A couple of things to add to Isaac’s excellent observations on the myth: “Only Trump could have won in 2016.”
The evidence usually put forward for this preposterous proposition are the elections of 2008 and 2012, when Barack Obama defeated first the war hero John McCain and then the decent, consensus-oriented Mitt Romney. “Gentleman losers,” the Trump camp calls them.
I remember things a little differently. In 2008, the nation was exhausted by the increasingly unpopular wars associated with President George W. Bush, shocked by a worldwide financial catastrophe originating in U.S. financial markets, and disgusted by a series of Republican scandals — some of them BS, some of them not. No Republican was going on win in 2008. If Bush had been eligible for a third term, he’d have lost. Dwight Eisenhower would have lost. Abe Lincoln would have lost. Jesus Mahatma Reagan would have lost.
The Democrats understood that a little better than the Republicans did, and so they passed over the safer choice of Hillary Rodham Clinton in favor of Barack Obama, the younger, cleaner, leftier candidate they really wanted. Obama had a thin résumé and some Chicago stink on him, but he was a gifted politician, a charming man who made many Americans feel good about their country and its prospects. And many Americans believed, deludedly, that electing a black man president would help us to put our racial convulsions behind us.
In 2012, we had disappointing but stable economic growth. Newly empowered House Republicans had put a check on the worst of the Obama administration’s inclinations. Obama was a failed messiah, but he hadn’t embarrassed the country very much, and Americans by and large were not interested in turning him out. I’m surprised that Romney got as close as he did.
The notion that any of this suggests in any way that Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio couldn’t have bested Herself in 2016 is poppycock. But it is unfalsifiable poppycock, which is what makes it so attractive to Trump sycophants and those with an interest in Trump myth-making.
If you want to see an election that Republicans lost that they should have won, look at 1992, which was handed to Bill Clinton with the help of proto-Trump billionaire kook H. Ross Perot.
I do not share Isaac’s optimism about the prospects of the GOP. But I’ve been wrong before, and hope that I am wrong this time.