Trump. Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, Lindsey Graham, Liz Cheney — all said it was time for the party to move on. But most very quickly forgot about all their tough-sounding words, and fell into line when it become politically convenient. The one exception among those senior figures was Liz Cheney, who was quickly voted from office.
There is a final thing to remember about Donald Trump, the man who has been written off so many times and always bounces back. While DeSantis is a man of political talent and sharps, Trump is a political street fighter who is not weighed down by concerns about the consequences of his actions on the party of which he is the de facto leader. He cares only for himself, and for regaining office, and for enacting revenge.
Would he think twice about trying to smear Ron DeSantis? Not for even a single second on the stopwatch. So after Trump makes his big speech on November 15, when he is expected to formally announce his run, be careful not to get in his way.
If he has the momentum, he may very well run and lie and fight and punch and trample his way over any potential rivals. And cheered on his supporters, it might be enough to put him back him back the White House.