Opinion: The world has changed; the GOP can’t

At his rallies, Donald Trump is depicting the 2018 midterms as a major referendum on him personally. He also predicts a rising “red wave” that will carry more Republicans into office, driven by a surge of support from women after the Kavanaugh fight. As Trump sees it, female voters are “thinking of their sons, they’re thinking of their husbands and their brothers,” and will cast GOP ballots to protect them.

If he’s right, that would be a stunning validation of Trump’s leadership and of the direction that he has tried to take this country. Indeed, after a “red wave” election and with the Supreme Court now under conservative control, it’s hard to see anything or anyone that would even attempt to stand in Trump’s way from here on out.

But me, I’m dubious. And just on the off chance that Trump proves to be wrong, let’s ask the question: What happens if American voters decisively reject him, if a blue wave emerges instead that sweeps Democrats into power?

A lot would change in Washington, of course. Congressional committees that have overlooked personnel problems and policy failures in this administration would begin to do oversight instead, and I think we’ll be appalled at the corruption and incompetence they uncover. But I’m more fascinated by the psychological rather than structural consequences of such a defeat.

The animating faith of the Trump base is that they are America’s legitimate heirs, that it’s their manifest destiny to control this country and that Trump himself is just short of some messenger sent by God to restore the proper order of things. A wholesale rejection of Trump and Trump Republicans by midterm voters would shake that faith to its core and force them to recalculate their entire approach.

Or … probably not. Whenever that bedrock faith has been threatened in the past, conservatives have quickly turned to conspiracy theories to explain away the threat and render it illegitimate. When a black man named Barack Obama was elected president — twice! — conservatives denied him legitimacy by claiming that he was foreign-born and thus had no right to the office he had usurped. Sensing the power of that myth among Republican voters, Trump seized it and rode it to the GOP nomination.

Again, in the final days leading up to the 2016 election, when polls were suggesting that Trump would lose, he began to undermine the legitimacy of what seemed to be coming, warning his crowds that the system had been rigged, that the election and thus the country itself was in the process of being stolen from the only true Americans, the “normals.” Only his surprise victory spared the country that crisis of legitimacy.

When Trump’s loss by almost 3 million ballots in the popular vote became an embarrassment, frustrating his claim of a huge mandate, the answer was easy: Three million ballots cast by illegal immigrants were invented. Just this month, when protesters filled the halls of the Capitol, angry at the treatment of Dr. Christine Ford, that too had to be rendered illegitimate.

“These are not genuine people who are concerned about Dr. Ford or anything else; these are paid activists,” said U.S. Sen. David Perdue of Georgia. “This is a George Soros conspiracy.”

In short, I doubt that even a massive blue wave would break the spell that holds the Republican Party in its grip. If history holds, it would drive them still deeper into conspiracy world, desperately looking for some explanation other than the fact that the world has changed, the country has changed, and they haven’t.

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