Slouching Towards Trump
This is my Iowa Caucus preview.
I wish I could write to you with more enthusiasm about the Iowa caucuses.
The Republican caucuses are being held on Monday, and Donald Trump is expected to win them overwhelmingly. (If that doesn’t happen, you’ll get an emergency post from me on Tuesday.) Democrats are holding in-person caucuses on Monday, too, but they’ll also let you vote online for several more weeks and the results won’t be released until March — this is basically Iowa’s punishment for fucking up so badly in 2020 that it took six days to figure out who won. (Even now it’s not entirely clear whether the answer was Pete Buttigieg or Bernie Sanders.)
If you’d asked me a year ago, I’d have predicted that Republicans would have a relatively competitive nomination process. That wouldn’t have been me going out on a limb; rather it’s because my philosophy is to trust the polls and not overthink things too much. A year ago, Ron DeSantis was within striking distance of Trump in polls and there seemed to be a plausible through-line for his candidacy; he could run on electability, his COVID handling and Trump fatigue. By the summer, it had become clear that DeSantis wasn’t really working. Unless there’s some dramatic reversal, DeSantis will be a first-ballot selection to the Hall of Highly Underachieving Candidates, joining Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Phil Gramm, Fred Thompson, Ed Muskie, Kamala Harris, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton.
Nikki Haley has a shot in New Hampshire, but it’s not at all clear how she’d translate that into winning the Republican nomination. Maybe we’ll try a Silver Bulletin liveblog on New Hampshire night — it’s at least interesting enough to be worth watching.
But Iowa is boring. So instead of Iowa, let’s talk about something else: the fact that Donald Trump could become president of the United States again.
Let me state this extremely carefully: emotionally, I’ve accepted this (Trump 2.0) as the default outcome. Rationally, I don’t. If we do get a Trump-Biden rematch, I think the odds are roughly 50/50. And there’s an outside chance that the next president is someone other than those two. Both Trump and Biden are extremely old. Haley’s prospects are poor but not so poor that you can round them down to zero. A third-party win is extremely unlikely but maybe you’d take a flier on one at +5000 or something. The odds on who wins the presidency probably ought to be something like: Trump 45%, Biden 45%, other 10%. So if you were offered a bet on Trump at even money you’d turn it down, I suppose. (At prediction markets, Trump’s chances are 41 percent, not far from my subjective estimate.)
What I’m getting at emotionally though is that I sense a lot of numbness to the idea of Trump winning another term.
Among Democrats, there’s been some denial of Biden’s poor standing in the polls but honestly — as a veteran observer of poll denialism — it’s not been that bad. Even the more optimistic assessments tend to concede that Biden has a big fight ahead of him. Among anti-Trump Republicans, the vibes have been weird all campaign long, ranging from a skepticism of Trump alternatives on a case-by-case basis (in retrospect, I can’t really blame the anti-Trumpers for their skepticism of DeSantis) to an accelerationist tendency among Lincoln Project types to nominate Trump and either see him reelected or be done with him once and for all. (Though there’s nothing really preventing Trump from running again in 2028 if he loses.)
But nobody seems to be acting as though Trump is an existential threat to democracy or anything else. People might think that, and perhaps they are quite rational to think that. But they aren’t acting like it. I’m surprised there haven’t been more efforts by Democrats to nominate someone other than Biden, for instance. You can argue that nominating Biden is the rational strategy (although after much consideration, I come down on the side that Biden ought to have stepped aside). But even if it were irrational, I’d have expected more Democrats to agitate for nominating someone else out of their fear of Trump winning.
Maybe it’s that everything is treated as an existential threat these days. In his successful 2020 campaign, Biden framed the world as facing four simultaneous crises: COVID, the economy, racism and climate change. It’s an extremely weird list if you look back on it now, comparing chronic problems with acute ones. But it spoke to an electorate in 2020 that found sanctuary in anxiety.
The pandemic, however, was an extremely traumatic shared experience that I’m convinced the world still really hasn’t processed yet. Between the mass death and the massive disruption to the fabric of everyday life, 2020 was the worst year of most of our lives. The debates over COVID strategy are still fairly raw; the wounds haven’t really healed. Meanwhile, nearly everyone is in an eschatological mood these days. Every political quadrant thinks that civilization is going to end, whether because of climate change or unaligned artificial intelligence or the “Woke Mind Virus”. Compared to all of that, a second Trump term — hey, we survived the first one, didn’t we? — doesn’t seem like a particularly high-stakes proposition.
Or maybe, probably — in fact, almost certainly — I’m projecting. Most people don’t realize that Trump has a strong chance of becoming president again. The Biden campaign is reportedly dismayed that rank-and-file voters don’t seem to realize that Trump is likely to be the GOP nominee. But this actually seems like a highly bullish fact for Biden. There’s no hard-and-fast rule for when general election polls become meaningful, but the best heuristic is that you should start paying attention to polls once the matchup is locked in and voters aren’t treating it as a hypothetical. Biden trails Trump in polls now, though his standing has improved over the past several weeks. But if voters’ mindset is LOL, they’re not really going to nominate Trump and Biden again, are they? — those polls might not mean so much. When Trump wins Iowa on Monday, the reality might finally start to set in.
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