By Paul V. DeMarco
Our long national nightmare is over. Donald Trump has overplayed his hand and (boy it sounds good to say this) is headed to the dustbin of history.
In 2016, Trump benefitted from the trifecta of a crowded Republican primary field, a weak challenger, and an angry electorate. I was in the audience when Trump came to the Florence Center in February of that year (not as a supporter but to see the show). I’ve been to many political rallies, including a national convention, and I’ve seen whipped-up crowds, but this was different. It was a quasi-religious fervor. The catharsis came when Trump shouted, “We’re going to build a wall” to ecstatic cheers. Then, gleefully, he asked “And who is going to pay for it!?” The crowd roared “Mexico!”
At the time, I discounted Trump. I was sure my fellow countrymen and women would see through what he was doing, playing to our fears, inflaming us with hyperbole, lies and innuendo. I was wrong. After he won, I thought back to two men sitting next to me at the rally. They had come straight from work and were still dressed in boots and Carhartt jeans. At one point, Trump said, “This country is going to hell.” The man sitting next to me said quietly to his friend, “In a hand basket.”
Whatever you think of Trump, he connected with those two construction workers in a way that no other politician in my lifetime has. Trump’s strength was that he brought attention and renewed dignity to working people who felt exploited by business, media, and tech elites. If you live where I do and have watched plant after plant close and your once thriving Main Street shrivel, it’s not hard to understand Trump’s appeal to folks Alan Jackson called “the little man.” No other candidate from either party could match Trump’s appeal to working-class voters, especially rural ones, whose jobs disappeared and wages were flat while economists told them how good it all was for the global economy. Trump acknowledged their loss and their pain and promised to advocate for them in Washington.
In 2016, most people who voted for Trump did not know what they were getting. They knew how they felt-angry, nostalgic, like the America they knew was slipping away. Not all their energy was generous – as demonstrated by the “Mexico” chant, but I will leave that for another column. For today, we can recognize that in 2020, the connection he forged with them in his first campaign outweighed the turbulence of his presidency, and they stuck with him the second time around.
Thankfully, for enough Americans, election denial is a bridge too far. Since the founding of the republic, we have demonstrated that we will accept colossal flaws in our candidates as long as they pledge to advance our policy positions. We will always argue about the size and role of government, the minimum wage, the regulation of guns, the best way to fund Social Security and Medicare, and the price of gas. But we know there needs to be an America in which we can argue. The tie that binds our fractious democracy together is our willingness to accept election results.
Trump strikes at the heart of this with his lies about election fraud. The midterms should have been a red tsunami. Joe Biden’s historically low approval ratings amidst the worst inflation in 40 years presaged disaster for the Democrats. Instead of reemploying his successful worker-centered strategy of 2016, Trump snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by harping incessantly about his loss in 2020.
The defeat of Blake Masters, a Trump-backed Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Arizona, will be remembered as the beginning of the end for Trump. Masters was poised to win a crucial Senate seat until he made election denial a pillar of his campaign. One of his television ads begins with a casually dressed Masters walking alone down a road in the Arizona desert. His first words are “I think Trump won in 2020.” A few seconds later, “The media – they’d tell any lie in order to hurt President Trump.”
That ad was a crucial test of how far Americans are willing to walk with Trump. An attack on the Capitol did not seem to be a deal-breaker for many Republicans. Would they overlook election denial as well? Fortunately not. Masters turned a winnable election into a five-point loss to the Democrat, former astronaut Mark Kelly.
Trump’s backing in a tight race is now the kiss of death – just ask Kari Lake (losing Arizona gubernatorial candidate), Mehmet Oz (losing Senate candidate in Pennsylvania), Adam Laxalt (losing Senate candidate in Nevada), Tudor Dixon (losing Michigan gubernatorial candidate), and most recently, Hershel Walker. Trump endorsed all of these candidates, and his super PAC spent heavily in their races.
Trump will not go quietly, but he will go. Ron DeSantis is the rising star in the Republican Party, as he should be after his blowout win over Charlie Crist. I’m no fan of DeSantis. I disagree with many of his policy positions and don’t like his governing style, exemplified by his duplicity in tricking almost fifty asylum seekers to board planes for Martha’s Vineyard to “own the libs.” But crucially, he won without resorting to election denialism. I am confident he will respect our electoral process and not defile it further if he loses. For that reason alone, Republicans should abandon Trump and embrace DeSantis. America will be more secure once Trump leaves the stage.
A version of this column appeared in the Nov. 30 edition of the Florence Morning News.