What just happened? David Rothkopf on the midterm surprise and the Trump-DeSantis battle

Longtime Democratic insider on why the "red wave" evaporated, and why the GOP civil war is great news for America

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published November 15, 2022 9:59AM (EST)

Voters arrive to cast their ballots at the Phoenix Art Museum on November 08, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Voters arrive to cast their ballots at the Phoenix Art Museum on November 08, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Despite the alarm sirens proclaiming an incoming "red tsunami" in the midterm elections that might wash away the Democratic Party and American democracy, the actual results were quite different. Democrats will remain in control of the Senate with at least 50 seats, and quite possibly 51. While it appears nearly certain that Republicans will win a majority in the House, their margin will be very small and their caucus is rife with internal bickering. That outcome is far better for Democrats than most political observers and so-called experts predicted. 

Democrats also won several important state-level victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and Nevada, and Michigan that at least for now will help safeguard democracy and the rule of law — or at least prevent Republicans from nullifying and subverting future presidential elections.

Many countervailing factors were at work. It's certainly true that voters were concerned about inflation and "the economy," by historic measures should have punished Joe Biden and the Democrats as the incumbent party. But many voters were even more alarmed about Republican extremism and the threat that party posed to reproductive rights and the future of democracy. These preliminary explanations will certainly be complicated as time and distance yield more perspective. The narrative that younger voters and women saved the Democrats, for example, will require more unpacking: In fact, voters under 30 did not vote in higher proportions than other groups, but overwhelmingly voted Democratic. And while a majority of women clearly voted Democratic, it seems likely that white women (as is typical) were more likely to vote Republican.

In an effort to make sense of the 2022 midterms and their implications, I recently spoke with David Rothkopf, a columnist for the Daily Beast and USA Today, host of "Deep State Radio" and author of many books on politics and foreign policy. His new book is "American Resistance: The Inside Story of How the Deep State Saved the Nation." He was formerly editor and CEO of Foreign Policy and a senior official in the Clinton administration.

In this conversation, Rothkopf argues that there is no single unifying explanation for the Democrats' surprising victories in these midterms, and counsels that the threat to American democracy embodied by the Republican Party and Trumpism has not been vanquished or otherwise severely weakened. What we experienced leading up to the midterms, he says, was an echo-chamber effect that created a groupthink consensus that Republicans were on the verge of a huge victory. That was encouraged and amplified by Fox News and other right-wing propagandists who hoped to make Republican victory a fait accompli.

Rothkopf argues that the Republican donor class and other decision-makers will recalibrate after the midterms and continue to advance their anti-democratic and plutocratic agenda. But he says he looks forward to the impending Republican civil war between Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who will seek to destroy one another — and in the process weaken their party, to the great benefit of Joe Biden, the Democrats and the American people.  

How are you feeling after the midterms? How did Democrats defy conventional wisdom? The supposed "red wave" was greatly slowed down by the American people. There is a lot to process here.  

Obviously, I am glad that the outcome was not as bad as it could have been. I feel pleased that a firewall of sorts has emerged in defense of democracy in a number of key states, such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. The Democrats are going to hold the Senate. I'm also very pleased to see that democracy and fundamental human and civil rights, in particular reproductive rights, were a driving force in the outcome of the midterm elections. In the end, the pundits and the experts were wrong about almost everything.

How did the commentariat class, and the news media more generally, get the midterms so wrong? Conventional wisdom held that the Democrats were going to be thrashed and routed. Isn't this part of a larger pattern through the Age of Trump where old expectations and norms about American politics are shown to be incorrect?

People in the news media are insecure. This is true whether they are good people or if they are biased and not very ethical people. In the end, they are human beings. They do not know with certainty what is going to happen with something as large and complex as a national election. Nobody does. When they start looking at the conflicting polls and other, they scratch their heads and try to make sense of it. Then they start talking to their peers and a type of group think sinks in.

To that point, Twitter and other forms of social media are the machine in which conventional wisdom is manufactured for the news media right now. Among that group there are voices who guide the conversation and shape the narrative more than others as a type of bellwether.

And of course there are some unscrupulous actors who are trying to spin things with a bias. This includes the likes of Rupert Murdoch. Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and The New York Post push that right-wing biased agenda. Those unscrupulous actors have also found ways to skew the narrative about politics. In terms of the midterms, one way this happened was that the media collectively put too much weight on polling averages. Some of the polls that were included were very skewed in favor of the Republicans, and that made the averages inaccurate and unreliable. In turn, that shaped the narrative about the midterms and what seemed inevitable. In the end, the larger media narrative about the midterms possessed no relationship to reality. 

I have described the 2022 midterms as a type of reprieve for democracy. But the is far from over. Unfortunately, I detect a consensus among the usual suspects that American democracy won a great victory and the tide has turned. Were the midterms actually a vote for democracy? Exit polls and other data suggest that the story is far more complicated than that.

I dismiss any unidimensional analysis of politics and voting. There are many reasons why people vote the way they do. These reasons are not all uniform. But having said that, was democracy a front and center issue for a lot of people? Yes. Were the voters that strategic about it? Likely not most of them.

There is a notable exception to that, however: There has been a big push on the right to put election-deniers in office. This was explicit. As it turned out, all the gubernatorial candidates who are election deniers were defeated, and at this point virtually all the secretary of state candidates too. That outcome is not an accident. Polls show that "democracy" was an important issue for many voters. Of course, different voters responded to that threat, and understood the meaning of that word, in different ways. But in the aggregate, Republicans who were seen as a threat to democracy were overwhelmingly rejected by the voters.

As for your point about the midterms being a type of reprieve for American democracy, we must not overlook how in certain parts of the country Republicans who support policies that are a threat to American democracy were actually elected. The election-denier in chief, Donald Trump, is likely going to announce that he is running for president again. Many of the senior people in the Republican Party have espoused election denial views. The right-wing justices on the Supreme Court have made it clear for the last 15 years that they are going to create an unequal system that favors a rich white minority in this country. In the end, this fight to protect America's democracy is going to go on for a long time until it becomes a surefire political loser for a candidate or party to be anti-democratic and authoritarian.

There is another important subtext to the midterm election: Donald Trump picked a bunch of candidates who were very extreme on the issues, and a lot of them lost.

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There is also the predictable media narrative that the midterm elections mean that Donald Trump is done for and that there is a civil war in the Republican Party. As a corollary to that, you hear that American democracy was saved by the midterms and we're on the verge of returning to "normal." 

Even if the Republicans just control the House, Donald Trump isn't the only threat to democracy. Ron DeSantis is more autocratic than Trump in some respects, and there are other Republicans and people on the right who are going to continue to be a threat to our democracy. I do think it's possible to hold two ideas, even contradictory ideas, in our minds at the same time. There were some victories for our democracy and there were some developments that will make it harder to undermine the next election — and the threat to our democracy still exists.

Were the midterm elections a vote for the Democrats or a vote against the Republicans? That seems very important.

You have to entertain the possibility that it was both. Joe Biden has gotten more accomplished than most observers thought was possible. Biden's policies have benefited a lot of Americans. To that point, there is some evidence from the midterms that candidates who ran on issues like infrastructure did pretty well. That's to the credit of Joe Biden.

It's possible for somebody to say "I wish I could pay less for gas," and to also say, "Joe Biden's trying to control the cost of drugs and medical expenses, and the Republicans blocked it. Joe Biden is trying to help me have a better future economically and the Republicans blocked it. The Republicans have no agenda and when they were in power, all they did was pass a tax cut for the rich."

The facts are clear to me. If a voter cares about the economy in any serious way, there is no justification for voting for the Republicans. Historically and in the present, the Republicans have hurt the economy. The Democrats historically, and with Biden right now, have done well by the economy.

What do you think the Democrats will learn from these elections about their messaging?

In a country of 350 million people, there is no one message. All politics is local. There are local messages. Different groups have different priorities. Young voters respond much more to discussions of climate and the long-term future of the country. Older voters respond much more to concerns about Medicare and Social Security and the price of drugs. Should the Democrats be better at offering a clear message to the American people? Yes. Should they be better at challenging the lies of the GOP? Definitely. That is one of the biggest areas where I take issue with the Democrats, because when the Republicans attack on inflation, Democrats have to push back.

The things that drove inflation, which are corporate profiteering, Vladimir Putin's war against Ukraine and the mishandling of COVID, were the fault of Republicans. Every time the Democrats offered a solution for inflation, the Republicans blocked it. Moreover, the Republicans created the problem.

Let's acknowledge the fact that Joe Biden has done something that's almost magical. I've been in Washington for 30-plus years, and Biden did something that almost nobody does: He focused on governance. Biden did not get caught up in the Beltway buzz, media controversies, discussions about his family, etc. Biden basically said, "What are we going to do? What can I do through executive orders? What can I do with Congress where there are areas of compromise? What do I and the Democrats have to do alone? Let's set a bigger agenda than anybody has. Let's address real problems that are impacting real people."

We can be critical of Biden's performance, but we also have to acknowledge that he has gotten more done in his first two years than any president in decades.

What are some of the lessons to be learned from John Fetterman's winning Senate campaign in Pennsylvania? His human struggle and transparency and determination to overcome a serious medical crisis were something to behold.

The human level is fundamental. Fetterman suffered something that should have been a devastating, campaign-ending setback. We are in a tough environment, given the economy. He suffered a massive neurological crisis. Fetterman should have taken the rest of the year off. But instead he fought his way through it. He saw the Republicans and Mehmet Oz as a threat to the country.

Fetterman recognized that he would be criticized for how he sounds because of suffering a stroke, even if his brain is fully functioning — and he stayed in the race anyway. The voters responded by saying, "Yes, Fetterman is an authentic human being who is showing courage." In the end, it comes down to this: Is a politician striking a chord with the American people? If it seems like a candidate or elected official is being insincere and phony, then the public tunes them out.

The news media and Beltway types are already focusing in on what they see as the next conflict-driven and personality-driven story. Trump is in trouble, and Ron DeSantis is the anointed one. What do you think about that matchup? To my eyes, Trump destroys DeSantis easily.

This will be a battle of egos. DeSantis is all ego. Donald Trump is a narcissist, but he is also mean-spirited in a way that will allow him to go after DeSantis and just obliterate him. I don't think that DeSantis plays well on a national level. Add to that how Donald Trump is going to spend his every last ounce of energy trying to destroy DeSantis, and I don't think that bodes well for DeSantis.

In my opinion, however, Trump does not have a real shot at the nomination and White House. There are the legal challenges. The Republican Party is turning on Trump because they see how toxic he's been for them. Trump has lost three elections in a row for the Republicans. Someone is going to step into that void who is just as dangerous in their impulses. My main worry is about Trumpism, white supremacy and fascism. I worry much less about who the current champion of it all is.

What is it going to mean to have Republicans in control of the House? I'm concerned about how so many Americans are flying high right now because the Democrats did better than expected. They may soon come crashing down when the reality of what a Republican-controlled House of Representatives will mean finally sinks in.

You're exactly right. It was a bad outcome that just wasn't as bad as the outcome that we feared it would be. We can celebrate that it wasn't that bad and there were some good things that happened. But at the end of the day, in all likelihood the Republicans are going to control the House. What does that mean? They will produce no legislation because the Democrats control the Senate and the White House. All the House Republicans can do is produce a circus. They are going to create a hot mess of investigations, accusations and one idiotic display of behavior and theatrics after another.

Republicans may actually shut down the government and refuse to raise the debt ceiling. There will be all manner of such chaos. Ultimately, it is going to be very difficult to get anything done in Washington for the next two years.  On the other hand, if the circus is run by Kevin McCarthy, Jim Jordan, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert and others of that sort, it is going to be very clear to the world who and what the Republicans really are.

I care about 2024 and preserving democracy. If the next two years are Donald Trump running against Ron DeSantis, and a bunch of Republican clowns who make it look like the mob actually took over the Capitol on Jan. 6, it's going to make it easier for Joe Biden and the Democrats to win in 2024. That is good for America.

How are the Republican donors and other decision-makers assessing the outcome of the midterms? Will they back Trump or someone else? What is their calculus?

So much of the Republican money comes from a small group of people. We know those people meet with each other and strategize. They are going to decide which candidate works for them and will advance their particular interests. None of these people are motivated by any ideology other than greed. These right-wing donors and others of that class know that the Republican Party is not very good for the economy, but they support it anyway because it's good for them. They get the tax breaks and regulatory breaks. They want their slice of the pie to get bigger. Their main concern is how to keep that going.

There are other voices in the Republican Party who influence policy and decide who the candidates are going to be. These various agendas are going to converge for the Republicans. There will be a discussion about whether Donald Trump is going to be the candidate. Republicans will also have to decide what their grand strategy is on the state and federal level going forward. We also need to understand that the Republicans and larger right-wing have achieved several of their huge objectives already. They packed the Supreme Court, and those right-wing justices will be rewriting the rules of American society for the next few years across a range of important issues.

The Democrats and the American people have won a brief reprieve. What are you most concerned about going forward?

I'm most concerned about the future of democracy in the United States. There are forces that want to push America farther down the road to authoritarianism. We have to be aware that most people do not want to think about these threats. Most people also don't want to have to fight for American democracy all the time. We must be sufficiently motivated to put up the good fight to ensure that these authoritarians and other anti-democracy forces are defeated. We have to make sure there is a democracy for future generations here in the United States. Until that outcome is certain, everything else is a distraction.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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