In 1994, when Republicans picked up 54 House seats and emerged as the majority party for the first time in 40 years, the incumbent president was self-reflective and contrite. Bill Clinton knew the results were devastating and read them as a failure to abide by his campaign promise to govern as a centrist New Democrat following a divisive and failed attempt at a universal health care policy. He understood that he would have to share the stage with incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had engineered the Republican Revolution, if he had any hope of returning to political relevance. So Clinton changed course, positioning himself between the conservative House majority and his party’s liberals, co-opting the Republican agenda, spinning it a little to the left, and brokering deals between the two sides. He was re-elected two years later with 379 electoral votes.
In 2010, when Republicans picked up 63 House seats and emerged as the majority party in the most lopsided midterm victory since 1938, the incumbent president was self-reflective and contrite. Barack Obama knew the results were devastating and read them as a personal failure to remain in touch with public opinion while shepherding a controversial health care policy through congress. He admitted that he had been humbled by the outcome and knew that his days as a legislative president were over. So Obama changed course, redirecting his focus from action to rhetoric while shifting from offense to defense in the wake of conservative attempts to roll back the health care law. He was re-elected two years later with 332 electoral votes.
Which brings us to last week, when Democrats overcame what should have been an insurmountable gerrymander and netted between 35 and 40 seats to reclaim the House majority, their biggest midterm victory since the Watergate election of 1974. The president’s reaction? “Tremendous success tonight!,” he tweeted. “Thank you to all!” His press secretary called the result a “huge victory for the president.” Presidential counselor KellyAnne Conway said, “The fact that we’re not talking about a ‘shellacking’ tonight … really tells you a lot about our president and my boss.”
And, you know, it really does. Donald Trump’s ability to live in his own world is rivaled only by his ability to convince his strongest supporters to live there with him. His ego and his brand depend on the inevitability of winning. Through his first two years in office, Trump has kept his supporters enthralled by validating their fears while convincing them that he alone can deliver the victories they desire against the forces of change arrayed against them. To maintain that loyalty, he—they—must win all the time. There has to be so much winning that they’ll get tired of winning. Trump’s enemies? They have to be losers. Even former winners who stop serving Trump’s interests, like his one-time lawyer and confidant Michael Cohen, are branded losers as they are kicked out of the kingdom.
So far, Trump has been able to deflect attention from his failures with the help of Twitter and his allies in conservative media. But maintaining a narrative of perpetual winning got a lot harder last week. As more ballots were counted and Democratic wins piled up, as incoming House committee chairs began detailing the investigations they plan to conduct in January, it became increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that the 2018 election was far from a tremendous success for a president who asked voters to make the midterms a referendum on him. Trump’s losses are the dominant theme of mainstream post-election news analysis, and you have to wonder if the gravity of what happened has penetrated Trump’s capacity for denial. It’s possible that the president’s surly, reclusive behavior in recent days is unrelated to the election, but it’s also possible that he instinctively recognizes how the illusion of winning has been breached. His ego has been assaulted and his brand is under threat. This would be a great time to catch the next train out of town before his supporters figure it out. Except, of course, he can’t.
Sober Republicans intent on salvaging the party in 2020 face a related problem. They understand quite well what happened last week, and would prefer the president take a realistic look at how he has been pushing suburban women out of the Republican coalition. They know that midterm elections do not have to be predictive of the general elections that follow, provided the losing party gets the message and changes course. And they should fear that will not happen as long as Donald Trump is less interested in admitting defeat or accepting responsibility than in restoring his dominant place in the political order before his supporters sense weakness.