Opinion: Trump is on the defensive for the first time in years

File photo/Hilary Swift/The New York Times / Donald Trump speaks at his fly-in campaign rally in Latrobe, Pa., on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022.
File photo/Hilary Swift/The New York Times / Donald Trump speaks at his fly-in campaign rally in Latrobe, Pa., on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022.

We're used to watching Donald Trump going on offense. In announcing that he will run for president once more, though, Trump sounded unusually defensive. Last week's midterm elections, he suggested, had gone well for Republicans, giving them control of the House, and would have gone even better if only the American public fully understood how dire the country's condition is.

For the first time in years, Trump is running against prevailing Republican emotions. Most Republicans are upset about the election results, which include the loss of governorships and possibly a Senate seat. The leading explanation for the Republican disappointments is that they're Trump's fault: He picked "low quality" candidates in crucial races. Widespread acceptance of that idea has led a lot of Republicans, even ones who backed him strongly in the past, to say or signal that the party should find a new leader.

This blame-Trump narrative is oversimplified. Trump didn't select the candidates; Republican primary voters did. And they had shown a weakness for candidates who are better at getting attention than votes long before Trump rode down his escalator. Remember when Herman Cain led the polls for the Republican presidential nomination in 2011? That moment ended only when several women accused him of sexual harassment, a revelation that may have come to light earlier if he had made credible runs for office before.

The truer, more complicated story doesn't make Trump look any better. His success in 2016 encouraged the assumption that the usual laws of political gravity no longer applied. Outrageous statements and scandals, a lack of what had previously been considered qualifications for office, even unpopularity: None of this mattered any more. The seeming overthrow of the old rules encouraged runs by candidates who would not have attempted them before, and encouraged primary voters to support them.

As it turned out, however, breaking the old rules still cost candidates votes in general elections. Trump won in 2016 even though he was the least popular major-party nominee in U.S. history only because his opponent, Hillary Clinton, was the second-least-popular. Nominating a slate of candidates who had never run for lower offices and who took positions far from the median voter didn't pay off for Republicans in 2022.

Neither did selecting candidates based on their willingness to indulge Trump's lies about how the 2020 election was stolen from him by fraud. Most voters don't believe this bit of Trump mythology.

The candidates who agreed that Trump had won in 2020, or pretended to, didn't just look disconnected from reality and potentially dangerous for democracy. They also looked weak, as though they were more interested in pleasing Trump than in either serving the voters or being themselves.

Voters who "somewhat disapprove" of the president's performance usually vote heavily for the other party in midterm elections. This time, they backed those Republicans who met the threshold test of acceptability. But they voted against Republicans who seemed like -- to use the technical political-science term -- weirdos. Stop-the-steal rhetoric was a merit badge of weirdness.

The more deeply a Republican candidate dove into the pit of denying Trump's defeat in 2020, the higher the penalty they paid in votes. It's a pattern that may help explain why Trump's announcement speech was notably light on claims to have won two years ago.

Yet all this leaves Trump with another problem. His effort to remain in office may have started two years ago as a way to salve his ego, but it has also helped to extend his political life. Take away the myth of widespread voter fraud in 2020, and he's not the guy who had the election stolen from him. He's the guy who lost to Joe Biden. And that's someone Republican primary voters might abandon.