Wounded Bear.

John Ellis
8 min readMay 31, 2022

1. National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar is as good as they come in the business of political reporting and analysis. Here’s what he had to say about the primaries in Georgia and Alabama last Tuesday. (The column was headlined: “The Republican Establishment Strikes Back”):

Last night’s Southern slate of primaries demonstrated that where there’s a Republican will to take on former President Trump, there’s a way to win. In Georgia and Alabama, Republicans nominated or advanced mainstream candidates in nearly every contested race, including a resounding landslide victory from Gov. Brian Kemp and a come-from-behind upset from Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

Trump-endorsed candidates who denied the results of the 2020 election were embarrassed. Former Sen. David Perdue, one of the very few Republican candidates to receive millions from Trump’s campaign organization, won a measly 22 percent of the vote in Georgia against the sitting governor. Rep. Jody Hice, Trump’s handpicked candidate for Secretary of State who amplified conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, lagged behind Raffensperger by 19 points and will be out of office come November. Trump’s candidate for Georgia Attorney General, John Gordon, won just about one-quarter of the GOP vote. Even his picks for wide-open House races lagged behind the competition: Vernon Jones, the self-proclaimed “Black Donald Trump,” finished second in Georgia’s 10th District primary and is headed to a runoff against Republican Mike Collins. Physician Rich McCormick held a two-to-one edge over his Trump-endorsed rival Jake Evans; that contest is also headed to a June runoff.

Trump’s one victory came in the Georgia Senate race, where his favored candidate Herschel Walker sailed to an easy primary victory over several lesser-known challengers. But establishment Republicans also ended up rallying behind Walker, making it an imperfect case study of Trump’s power within the party.

Financial Times Washington columnist Ed Luce is a sharp and well-informed analyst of American politics. Here’s his take on Trump “losing his stranglehold” on Republicans:

Trump’s handicap is that he is obsessed with one issue — that he was cheated by Joe Biden of his rightful election victory in 2020. Most Republican voters share in that belief, which is a litmus test for candidates. Yet the stolen election myth is their politics’ starting point, not its be-all and end-all. By confining himself to rigged elections, Trump is forgetting MAGA’s animating spirit, which is hatred of America’s cultural elites.

When Trump’s monomania backfires, it leaves him looking weak. His sole reason for endorsing David Perdue as Georgia’s Republican gubernatorial candidate was that he agreed the incumbent, Brian Kemp, was wrong to certify Biden’s victory in 2020. Backing Perdue was Trump’s revenge for Kemp’s disloyalty. But Kemp will win easily. It is even possible that Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, who resisted Trump’s direct plea to “find” his missing votes, will also be re-elected. (Ed Note: He wasn’t re-elected, but he did win the GOP nomination with more than 50 percent of the vote, thus precluding a run-off primary)

The more this happens, the less fear Trump will instill in his party. Once a strongman loses the ability to terrorize, a loss of respect is rarely far behind. Kemp’s selling point was that he fed MAGA’s cultural agenda. He has made it far harder for Georgians to get an abortion, much easier to carry concealed guns and more difficult to vote, which is red meat to the base. Kemp’s only sin is in not catering to Trump’s injured pride, which can evidently be ignored. (Ed. Note: italics mine)

Most everyone in the national political press corps and roughly the same number of “traditional” Republicans want the analyses quoted above to be true.

Is it?

One way to find out is to call 1–800-Kevin McCarthy.

In the immediate aftermath of the January 6th attempted putsch/riots, Rep. (and House Minority Leader) Kevin McCarthy said to a few of his colleagues “I’ve had it with this guy” (meaning then-President Donald Trump). This “according to an audio recording of the conversation obtained by The New York Times.” The New York Times report continues:

On Jan. 10, Mr. McCarthy spoke again with the leadership team.

When Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming asked about the chances Mr. Trump might resign, Mr. McCarthy said he was doubtful, but he had a plan.

The Democrats were driving hard at an impeachment resolution, Mr. McCarthy said, and they would have the votes to pass it. Now he planned to call Mr. Trump and tell him it was time for him to go.

Mr. McCarthy said he would tell Mr. Trump of the impeachment resolution: “I think this will pass, and it would be my recommendation you should resign,” he said, according to the recording of the call, which runs just over an hour. The Times has reviewed the full recording of the conversation.

He acknowledged it was unlikely Mr. Trump would follow that suggestion.

“What he did is unacceptable. Nobody can defend that and nobody should defend it,” he told the group.

Everyone knows what happened next. Republican Party operatives and elected officials polled Republican voters nationally and in key states and found that “having had it” with Donald Trump was bad career advice. The (much) smarter play was to sign onto “Stop the Steal,” “January 6th was no big deal” and “let’s burn Liz Cheney at the stake.” Mr. McCarthy signed onto that program with alacrity and apologetic gusto, as did all but a dozen (or so) members of the GOP House Caucus.

They all behaved that way because that’s how the polling told them to behave if they wanted to keep their jobs. Republican voters and (especially) Republican primary voters did not support the impeachment of Donald Trump. They supported Donald Trump, come hell and high water. And woe betide GOP elected officials who disagreed.

Now that Georgia and Alabama Republican primary voters have supposedly proven that a Republican politician can “cross” the former president and still win a primary election, it stands to reason that Rep. McCarthy will read the election returns (not polls, actual results) from those two states and begin to separate the his party’s (and his members’) fortunes from those of the former president. “Distancing,” it’s called. Sometimes it’s called “pivoting.”

I guarantee you this will not happen. Kevin McCarthy will not say one critical word about Donald Trump from now until never. And, after the mid-term elections, he will be the next Speaker of the US House of Representatives. So any GOP House member who wants to “get ahead” (better committee assignments, etc) will also refrain from any unfortunate assessments of Trump’s character or behaviors, should they be inclined to think such thoughts.

Trump hasn’t “lost his ability to terrorize” Republicans. He’s more terrifying to Republican elected officials and party operatives because of the Georgia and Alabama results. The bear is scary. The wounded bear is scarier. In the main, Republican office-holders have proven themselves to be scaredy-cats. There’s little evidence to suggest that that will change any time soon.

2. If you pay attention to American politics at all, you’ve been told again and again about various outside forces working to undermine our democracy. The Russians did this and the Chinese did that. Dark money buys outcomes. Special interest always win. Venezuelans doctor ballots. Software companies reverse precinct data. On (and on) it goes.

One wonders why they bother. Republicans and Democrats, together, now spend somewhere between $2 and $3 billion in mid-term election years convincing voters that elected officials and candidates for elected office are corrupt, crazed, and hell-bent on destroying the American way of life. If the target is a Democrat, he or she is a pro-criminal, baby-killing, illegal immigration-loving, devil-worshipping socialist, If the target is a Republican, he or she is a jack-booted neo-Nazi, bought and paid for by the NRA, hell-bent on destroying the rule of law and complicit in the destruction of the environment.

This isn’t a recent development. When I first started covering politics for the NBC News Election Unit, more than four decades ago, the political consulting firm Black, Manafort and Stone told anyone who would listen that they had discovered the secret to electoral success. Said secret was simple: if you could drive your opponent’s “negative rating” past a certain point (mid-40s, they thought), he or she became “unelectable.” By default, then, your candidate would win.

This “insight” soon became a central tenet of modern political campaigns. And because it worked — driving an opponent’s “negatives” close to 50% did indeed make victory more likely — campaigns devoted more and more money to negative “messaging.”

The rough math is this: Campaigns spend 75% of the money they raise on “messaging.” Messaging means TV, radio and digital advertising, social media “mentions” and “placements,” direct mail, texting, etcetera. Roughly 50% (probably more) of all messaging is “negative advertising” of one kind or another. So you take the amount of money spent, multiple it by .75, then divided that number by two and you have a ballpark estimate of how much money is spent on “negative messaging” in any given election year.

In 2020, $14 billion was spent on political campaigns and campaigning. Multiply 14 billion by .75 and you get $10.5 billion. Divide that number by two and you get $5.25 billion spent on negative messaging in the 2020 campaign season (2019–2020). The 2018 mid-term election saw campaigns raise and spend $5.7 billion. Seventy-five percent of that is $4.275 billion. Half of that is $2.37 billion. That’s a ballpark estimate of how much was spent in that cycle on negative message.

It’s been going on like this for 40 years, at least. The reason people no longer have much faith in the system is because they’ve been told that the people in the system are awful and the system itself is rigged against them. And this is just the paid messaging. Throw “attack” commentary and opinion from Fox News Channel, MSNBC, CNN, and hundreds of other “media outlets” and you are talking about amplifying negative messaging on a vast scale.

Indeed, if you think of American politics as a product, more than half of its advertising and marketing budget is spent on denigrating the product. And it’s not only convinced voters that the systems is hopelessly corrupt, it’s made running for public office seem like an act of lunacy. When David McCormick told friends that he was going to run for the GOP nomination for the US Senate in Pennsylvania those friends said to him: “that’s great, the country needs people like you.” What those friend thought was: “David’s obviously lost his mind.”

It isn’t going to change. If anything, as the mood of the electorate sours, it will get worse. Eventually, people will consider abandoning the product altogether. So long as certain checks and subsidies keep coming (Social Security and Medicare, chief among them), what difference does it make if it’s a democracy, a theocracy or an autocracy. The Russians needn’t lift a finger. Americans are much more effective at undermining American democracy.

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John Ellis

Founder and Editor, News Items. Political analyst. Founder of and contributing editor to Bird News Items. Former columnist for The Boston Globe.