Why Republicans are depressed

Democratic Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Doug Jones and wife Louise acknowledge supporters at the election night party in Birmingham, Alabama, December 12, 2017.
Marvin Gentry | Reuters
Democratic Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Doug Jones and wife Louise acknowledge supporters at the election night party in Birmingham, Alabama, December 12, 2017.

Being the dominant governing party is a mixed bag. You and your allies enjoy all the perks and can set the agenda, but your freedom of action is limited not just by the Constitution's checks on authority but the prudential compromises that republican politics demands.

Politicians promise the world on the stump. When they fail to deliver, they leave a trail of disaffected partisans in their wake. So, for true believers, being in power often means being disappointed, but Republicans appear to be uniquely depressed. And why shouldn't they be? Most of what they hear from the sources they trust is how much they are losing.

Following a series of unsatisfying "moral victories" at the polls in 2017, Democrats managed to engineer an old-fashioned kind of victory in, of all places, Alabama. FiveThirtyEight's analysts crunched the numbers and found that (by comparing the vote margin in the last two elections to the nation as a whole) Democrats outperformed the state's traditional partisan leanings by 31 points. Some of that margin is likely attributable to the Alabama GOP's decision to nominate one of the most unqualified, poisonous candidates for U.S. Senate in modern American history, but not all of it.

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In the most hotly contested special elections in 2017, the Democratic Party beat expectations almost across the board. That performance tracks with how Democrats fared in November's off-year elections. The party took back the governor's mansion in New Jersey and held it in Virginia. It captured legislative seats in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, and New Hampshire and engineered the largest shift in Virginia since Reconstruction.

In fact, one of the only races in which Democrats underperformed was a special election in Utah's 3rd District. That tells you something; the only state in which the local Republican Party isn't just skeptical but actively anti-Trump was the only place where the GOP turned out.

From Georgia to Alabama, from California to Maine, Democrats have managed to get their voters to the polls at rates commensurate with turnout in a presidential year. That's a remarkable feat, for sure, but Democratic enthusiasm is only half of the story of 2017.

The other half is the GOP slump. Even venues that are almost explicitly designed to cheer up Republicans are no longer doing the trick. A Suffolk University/USA Today survey released this week found that Trump's favorability among Fox News Channel viewers has declined from 90 percent in June to 74 percent in October to just 58 percent in December—a 32-point decline over six months.

Reasonable conservatives who take the Trump presidency as a whole have observed that there is a lot to like about this administration. On the domestic front, the Trump White House has either allowed hundreds of onerous regulations to expire or it has never implemented them in the first place.

"Democratic enthusiasm is only half of the story of 2017. The other half is the GOP slump."

In concert with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the administration has aggressively confirmed conservative judges to federal judicial appointments. The administration is dismantling Obama-era abuses, ranging from the deconstruction of ObamaCare to the abandonment of Orwellian Title IX tribunalson American campuses. And Donald Trump's foreign policy is a laudable one, mostly because the president abandoned his populist blustering about the supposed costs of maintaining America's alliances and free-trade obligations.

It isn't just the "Never Trump" right that has avoided introspective rumination on these particulars. The pro-Trump media world seems utterly bored by them. Unremarkably, the pro-Trump media landscape has devoted its attention to Donald Trump's chief concern: real or imagined slights to his ego.

Average conservative voters have spent 2017 observing the arbiters of discourse on the right focus on the alleged wiring of Trump Tower by pro-Obama forces in the "deep state." They've bristled at the impunity with which Trump administration officials were supposedly "unmasked" by Obama officials like Susan Rice to achieve political ends.

They've marveled at the injustice of allowing untold millions of illegal immigrants to steal the popular vote from Trump in 2016. They've been consumed with the nefarious conspiracy by Democrats, the press, foreign officials, and political consultants to misuse intelligence products to shackle the president.

The FBI, the Department of Justice, the CIA; all are in on the plot to undermine the Trump presidency from within. Establishment Republicans who have criticized Trump for threatening his Department of Justice or failing to condemn white nationalism with proper zeal are eager to see the president fail.

Trump officials administer these agencies that are supposedly engineering these egregious violations of the public trust, and these agencies are overseen by GOP-dominated congressional committees. Why would any Republican be moved to vote for more Republicans if these are the results? These intractable obstacles in the way of Trump render their vote meaningless. A conservative might be tempted to wallow in despair.

Of course, one could argue that Donald Trump cannot simultaneously be a successful president and be the victim of a remorseless campaign of sabotage orchestrated by Maoist insurgents weaving silently in and out of the bureaucracy. It's also not illogical to suggest that a competent president can overcome a bureaucratic culture arrayed in opposition to Republican policy objectives; it has been done before.

For whatever reason, though, these arguments do not energize the pro-Trump conservative commentariat. After all, being buffeted by events beyond your control is, in a way, comforting. There is a perverse kind of freedom in lacking agency.

For a movement that is united in antipathy toward a culture of victimization in theory, conservatives have spent 2017 demonstrating that they're not all that opposed to it in practice. Perceiving yourself as persecuted might get you to tune in, but it won't get you to turn out; not if your ambitions are only going to be thwarted by unseen forces.

The right spent the last decade relegating Democrats to a position of powerlessness they hadn't known in nearly a century, and for what? Only to have their agenda scuttled by Fusion GPS and Agent Peter Strozk? No wonder Republicans are depressed.

Commentary by Noah Rothman, the associate editor of Commentary magazine. Follow him on Twitter @noahcrothman.

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