SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—It was supposed to be a “red tsunami.”
Not just a wave. And not just the House. But the Senate, the governorships, and state legislatures. We were told it would be the end of the politics of race, gender fluidity, drag queen brunches, undocumented workers, homeless encampments, Dr. Fauci, ESG, RINOs—followed by the rebirth of America First: Donald Trump’s announcement that he would run for president; his 2024 victory; and a nationwide, political realignment, which would be metabolic.
“The people are just starting to wake up,” said Mark, a math teacher. (He called himself Citizen Mark, from Mesa. He didn’t want to share his last name.) “We, as Americans, have been asleep. We have been passive, and we’re not really paying attention to what’s happening, and Trump and the other patriots have been more astute, more aware, and they woke us up, and they have a game plan, I believe, and this is part of their game plan.”
We were milling around outside the ballroom at the hotel where Kari Lake, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, was expected to give her victory speech. It was a little past 8 p.m., local time, and it seemed—at least, to Republicans—that the whole country, even New York, even Los Angeles, was waiting to be won.
That’s not what happened.
First, a couple of embattled, moderate Democrats won reelection in the House, starting with Elissa Slotkin in Michigan, then Abigail Spanberger in Virginia. Then, Democrats won gubernatorial elections in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania—the better to rebuild the once-mighty blue wall. Then the networks called it for John Fetterman, the Democrat running against Dr. Oz for the Senate in Pennsylvania. Democratic Senator Maggie Hasson won a tough race in New Hampshire, and Democratic Senator Michael Bennet won in Colorado.
And then, of course, it was too close to call the governor’s race in Arizona—everyone had pretty much expected that Lake, the charismatic former television reporter, would defeat Democrat Katie Hobbs—and it was looking bad for Blake Masters, the Peter Thiel-funded, Trump-endorsed Republican running against Senator Mark Kelly. (As of this writing, Lake had gained some ground, and was down by a little less than 12,000 votes. Kelly maintained a nearly 90,000-vote edge over Masters.) Republicans are saying we won’t have a final tally until Thursday or even Friday.
The Republicans at the GOP powwow in Scottsdale seemed mostly unfazed. They were, as one of the emcees put it, “the party of positivity.” The men in their blazers and khaki pants, with their string ties and goatees and drinks in hand; the ladies with their red dresses and flaxen manes and heels. Lots of leg, lots of cleavage.
They made jokes about Hunter Biden and Stacy Abrams—”I’m so sick of being lectured to about all the black voters I’ve been supposedly repressing,” one woman told me—and Beto O’Rourke, whom the emcee called a “fake Mexican.” When they called it for J.D. Vance in Ohio, the crowd exploded. There was a guy, probably in his twenties, impersonating Trump. He crushed it. Alice Cooper was on the hi-fi. Then Twisted Sister.
In retrospect, it wasn’t that surprising—the red tsunami that didn’t materialize. Yes, pretty much everyone had predicted Armageddon for Team Blue, and pretty much everyone was wrong.
But there was a logic to the fact that some Republicans who were meant to trounce barely eked it out, while others went down in flames.
That was because their politics seemed more like a feeling than an agenda that you could market and sell to other voters who might not normally vote Republican. Like the Contract with America, or the Great Society, or the Fair Deal or the New Deal.
The feeling had been building for many years, before Trump, before the Tea Party, all the way to the aughts or even the nineties, they said, when it seemed as if everything began to happen: the exporting of blue-collar jobs, the acrimony, automation, globalization. “We’ve been angry since forever,” a man in an American-flag tie told me, laughing. (“And another thing,” a man in a cowboy hat said, “we were in high school or just out of high school then, and that’s the time of your life you always look back on and wish you could go back to.”)
Anyway, bottom line, they knew for sure what they did not want.
They didn’t want a civil war. They didn’t want teachers teaching that America is evil. They didn’t want the Chinese Communist Party owning a majority stake in Hollywood. They didn’t want their grandchildren on TikTok, and they didn’t want TikTok selling their grandchildren’s data.
They didn’t care who you slept with, and they didn’t care (that much) about whether you had an abortion or cut off your breasts and grew a penis (so long as you were over 18). They knew “the libs” thought they were white supremacists and Klansmen, and they no longer knew how to respond to that. They were done responding.
“It really breaks my heart when I’m considered a Nazi, because I’m a Republican. I mean, my father was a World War II Marine,” Paula Glowacki told me. She had been born in the Chicago area, and she and her husband, Chris, had met at work—he was in IT; she stopped working ages ago to care for her parents—and then they moved to Arizona.
They had a harder time saying what they did want. What America 2032 might look like—an America in which the Republican Party had not only built durable majorities in the Congress and taken control of the White House, but won the war of ideas and enacted its agenda.
They had been in combat mode for so long, they had become so inured to the ad hominem attacks, the sloganeering, the warring, the pyrotechnics, that they hadn’t given much thought to that.
A better America, they said, would be energy-independent—more fracking, more nuclear. And it would secure its southern border.
But that was mostly it. The rest of their program was things like defending free expression and fostering a greater sense of community. It wasn’t really a program as much as the Bill of Rights.
Chris Glowacki said that in this better, futuristic America, there would be a middle ground—room for hashing things out in a civilized way. “You should be able to sit down and talk with each other, instead of saying, ‘I don’t agree with you, and I don’t want to listen to you.’ There’s too much of that on both sides.”
Robby Starbuck, the music-video director-turned-Republican-congressional candidate in Tennessee, flew to Phoenix Tuesday afternoon to support Lake. When I asked him what kind of America Republicans pine for, he said it was one that embraced the old federalism—states’ rights. If California wanted to give school children puberty blockers, that was California’s business. Ditto with high taxes or low taxes or social services or whatever. What scared him was the emergence, over the past several years, of a Chinese-style social-credit system. He said that Covid, and the imposition of “tyrannical” anti-Covid policies, had been revealing. It reminded him of the Cuba his family had fled.
It was going on midnight, and most of Kari Lake’s supporters had gone home or decamped to their hotel rooms, or they were clustered around one of the many makeshift bars, or they were smoking cigars. They didn’t like being called MAGA. “That’s just a slogan,” the man with the American-flag tie said. He was in construction east of Phoenix. (He worked with all kinds of “illegals,” he said—”good people, Christians, salt of the Earth people, but they gotta follow the rules.”) He had a goatee and a wan smile. “My point is I don’t know what MAGA means,” he continued. “That doesn’t actually say anything about the people you mean when you say, ‘MAGA.’”
Nor were all of them enthusiastic about Trump running again. “MAGA is not the way it used to be,” said Mary, a nurse. Her husband, Bruce, explained that Trump had been the bull in the china shop who had razed the old system, but they couldn’t keep razing forever.
Mary remembered, when she was a girl, her parents, both lifelong Democrats, running the local caucus during the presidential caucuses in her home state of Iowa. This was in her house, in a little town north of Sioux City. That old-fashioned America seemed impossible now—like a memory of something that had never happened.
They were tired of watching the country fall apart. The fentanyl, the homelessness, the inflation, the rusting ports, the unreliable supply chains. The managed decline. And the elites presiding over that decline while insisting on everyone using the correct pronouns. And they believed they were the only ones who could stop America from spiraling into bloodshed and chaos, and if you said, But what about January 6?, they said, Well, that was a little excessive, or, more likely, What about it?
“I think it was a complete setup,” said Mark, the math teacher, referring to the attack on the Capitol. “I think Nancy Pelosi is behind the whole thing.” If you tried to argue, if you said, Where’s the evidence for that?, they offered up reams of circumstantial evidence—suggestive emails, articles from dubious sources.
They were not surprised that, even though Lake had been up in the polls for weeks, if not longer, the race was too close to call Election Night. They knew what that meant.
“They’re doing whatever it takes to make the difference right now,” Butch Meeks told me. He was referring to the ballot-counting machines in Maricopa County. There had been some irregularities, and Lake and Blake Masters, the Republican running against Democratic Senator Mark Kelly, and the Republican National Committee were suing the county. Meeks went on: “We used to always know in every state before morning who won. Now we’re so much smarter, but we can’t do what other countries can do? This is the United States. We have the best computers, but oh no, we can’t count our ballots. That shows you it’s just horrible—our country is against the people.”
Meeks’ wife, Margie, added: “The people who are running our country right now, I feel, want the United States to collapse.”
The point was that the second coming was, for now, not coming. They could forget the Senate. The House was in sight, but by a sliver. The doddering, old man in the White House, who they had mocked, was stronger in the early morning of the day after than he had been just a few hours before. He hadn’t run on much of a program either, but at least he was a reprieve, a break from the crazy, the vitriol.
The Arizonans I talked to, like the Trump wannabes—Lake, Masters, Bolduc, Mastriano —were still enraged, overflowing with contempt for “the elites,” “the deep state,” “the administrative state,” Washington, New York, the whole of California. It was the old rage that had been curdling since the dawn of web 1.0, since Ross Perot warned of that giant sucking sound, since the American hinterland had started to atrophy, and the old economic order disappeared. It wasn’t an agenda. It wasn’t a way forward.