Midterm losses typically humble a sitting president of the United States, but Donald Trump is beyond humbling.
He is the most unbowed president ever to lose a house of Congress. Anyone who thought Trump would be taken down a notch, even by a more stinging electoral rebuke, doesn’t know the man. He will remain the ringmaster of American politics until the day, presumably in January 2021 or 2025, when he gets on Marine One for the last time.
He made the midterms about him, because, really, what else would he make them about? Trump will never lose his interest in airtime, or the ratings. He boasted at a rally that, thanks to him, interest in the midterms was running higher than ever. And he was right.
Even if Democrats had a larger victory, on the scale of the Republican sweep in 1994, it would be impossible to imagine Trump getting upstaged.
After the so-called Republican Revolution, Newt Gingrich became a figure of fascination and stole the bully pulpit out from under President Bill Clinton. Gingrich soaked up every ounce of the attention and sought to govern the country from the House. This was ultimately unsustainable because a House speaker, no matter how compelling, isn’t the president of the United States, and the undisciplined Gingrich didn’t hold up well under the press attention.
Trump, in contrast, still owns the microphone.
His 90-minute Q&A in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday was expansive, combative, boastful, gripping, outlandish, conciliatory, amusing — and unlike any postelection news conference we’ve ever seen (even without Trump mentioning, by the by, that he was firing his attorney general).
The press loved every minute of it, practically begging him to keep going. The perverse symbiotic relationship between Trump and the media, so key to the success of both, is alive and well.
According to Trump, the election wasn’t a “thumpin’” or “shellacking” — George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s words for their own setbacks — it was a personal victory that had been blighted by some Republicans not sufficiently embracing him. He proceeded to mock by name fellow Republicans who had lost, in another presidential first.
Trump has legitimate bragging rights: The Republican showing in the Senate was strong. His political base is still there for him, and in many key statewide races, there for the candidate he endorsed and stumped for. His rallies are still a hot ticket. He now has a cadre of allies, like newly elected Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whom he basically created.
Alienating traditional Republican voters in the suburbs, of course, comes with a real cost. For one thing, it hands Democrats a constituency spread throughout the country, as demonstrated by the GOP carnage in widely dispersed House races.
But, for Trump’s purposes, the GOP’s strength in Florida, Ohio and Iowa suggests that, all things being equal, key pieces of his 2016 electoral map are still ripe for the picking in 2020.
Losing the House is a blow, not so much because it stalls Trump’s congressional agenda (there wasn’t going to be much of one), but because he now has an adversary with subpoena power.
So far, Nancy Pelosi has been restrained. She steered clear of flamboyant Resistance-like rhetoric and talk of impeachment. Unlike the left’s activists and cable-talkers, her candidates didn’t let themselves get whipped into a perpetual frenzy about Trump and stuck relentlessly to their message on health care.
But investigative conflict with the president looms. The subject matter will be most unwelcome to Trump, including his tax returns and his businesses. The fight won’t be. It will be high-stakes combat of the sort that he thrives on, the more intense, perilous and dramatic, the better. Because he will be at the center of it.
Trump’s genius at keeping our interest is undimmed, whether we are appalled, energized or entertained. He’s so far avoided a fate worse than electoral setbacks — getting tuned out.
Rich Lowry can be reached via emaila at firstname.lastname@example.org.