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Republicans Have Learned Nothing From the Midterms

They stood with Trump as he demonized undocumented immigrants, and got clobbered for it. They're doing it again—and will get clobbered again.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Ahead of last year’s midterms, President Trump telegraphed his electoral strategy. “Hard to believe that with thousands of people from South of the Border, walking unimpeded toward our country in the form of large Caravans, that the Democrats won’t approve legislation that will allow laws for the protection of our country,” he tweeted in mid-October. “Great Midterm issue for Republicans!” To that end, he held rallies across the country, fomenting fear with racist claims about a migrant caravan that was largely made up of families fleeing violence in Central America. Trump also tweeted a veiled warning to his party: “Republicans must make the horrendous, weak and outdated immigration laws, and the Border, a part of the Midterms!”

They got the message. As the Times reported less than a week after that tweet, “Trump has not been alone in seeking to divide the electorate along racial lines this fall: As the congressional elections have approached, a number of Republican candidates and political committees have delivered messages plainly aimed at stoking cultural anxiety among white voters and even appealing to overt racism.”

The strategy failed spectacularly. The party’s anti-immigrant rhetoric may have motivated the GOP base, but not as much as it motivated Democrats and independents. The Republicans got shellacked, losing 40 seats in the House in the worst popular-vote midterm defeat in history.* The results can be read as nothing short of repudiation of Trump’s immigration policies.

And yet, here we are today: The Republicans have let Trump lead the country into what will soon be its longest-ever government shutdown, all over an immigration policy that voters roundly rejected last November. The party’s leaders, notably Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, could break this impasse by joining with Democrats to pass a veto-proof funding bill. Instead, they continue to stick by the president, as they have done—to their increasing detriment—since he became the party’s nominee in 2016. They paid a price for doing so last year, but refuse to learn their lesson.

Republicans never truly reckoned with the midterms. Their defeat of several high-profile Democrats—Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Gillum, and Stacey Abrams—and two-seat gain in the Senate allowed them to put a positive spin on the results. (Never mind that many of those candidates were long-shots, and that the Senate map was a nightmare for Democrats.) Also, more than a dozen House races weren’t certified until weeks after the election, obscuring the extent of the GOP’s losses. Much of the initial media coverage thus didn’t declare what would later become apparent: This was every bit the “blue wave” that had been predicted.

When Republican leaders finally were asked about the midterms, they made excuses. Paul Ryan, then retiring as House speaker, echoed Trump’s conspiratorial language, blaming court-ordered redistricting in Pennsylvania and California’s voting procedures. “First of all, it’s suburban voters. Pennsylvania redistricting and California just defies logic to me,” Ryan told The Washington Post in November. “This election system they have [in California], I can’t begin to understand it.” Kevin McCarthy, now the House minority leader, told his caucus that “history was against” the party, as if the defeat was fated—and said he would continue to back the president.

But mostly, Republicans have put their heads in the sand, refusing to consider the implications of the midterm results or the role the president and his immigration policy played. “There has been close to no introspection in the G.O.P. conference and really no coming to grips with the shifting demographics that get to why we lost those seats,” New York Republican Elise Stefanik told The New York Times. “I’m very frustrated and I know other members are frustrated.”

That lack of introspection has once again pushed Republicans to back the president as he advances an unpopular immigration policy supported by only a third of Americans. To an extent, they are standing behind him out of fear. Given Trump’s hounding of opponents within his own party—senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker both retired rather than run for reelection—there is some concern that stepping out of line will attract the ire of the president and his allies in conservative media, ultimately resulting in their defeat to a pro-Trump challenger in their next primary election.

But it also points to a Republican leadership that is completely neutered. Two years ago, they made what could be seen as a calculated bet. They decided to defend the president, both from the Russia investigation and from his many self-inflicted wounds, in exchange for a shot at repealing Obamacare and passing a $1.5 trillion corporate tax cut. With Democrats now in control of the House—and, again, with ample evidence that the president’s immigration policies are not popular with a majority of voters—they have little incentive to continue to stand behind the president as he prolongs his self-destructive government shutdown, especially now that 800,000 federal workers are missing a paycheck.

On Tuesday, Trump gave a nationally televised address to make his case for a border wall. It sounded exactly like the case he made before the midterms. “Over the years, thousands of Americans have been brutally killed by those who illegally entered our country and thousands more lives will be lost if we don’t act right now,” he said, describing a police officer who was “savagely murdered in cold blood by an illegal alien” and an air force veteran who was “raped, murdered, and beaten to death with a hammer by an illegal alien with a long criminal history.”

And where are the Republicans? Much like last fall, they have either backed Trump publicly or kept quiet, the latter group surely hoping that this standoff will damage only the president, not the party. But this is exactly the gamble they made two months ago. Despite a wealth of evidence that the president’s immigration rhetoric and policies are broadly unpopular, McConnell, McCarthy, and the rest of Republicans in Congress are too cowardly or loyal to buck the president. It cost them dearly in 2018. It will cost them even more in 2020.

Repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results is, of course, the definition of insanity. It’s also what defines the Republican Party.

* This article has been updated to clarify the historic nature of Republicans’ midterm defeat in 2018.