The Shape of Things to Come
The future is Trump. And Trump will continue to misunderestimate Joe Biden.
Housekeeping: This will be the last Triad from me this week because I’m traveling to San Francisco for the live show. I’ll be back on Monday to get us all ready for New Hampshire. We’re going to drop a recording of the live show in The Secret Podcast feed on Friday exclusively for Bulwark+ members.
Look for The Next Level podcast a little later today. Sarah, Tim, and I taped super early this morning so the show was really . . . something.
1. The End of the Beginning
Let’s start with the most important number: We are 293 days until the 2024 election.
Barring an act of God, Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee. All of the fantasies about Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley stopping him have been obliterated. We have real votes, from real Republicans, and they want Trump.
Trump won 98 of 99 counties.
Trump won urban voters by +20 over his nearest rival and rural voters by +31.
Trump won college-educated voters by +9 and high school–educated voters +51.
None of this was a surprise. Trump performed exactly in line with his polling. The only people who did not understand the will of the Republican electorate going into yesterday were those who did not want to.
From here, we go to New Hampshire. What will happen?
Trump has polled below 40 percent there exactly once since mid-September. Nikki Haley has yet to poll above 32 percent. And the consolidation phase has begun, with even the non-MAGA Republican establishment coming together around Trump. Trump is overwhelmingly likely to win New Hampshire. Ron DeSantis will finish in single digits.
Then what? Does DeSantis pretend that he is soldiering on to South Carolina? Does Haley stay in so that she can get smoked in the Nevada caucus and then lose her home state by 20 points?
I doubt it.
Here is the second-most-important number: We are 49 days from Super Tuesday.
There will not be a contest on Super Tuesday. Trump will have won all of the previous elections, and there will be no Republicans left in the campaign. The race will be officially over.
I expect that on the night of March 5, Trump will hold a mega-rally and it will be a Leni Riefenstahl-esque show of force, with thousands of people in attendance. He will announce his general campaign against Joe Biden and the whole of the Republican party and Conservatism Inc. will stand with him.
The number of historic firsts will be overwhelming: First time in a century that a defeated former president has won another nomination. First time in the modern era that a candidate has run the tables in a primary. First time that an indicted (alleged) criminal has won a major party nomination.
And this conqueror of worlds will be facing, what? Joe Biden? A feeble old man who became president almost by accident? Whose party seems ambivalent about him and who could not fill a gymnasium, let alone a stadium?
On the night of March 5, Donald Trump will look invincible. You should prepare yourself for that.
He won’t be, though.
When Trump hits this moment, I expect a general freakout as the media focuses on horserace politics and can’t figure out how to handle an authoritarian who is on track to recapture the presidency.
But tbh, I think horserace politics gets a bad rap. It’s important to understand who’s up and who’s down because that’s the starting point for seeing around the next corner.
That’s what we’re here to do over the next 293 days. We take in the entire picture—the horserace, the political dynamics, the economy, the foreign policy. From Joe Perticone’s Press Pass newsletter to Eric Edelman and Eliot Cohen’s Shield of the Republic podcast. We go both broad and deep.
And we do that while being on the side of liberalism and democracy.
No both sides. No kabuki theater. No triple bankshots looking to preserve influence instead of telling the truth.
I want you—I want everybody—to ride with us. Because that’s how we make the world we want.
You get 30 days to try Bulwark+ to see if you like it, for free. Spoiler: You’re not going to like it. You’re going to love it. Because there is no one else doing what we’re doing here.
2. The Case for Joe
Joe Biden’s strengths are mostly hidden.
He does not have a cult of personality. He does not dominate the media. He does not engender strong feelings either for or against. His party is not afraid of him.
In a race that will be run as a contract election, designed to create a referendum on Donald Trump, these are all advantages.1
The economy is in very good shape, and the longer this winning streak continues, the more fully its effects are felt by voters.
Biden has a long list of legislative accomplishments which are broadly popular. Taken together, they create a rationale for his re-election: Vote for Biden and he will continue to work with Republicans to pass laws that create jobs, invest in infrastructure, reform the least-popular parts of gun laws, etc.
This is another contrast with Trump, who has no actual policy rationale for his candidacy beyond personal retribution, “stopping” immigration (good luck), and drilling for oil (which Biden has done more of than any president in history, including Trump).
Trump will continue to face criminal proceedings, and unlike in the primaries, where this fact was helpful to Trump, in the general election everything about these trials will hurt him.
One more thing: Biden is always underestimated. People think he’s slow and out of it. But every time he gives a major speech they’re surprised by how good he is.
His January 5, 2024 speech on the anniversary of the insurrection.
His set of October speeches about the Hamas attack on Israel.
His February 2023 State of the Union where he absolutely owned congressional Republicans.
People thought Biden wouldn’t be able to govern with such a slim majority, but he had the most legislatively productive first term in a generation.
People thought Biden wouldn’t be able to work with Republicans, but most of his signature accomplishments were bipartisan. (Infrastructure, CHIPs, gun reform, Electoral Count Act reform, the Respect for Marriage Act.)
People thought Biden would be weak on Ukraine, but he has managed to build and maintain a wide Western coalition that has helped Ukraine deliver devastating losses to Russia.
People thought Biden wouldn’t know what to do with Netanyahu’s government in the wake of the 10/7 attacks, but Biden has simultaneously stood firmly with Israel, resisted the American left, and boxed Netanyahu in politically, driving wedges between Bibi and Israel’s hard right.
People thought we were sure to hit a recession, but Biden beat inflation and achieved a soft landing.
Biden is like the Terminator of presidenting: A single-minded machine programed to pass legislation, conduct diplomacy, avoid culture wars, and move the ball forward on policy issue after policy issue—insulin prices, rural broadband access, you name it. Relentlessly. Remorselessly.
Here is a thing that is 100-percent true about Trump and MAGA: They cannot fathom how they could have lost to Biden because Biden doesn’t compete on the same field they do. They think that political victory comes from giant rallies and media manipulation; culture war crusades and shitposting.
Biden doesn’t play any of those games. He just governs.
And it’s clear that over the last seven years, MAGA and Trump haven’t figured out how to run against that.
The entire Trump strategy rests on hoping that an advantageously distributed 47 percent of the country has moved past any interest in governing and is motivated entirely by postmodern grievance.
And maybe that will happen in 2024.
But it hasn’t happened yet.
3. Agents of Chaos
Of course, it’s not all puppy dogs and ice cream. It’s possible that MAGA’s bet will pay off this time. Here’s a scholarly article from the American Political Science Review that posits that in wealthy industrialized societies, there exists a set of people who are desperate for chaos.
We argue that such motivations, when sufficiently strong, take root as a general destructive mindset. Next, we develop and validate the novel Need for Chaos scale to measure this mindset. Across eight well-powered studies (including representative studies of the U.S. population), we find evidence that the Need for Chaos emerges in an interplay between status-oriented personality traits and social contexts of real and perceived marginalization and is a strong predictor of willingness to share hostile political rumors, over and beyond partisanship. Overall, our findings imply that a challenge facing modern society is the existence of marginalized status-seekers who wish to incite chaos by spreading hostile rumors.
Read the whole thing. (Hat tip to the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson.)
Hillary Clinton did not own a cult, but she did have the ability to dominate media attention and had both strong defenders and haters. This made her matchup against Trump much more symmetrical in nature. That was to her disadvantage.