More than a year after the 2020 presidential election cycle, signs for former President Donald Trump still graced the front lawns of homes across the country. And it wasn’t just lawns. Front porches, sides of barns, boats and motorcycles all proudly flew Trump flags.
It was and remains a phenomenon that few outside of those who displayed that sentiment understood. The press saw it as a cult; Democrats believed that, and so did a lot of Republicans. So, instead of exploring it and asking voters the “whys,” they spent 2021 running for or against Trump or writing endless stories about Trump.
What they missed was that these signs weren’t necessarily about fealty to Trump himself. For most of those posting them, this was probably about reminding themselves and anyone else that they were still who they were. They were not going to disappear just because Trump lost.
In short, if you were a Trump supporter, you can still feel grateful for his policies yet be ready for someone new. You can be proud that he called out the press and the bureaucracy, and that he had official Washington’s head exploding on a daily basis, yet still understand that the Trump era is over.
The press has had a very difficult time processing this nuance. In their mind’s eye, these sentiments are inconsistent. You are either a member of the cult or you aren’t.
This shortsighted view caused them to miss the massive shift rightward in states across the country ahead of the 2021 off-year election cycle — not just in Virginia and New Jersey, but in down-ballot elections across the country for school boards, sheriffs’ offices and municipal row offices in places where Republicans rarely compete, let alone win.
In New York state, Democrats conceded afterward that Republican wins in bedroom and suburban communities across the state had been a shellacking. Same in Pennsylvania, where Republicans won three of four statewide judicial races, retaining a seat on the state Supreme Court and at least gaining ground with voters in Democratic-leaning places such as Chester, Delaware and Bucks counties.
The press wasn’t alone; the Democrats ran the bulk of their messaging tying Trump and Trump voters in with the riot of Jan. 6, 2021. What they missed is that, although voters understand the circumstances of that day, they moved on a long time ago. They are concerned now with the circumstances that actually affect their daily lives — fanatical pandemic restrictions, inflation, crime, supply-chain disruptions, border insecurity, foreign policy weakness and the like. Many of them believe that the hundreds of hooligans who stormed the Capitol are less threatening to their well-being and prosperity today than the leaders who have allowed all of these problems to get out of control.
A recent Morning Consult survey suggests that Jan. 6 is far from voters’ minds heading into this year’s midterm contests. Nearly half of voters (47%) said they don’t expect the events of last January to have any impact on their votes in November. And yes, two-thirds of them say it’s important to investigate the riot.
In short, you can move on from the riot yet still find it disturbing and expect accountability for it.
You would think Democrats would have figured that out after trying to tie the two together throughout 2021. They haven’t. Democrats’ premier super PAC, Priorities USA, just launched a six-figure ad buy called “Coup.” Its narrator opens with a dark and dire warning — “Last time was just a test run” — accompanied by scenes of Trump supporters flooding the Capitol.
Some Republicans have also failed to move on. Some believe that they need Trump’s endorsement to win, so they at least pay lip service to the idea that the 2020 election was stolen. They are making a big mistake.
A special election held in North Texas last summer, for the 6th Congressional District, shows a path forward. A good candidate with a positive message defeated the Trump-endorsed widow of the incumbent, who had died from COVID-19. Most in the press doubted that Texas state Rep. Jake Ellzey could defeat Susan Wright, but he did just that, besting her by 6 points in a Republican-versus-Republican runoff.
Everyone saw it as an upset. But you have to wonder how much time they spent talking to voters about something other than Trump. They wanted to write a story about the cult of Trump, the story that dominates Twitter every day. But that story was not the real story.
Last week, Fox News anchor Bret Baier asked Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell about the GOP, and whether the Kentucky Republican believes Trump will be a help to him in the midterm elections.
McConnell’s wisdom, a wisdom conservative populists often view as suspect, went largely undetected, but he was remarkably on-point about what voters are thinking.
“I think the midterm election almost certainly is going to be a referendum on the party in power,” McConnell said. “This is an entirely Democratic government — Democratic president, House and Senate. They are in charge of governing. And these midterm elections are always a report card on the performance of those who are in charge, those who are governing. I think the American people are about to send this administration a pretty big message, that they do not approve of all the things that are going wrong.”
They should have all learned from 2021. Voters moved on long ago. If you obsess over Trump in 2022, it will kill you. Certainly, it is killing the Democrats and the media right now.
For his part, Trump could choose to run again in 2024. Whether he is running or not, he is only hurting himself by relitigating 2020. He, too, should be forward-looking because that is where the voters are. The voters, even the ones who still love Trump, are unlikely to make decisions about tomorrow looking through the rearview mirror.
Salena Zito joined the Washington Examiner in 2016 as a Western Pennsylvania-based columnist and reporter covering national politics and culture. She is also a weekly columnist at the New York Post, contributes to The Wall Street Journal and co-authored “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics” with Brad Todd. In 2018, she won first place for her columns in the Associated Press for her coverage of American politics, and she also won the Barbara Olson award for excellence and independence in journalism.
She has taught journalism at the Harvard Institute of Politics, Washington and Lee University, and Hillsdale College.
She has interviewed every president, vice president and candidate who sought their party’s nomination on both sides of the aisle in the 21st century.