The American Right Is Still Showing Worrying Signs of Strength

Republicans didn’t get their predicted “red wave” in the November midterms, but the results were hardly a repudiation of the Right: most of Donald Trump’s endorsed candidates won their races, and the GOP continues to make inroads with voters of color.

Former president Donald Trump speaks during a rally to support GOP 2022 midterm candidates. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

A little over a month after the 2022 midterms, the media narrative has solidified. The “red wave” predicted by the GOP and most commentators didn’t happen — representing a failure for Donald Trump, a triumph for Joe Biden, and a sign that trends point in the Democrats’ favor. Some have even gone so far as to say that this is the end of the road for Trump and that his brand of politics no longer has a place in the United States.

But in-depth analysis of the exit polls for the midterms tells a more worrying story. Youth and black turnouts were both far lower than hoped. The GOP successfully diversified its representation in Congress, revealing its ability to adapt to demographic changes in the US as well as Democrats can. And the narrative that Trump “lost” the election for the GOP is simply not true: most of the candidates that Trump endorsed won their races, and the GOP was able to take control of the House of Representatives from the Democrats.

Youth turnout during the midterms was low. This is in keeping with the general trend that sees lower turnout for midterms than presidential elections, but youth turnout in the most recent election was especially low. This was particularly true for the Democrats, who carried the under-thirty vote by only 53 percent, 8 points less than in 2020. This suggests either that there was relatively low activation of youth voters even as the Democrats presented this election as a titanic struggle between themselves and the end of democracy or that the GOP has successfully convinced a segment of young people who voted Democrat in 2020 to switch their votes.

Even worse for the Democrats, black turnout was also historically low this midterm election. Current information suggests that black voters were a smaller part of the electorate than they’ve been for almost twenty years, a worrying indicator for Democrats who rely on high black turnout to win races in urban areas. This is just one of a series of indicators that the Democrats can’t rely on the “demographic wave” of a majority-minority United States to win elections — not only are young white voters not behaving as predicted but voters of color aren’t the monolith that Democratic strategists and commentators sometimes assume them to be.

One important piece missing from the dominant narrative is that the GOP was able to diversify its caucus significantly with many wins from candidates of color. In such a close race, these candidates’ victories were crucial to securing the House for the GOP. In the long term, they also signal a transition in the racial makeup of the GOP and its voters. As the country becomes more diverse, the GOP is doing the same. This is a clear lesson that Democrats and the Left can’t sit back and watch as the country changes in their favor, automatically producing an electorate that will naturally vote for the center or the Left. Plenty of voters of color are motivated by right-wing views, and increasing numbers of right-wing candidates of color are winning seats. These candidates present themselves as newcomers to Washington interested in shaking things up and as pro-family patriots whose ideology fits with the GOP mainstream. This position is popular, and it won seats — including in districts that had been held by Democrats in the 2020–22 Congress.

The most damning evidence of the problem with the mainstream narrative that the “red wave” was prevented by Democratic campaigning is that the GOP did, in fact, take the House of Representatives. Suffering the “least bad defeat” for an incumbent president since 2002 is certainly better than suffering a worse one, but it’s hardly a success either. The results of the 2022 primary mean that the Democrats can no longer operate the January 6 special investigations committee. It means that progressive legislative items championed by some Democrats are even further from reality than they were before. And it means that the GOP has the power to disrupt any effort that Biden might make to influence the country’s economy.

Though Trump himself is falling in GOP primary polls, the politics he introduced to the party continues to gain ground. Far-right candidates won a large majority of the races they ran in. Even the losers in these races did well, with people like Ammon Bundy — who led an armed, insurgent, anti–federal government land occupation in Idaho in 2014 — getting 17 percent of the Idaho vote for governor, just 3 percentage points behind the Democratic candidate. These results show sustained growth in support for far-right politics. While the lack of a GOP landslide is welcome, now is not the time to celebrate: there’s plenty of evidence that the Right is continuing to expand its appeal.