Look past the bravado, the self-assuredness, and the expressions of contempt for anyone naïve enough to believe the data that suggest Donald Trump is heading toward a loss, and you’ll see that the recriminations have already begun.
Republican senators have begun emphasizing their distance from the president and criticizing his excesses. Embattled GOP incumbents are advertising themselves not as agents of change in Washington but as checks on an inevitable Biden presidency. Trump administration officials are now confessing that the president is likely to lose, and through no fault of their own. “You can’t heal a patient who doesn’t want to take the diagnosis,” one unnamed adviser to the president recently told Axios.
The president is getting a lot of sincere advice from his allies on how to right this ship, which represents both a solicitation and a prudent long-term investment in an “I-told-you-so” narrative. Everyone wants a good story to tell, and the best story in the wake of Trump’s defeat will be one that absolves the right of any blame for the abject state in which the GOP could find itself after November 3.
So far, two camps have emerged with competing assessments of Trump’s failures. Both are plausible and compelling but also reinforce the authors’ preexisting critiques of the president.
First, there are those who contend that Trump’s defeat will be attributable to his willingness to listen to more establishmentarian Republicans’ counsel.
The pandemic provided Trump with the perfect opportunity to indulge his own biases, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat contended. He could have leaned into his visceral mistrust of global integration and closed the borders. He could have consulted his own reflexive protectionist preferences and implored congressional Republicans to spare no expense during COVID relief negotiations. He could have indulged his famous germaphobia and become the preeminent national spokesperson for low-impact interventions like masking and social distancing. Instead, he listened to the other guys and look where it got him? National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty issued a similar diagnosis: “If Trump loses this race,” he wrote, “it will be because he was too self-obsessed and forgot the forgotten man that he campaigned for in 2016.
The other camp contends that the president is headed for defeat in two weeks not despite his instincts but because of them.
Former House Speaker Paul Ryan laid the foundations for this argument in early 2019. “If this is about Donald Trump and his personality,” Ryan affirmed, “he isn’t going to win it.” Sen. Ben Sasse elaborated on the president’s character defects last week during a phone call with his constituents. “The way he kisses dictators’ butts,” the Senator assessed, “the way he treats women and spends like a drunken sailor,” how “he’s flirted with white supremacists,” and how “his family has treated the presidency like a business opportunity” have all contributed to his downfall. In the wake of Trump’s defeat, the Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis advises the GOP to submit to a forensic audit and commit to new litmus tests that would impose standards of “character and comportment” on the party’s nominees moving forward.
But there will not be any forensic audit. This GOP will conduct no autopsies on itself. These two rival camps have misread the political moment by rooting their analyses in objective and observable realities. There will be no appetite among disheartened Republicans for recriminations and prescriptive diagnostics. This is the era of the exculpatory conspiracy theory, in which no amount of paranoia is too much so long as it absolves its proponents of any responsibility for their own circumstances.
Such retrospectives on the Trump presidency don’t necessarily have to be wildly implausible. Maybe the most attractive argument of this sort will chalk the president’s loss up to an act of God. But for the pathogen that ground the global economy to a halt and robbed the president of his ability to talk up economic gains under his leadership, Trump might still be in office. Thus, there are no broader lessons to be learned by the outcome of the 2020 race and, more important, there’s no one in particular to blame.
Another exculpatory theory of the case will be that a cabal of powerful interests deprived the president of access to the American public. Media along with technological, governmental, and public-health establishments aligned against the president and presented an insurmountable obstacle between Trump and the voters he was trying to reach. And, of course, the irritating handful of conservatives who didn’t give themselves over entirely to the president’s personality cult—Trumpism’s covert wreckers and saboteurs—will take on outsize importance relative to their numbers.
These and other nascent extenuating theories that inoculate Trump (and the party he reshaped in his own image over the last four years) of responsibility for a loss will elicit eye-rolls from more discerning observers on the right. But those well-meaning voices are all but certain to be drowned out by the party’s conspiracy theorists.
The president has already taken to the so-called QAnon movement—an amalgamation of paranoiacs who believe that Trump’s every action is calculated to advance virtuous national interests, even (perhaps especially) his most transparent blunders. This formerly fringe group now boasts its own Republican candidates headed to Congress. It enjoys the tacit or overt support of some of the party’s most well-connected fundraisers. Even relatively mainstream Republicans like Rep. Matt Gaetz and Sen. Kelly Loeffler see no downsides to associating themselves with this intrigue. And if a September Pew Research Center survey is to be believed, the 41 percent of Republicans who think “QAnon is a good thing for the country” will serve as the vocal vanguard dedicated to Trump’s absolution.
Of course, this would all be mooted by a Trump victory, and he still has a narrow path to reelection. But even if this president leaves office in bad odor, there will be no 2012-style autopsies of the Trump era. For the right, the urgent political project will be the development of an elaborate excuse—even one that strains credulity. Because few will really want to know what happened. They’ll just want to avoid being blamed for it.