Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Nathan Howard/Getty Images
the national interest

Republicans Don’t Have a ‘Candidate-Quality Problem,’ They Have a Crazy-People Problem

Being insane is not a messaging choice.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

The most consistent theme articulated by the Republican Establishment in response to the midterm elections is a determination to solve what Mitch McConnell euphemistically called its “candidate-quality problem.” “We ended up having a candidate-quality test,” McConnell told reporters yesterday. “Hopefully, in the next cycle, we’ll have quality candidates everywhere and a better outcome.” Politico reports “some House members and operatives are already debating and trading ideas about how to multiply the number of top-tier candidates and avoid unelectable ones.”

Republicans are certainly wise to try harder next time to nominate candidates who live in the state they are running to represent, are not violent criminals, have avoided publicly calling for the overthrow of the government, and so on. That said, this advice is so blindingly obvious that one wonders why it became a question at all and why it took a cycle of election defeats for this lesson to set in.

The answer is that the candidate-quality problem is merely the byproduct of a much more deeply rooted crisis of delusion that has spread up and down the ranks of the party. The GOP’s voters and its elites reside in a hermetically sealed world of paranoia so far removed from reality that it is often difficult for them to relate to the concerns of average people. The attempts by the likes of McConnell to address this problem at the level of the nominating process only scratch the surface of the predicament.

The esteemed conservative critic Roger Kimball has written a column that inadvertently reveals the depth of the intellectual rot. Kimball begins his argument by recalling the closing message of Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign: “Where’s the outrage?” Dole decided to end his campaign by harping on a collection of wildly overtorqued accusations against the Clinton administration. “Back then, the chief issue was the Clinton Administration’s use and abuse of 900 FBI files on their political opponents,” Kimball writes. “Imagine! An American president using the FBI as his secret police!”

In 1996, Fox News was just getting off the ground. Weird charges might burble up through the right-wing media — The Wall Street Journal editorial page spent years insinuating that Bill Clinton murdered his lawyer to cover up a cocaine-smuggling operation — but most Republicans still got most of their news from real media organizations. A candidate like Dole might cynically use some of these stories to crank up the base in the closing days of the election, but he almost certainly knew Clinton had not in fact turned the FBI into his secret police.

But a person like Kimball did believe this, and he seems to still believe this. And in the quarter-century since then, the conservative alt-news ecosystem has grown to the point where these paranoid beliefs are the predominant worldview among Republicans, not just a fringe. This explains why Donald Trump, insurrection and all, is a perfectly rational response. If you believe Democrats have been engaging in massive voter fraud, forming secret police squads, and so on, it only makes sense to fight back. Kimball uses the imagined “Clinton’s secret police” episode to ask why people aren’t literally staging armed demonstrations to protest Twitter’s content-moderation policies, which he sees as yet another element of the generational left-wing conspiracy.

The right-wing conviction that the Democratic Party is a Marxist cabal that does not operate by normal democratic principles is the central idea promulgated by Fox News and the conservative media. Responding to that belief is not just a messaging choice. It can’t easily be turned off because the voters and their nominees actually believe it.

Arizona’s recent Republican candidate for governor, Kari Lake, is one of the poster children for the candidate-quality problem. Running in a purple state against an uninspired opponent during a midterm race under an opposing-party president, Lake ought to have carried her race easily. Instead, she lost. Her intraparty critics blame it on her insistence on running on stop-the-steal themes rather than messages more congenial to persuadable voters.

A recent Washington Post postmortem on her candidacy noted that Lake refused to stop talking about how Joe Biden stole the 2020 election because she genuinely believed Biden stole the 2020 election. When her allies would privately try to steer her back on message, “she would never break frame,” a Republican said. “She’d sort of look at you with a puzzled face and be like, ‘But the election was stolen in 2020.’”

Text messages to and from White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows around the time of the January 6 insurrection, obtained by Talking Points Memo, confirm the impression. Meadows and his allies in Congress truly believed the election was stolen and truly believed they could and should steal it back. In these messages, Republicans can be seen over and over again repeating wild conspiracy theories about voting machines, as Representative Ted Budd does here:

FYI Dominion Voting Systems is owned by State Street Capital, which are Carlyle (Rubenstein alums), Rubenstein is a longtime co-investor with Soros Capital.

Predicting communist dictatorship should Biden prevail (Representative Brian Babin):

Mark, When we lose Trump we lose our Republic. Fight like hell and find a way. We’re with you down here in Texas and refuse to live under a corrupt Marxist dictatorship. Liberty!

Demanding Republican legislatures appoint pro-Trump electors to cancel out the voting results (Representative Mark Green):

Dick Morris is saying State Leg can intervene and declare Trump winner.�NC, PA, MI, WI all have GOP Leg. �

Or proposing martial — sorry, “Marshall” — law (Representative Ralph Norman):

Mark, in seeing what’s happening so quickly, and reading about the Dominion law suits attempting to stop any meaningful investigation we are at a point of � no return � in saving our Republic !! Our LAST HOPE is invoking Marshall Law!! PLEASE URGE TO PRESIDENT TO DO SO!!

The McConnell analysis is that Republicans nominated a bunch of kooks either because Trump endorsed them or because they felt compelled to endorse Trump’s kooky claims. And this did happen in some instances. But this implies Republicans need only to remove Trump from the equation and their candidates will become sane again. This ignores the grim reality that kookery took hold in the party because Republicans genuinely embraced it and, therefore, that Trump’s disappearance won’t make it go away.

The GOP Problem Isn’t ‘Candidate Quality,’ It’s Crazy People