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Republicans were expecting a landslide victory, but that didn't happen

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some candidates linked to former President Trump went down in flames on Tuesday. Others are struggling, as the votes are still being counted, and some Republicans have lost no time in assigning blame. Jonah Goldberg is here. He is editor-in-chief of The Dispatch and a regular guest on this program. Welcome back.

JONAH GOLDBERG: Always great to be here.

INSKEEP: What is the opportunity that some Republicans may see in the disappointment from Tuesday?

GOLDBERG: The opportunity is to finally divorce itself from, essentially, the cult of personality of Donald Trump. And you're seeing that happen in - well, we should be careful. There have been plenty of times where it seemed like this was the moment where Donald Trump was going to fade away, and he didn't.

INSKEEP: Roughly one a day. Yes, yes. It's true. Go on.

GOLDBERG: Yeah. So that said, the number of people and the scale of people who formerly carried more water for Trump than Gunga Din, who are now feeling free to speak more openly about his negative effect on the party, is really remarkable, particularly coming out of sort of the broader Murdoch-Fox News world. The New York Post is vicious on this. The Wall Street Journal is hammer and tongs. And various Fox hosts are just basically all saying - you know, all eyes are turning to DeSantis, it feels. And that's new.

INSKEEP: I think The New York Post headline, their front-page headline, was a picture of Ron DeSantis and the word DeFuture (ph). Is that right?

GOLDBERG: That's right. And then today's cover, I believe, is Donald Trump as Humpty Dumpty fallen off a wall.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK. That's going right at it.

GOLDBERG: Yes.

INSKEEP: But I should be clear here, Mara Liasson, our national political correspondent, referred to Trump in the past as an 800-pound gorilla who perhaps is now a 700-pound gorilla, which is still a lot of pounds.

GOLDBERG: Oh, for sure. And in part because of the terrible way primaries work or, really, the terrible existence of primaries at all, all Trump still needs is a significant plurality of votes. So it's still hard to say he couldn't win the nomination. It's just very easy to say he couldn't win the presidency if he got the nomination. You know, the same collective action problem that dominated the Republican primaries in 2016 still exists. It's what some game theorists call belling the cat. It is in the interest of all the mice to put a bell on the cat. It is not in the interest of any individual mouse to be the one to put the bell on the cat.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

GOLDBERG: And so we have - you still have that problem. But the fact that the red wave actually happened in Florida and nowhere else sets up Ron DeSantis as a way to say he can deliver victory where Trump basically has only delivered defeat because the most prominently Trump-backed candidates either lost or are - look like they're going to lose and certainly - and most did quite badly. And everyone knows that that was Trump's influence. Also it's going to start to trickle out that one of the reasons why Republicans all vote on Election Day is because Donald Trump basically threw in the garbage pile the Republican vote-by-mail operation, which was once better than the Democrats' not very long ago.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Yeah.

GOLDBERG: And, you know - so, like, both on policy and on issues and on framing and also just the general assumption that sounding like a jerk, sounding like - where the cruelty is the point is good politics, it's dawning on some people that that is actually a bad way to approach politics, even for Donald Trump but certainly for his imitators.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the politics here briefly coming forward because Republicans seem likely still to capture the House with a narrow majority. They have said they want investigations of the Biden administration, maybe some impeachments, maybe a lot of impeachments. Who knows? Biden was asked about that yesterday. He responded, if they want to waste their time, fine. He's going to work on what people want. Which of them has the politics right?

GOLDBERG: So this is, again, part of the problem is that - and it's just too soon to tell whether we're actually - that this stuff is going to get better. The incentive structure on the right is to do fan service and infotainment for the base. The incentive structure on big chunks of the left is the same. And the base of the Republican Party is going to want to see Hunter Biden's laptop and Hunter Biden's life dissected like he was a medical specimen in a 19th-century medical school. And that's going to happen, or at least there's going to be a very strong effort to do that. Moreover, just neither party can get anything done if the Republicans control one branch of Congress, which looks likely. And so it's going to be gridlock for a long time. I think that Biden probably will have the politics on his side. I just don't know that he is up to exploiting them in a way that makes him a good candidate for 2024.

INSKEEP: OK. Jonah, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

GOLDBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.