The Lesson Republicans Refuse to Learn

Voters to GOP: We don’t like your MAGA candidates and their agenda.

A photo of a voter in silhouette using a voting booth at a polling station
Carlos Bernate / Redux

Updated at 4:22 p.m. ET on November 14, 2022

Liberals reacted to the election of Donald Trump in 2016 with dismay, horror—and curiosity. Reporters ventured to Trump counties to ask questions. Political scientists studied the voting effect of international trade. Hollywood made a movie out of J. D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy.

Liberals didn’t like what had happened—but for exactly that reason, they wanted to understand it. They strove for understanding until it became a kind of inside joke: the journalist on Trump safari in Pennsylvania diners. But the joke made its own kind of sense. Survival depends upon adaptation. Adaptation depends upon learning.

The question after the 2022 midterms is: Can conservatives learn?

Through the Trump years, the Republican Party has organized itself as an anti-learning entity. Unwelcome information has been ignored or denied.

Trump lost the popular vote in 2016, and by a worse margin than Mitt Romney had in 2012? Not interested: It was a historic landslide victory.

Trump never rose above 50 percent approval (in any credible poll) on any single day of his presidency? Not interested: All that matters is what his base thinks.

Republicans were crushed in 2018 in the highest midterm turnout of eligible voters since before the First World War? Not interested: The result showed only that voters wanted more Trump and more Trumpiness.

Trump got swamped by a margin of 8 million votes in 2020? Joe Biden won the second-highest share of the popular vote than any presidential candidate since 1988, next only to Barack Obama’s blowout win in 2008? No need to pay attention: After all, Rudy Giuliani and Dinesh D’Souza said the election was stolen! Besides, check out those Latino votes for Trump.

Democrats won two Senate seats in formerly bright-red Georgia after winning the state’s electoral votes in the presidential contest? Only a temporary setback; wait ’til next time. By then, Trump will have helped get elected a bunch of “America First” secretaries of state who will rewrite the rules so that a Democrat can never win again.

“Next time” is now. In every way you can measure, 2022 was a crushing repudiation—not only of Trump personally or of Trump’s allegations that the 2020 election was corrupted, but of the larger Republican Party. For the first time since 1934, the party of the president lost not a single state legislature in a midterm year—and actually made gains in the Midwest: Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Every last one of the candidates running for offices to control elections in swing states who endorsed Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election went down to defeat, as did up-ballot election deniers such as Blake Masters in the Arizona Senate contest and Lee Zeldin, who ran for governor in an otherwise good Republican year in New York.

A Democrat won a Trump district in Washington State from a MAGA Republican who, having primaried the moderate Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler out of the seat she won in 2020 by 13 points, drove away GOP voters by blaming the January 6 attack on the FBI and defending the attackers as “political prisoners.” Supporters of abortion rights won all six contests where the issue was on the ballot: Kansas in August, then California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, and Vermont in November.

So you’d think the time would be right for Fox News to organize some safaris of its own. Maybe the podcast hosts and newsletter writers who argued that “woke” politics was alienating former Democrats will ask why Republican authoritarianism and reactionary culture warring has even more offensively alienated their former voters.

Perhaps that soul-searching will happen—it’s early days. But if it does, it will be a break from past practice.

In their anti-learning culture, conservatives have come to view everything that happens, however unwelcome, as proof simply that the most extreme people were the most correct. In the state of Florida, Republicans are proceeding postelection with more of the draconian anti-abortion laws that cost their colleagues so dearly across the country. Conservative pundits are gamely insisting that they did not really lose the 2022 elections but were once again cheated by a rigged system.

Should conservatives start noticing that they lag among unmarried women and the young? No, instead: Ridicule and insult unmarried women, especially the young. Having hooted and jeered Mitt Romney, John McCain, and George W. Bush, and pushed Liz Cheney and other principled Republicans out of Congress, the right now expresses bafflement and outrage that those rejected leaders did not rally to help candidates who condoned the January 6 insurrection and opposed aid to Ukraine.

The historian Bernard Lewis once offered sage advice to any group that faces adverse circumstances: “The question, ‘Who did this to us?’ has led only to neurotic fantasies and conspiracy theories. The other question—‘What did we do wrong?’—has led naturally to a second question, ‘How do we put it right?’ In that question … lie[s] the best hope for the future.”

For the party of the president to do well in a midterm election is very rare: 2002, 1998, 1962, and 1934 are the exceptions over the past century or so. In all four of those exceptional years, the president’s party was buoyed by some affirmative factor: a rally around the flag after 9/11, the economic boom of the late 1990s, relief after the Cuban missile crisis, the beginnings of recovery from the Great Depression.

This year was one in which all the indicators seemed negative for the party of the president: right-track/wrong-track numbers, presidential approval ratings, and optimism about the future. Yet Biden’s party won and won and won again despite the negative indicators. Yes, for sure there were affirmative reasons to vote Democratic in 2022, but it’s hard to miss the strong smell here of a thorough repudiation, up and down the ballot, of the post-Trump Republican Party, of the January 6 insurrectionists, and of a cultural agenda that seems to many Americans regressive and repressive.

Amid the initial shock of these 2022 defeats, Senator Josh Hawley tweeted, “The old party is dead. Time to bury it. Build something new.” He was right—but in exactly the opposite sense he intended. The Republican Party needs less of everything that authoritarian and reactionary Republicans such as Hawley champion, and more of the democracy and modernity that those Republicans have resisted.

The American electorate has been administering that lesson over and over. Republicans need at long last to open their ears to hear it, their mind to absorb it, and their heart to accept it.

This article originally misstated that every election-denying candidate for state offices that control elections was defeated.