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Could it really happen again? The ever-present threat of Trump

Donald Trump’s path back to the White House is not as clear as the polls suggest.. but it is there all the same

Image: The New European

Here we go again. The election isn’t until November 5, but the fireworks are already going off. Because despite all his legal woes and personal deficiencies, it looks like America will get a third opportunity to vote for Donald Trump as president. And again, it looks like being dangerously, nail-bitingly close.

The primaries, the series of state-by-state votes where the two main parties select their candidates, kick off in January. On the Republican side, despite having been struck off the ballot in both Colorado and Maine, Trump is streets ahead, currently polling at almost 60%. A distant second, with just under 13%, is a man pundits briefly and bafflingly considered the favourite: Florida’s weirdo governor Ron DeSantis. That was never going to happen: “Meatball Ron” has been dismembered and humiliated on the pre-campaign trail. Trump has barely broken sweat.

On the other side, as incumbent president, Joe Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee by default and by tradition – even before a change in party rules made the first primary state South Carolina, instead of the smaller, more maverick states of Iowa and New Hampshire. He hasn’t faced a serious challenge.

There’s something of the “boy who cried wolf” going on. It has been claimed during every election in living memory that “the stakes could not be higher,” even when the stakes were Mitt Romney or John McCain. Now that it’s actually true, there’s nowhere for the rhetoric to go. It’s incredibly quaint, in hindsight, that people once considered Mitt the worst thing that could happen to the United States.

Not to sound alarmist… no, actually, this IS the time for alarmism. This time, the stakes truly are high, almost incomprehensibly high. Trump is more ominously motivated than last time: the presidency may be the only thing that can protect him from jail. It’s not just ego now; he explicitly intends to exact vengeance on political enemies, carry out government-wide loyalty-based purges and has even hinted at using military force domestically.

Standing in the way of this nightmarish outcome is… Biden. The future of American democracy lies in the hands of a visibly declining octogenarian, the oldest US president there has ever been. An NBC poll in April, before he formally announced his bid, found that 70% of voters thought he shouldn’t run again. Even among Democrats, more than half of respondents agreed.

Biden’s approval rating recently slipped below 40% and polls show he and Trump (combined age on election day: 159) in a dead heat in a head-to-head match-up. Trump has a slight lead in several key swing states.

Some reckon that Biden isn’t overjoyed about running again either. The problem is, Democrats don’t have a deep pool of talent at the moment. In truth, there just isn’t anyone who looks as if they would do any better against Trump. The vice-president, Kamala Harris, was supposed to be the natural successor but, unfortunately and unfairly, she polls worse than her boss. Progressives would love it to be the fiery Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, but a professorial New Englander wouldn’t fare better than Biden in southern swing states.

And who else is there? Pete Buttigieg? Transportation secretary is the only federal government job on his CV. Gavin Newsom? California governor hardly makes you friends in the south or midwest. Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer is talented, but doesn’t have much national name-recognition. You can see why the Democrats have concluded that the risks of changing the ticket outweigh the potential rewards.

Before writing Biden off, it’s worth pointing out he still has some not inconsiderable strengths. The adage may be that “a year is a long time in politics”, but what that really means is: a year is a long time in political news. The media seems to have entirely forgotten that just a year ago Biden won the best midterm election result for a Democratic president in 90 years. And when the campaign starts in earnest, Biden has a decent story to tell. There are signs the economy is improving, albeit slowly. Inflation is coming down, helped by a string of legislative successes by the administration, including a landmark trillion-dollar infrastructure bill. Democrats have reason to hope that by November the Federal Reserve, the US central bank, will be able to lower interest rates, and people will start feeling as if they have a bit more money in their pockets.

There are also good reasons not to read too much into head-to-head speculative polling, especially this far out. So much can happen over the course of the year. One massive X-factor is the effect of third parties and independents such as Jill Stein, who many Democrats consider to have fatally sapped 1.5m votes from Hillary Clinton in 2016. She has announced that she’s running again, for the Greens. Cornel West, a high-profile civil rights activist and academic, is running as an independent. The polls give each of them about 3% – most of which would come from the left.

But Republicans have similar problems. Trump has lots of enemies, and while candidates like Chris Christie and Mike Pence have struggled, it’s not inconceivable that there might be some kind of centre right spoiler candidacy in the general election. That said, there’s also polling implying that a moderate third-party Republican might actually siphon as many votes from Biden as Trump, if not more.

And that’s before we even get to Robert F Kennedy Jr. The scion of America’s most storied political dynasty turned Covid-truther, running as an independent, has become the ultimate wild card. Some polls have him as high as 14 points, with support coming from all across the political spectrum, though it seems likely he’d draw more votes away from Trump than Biden.

And if Trump is the nominee – which 60% of the country also don’t want – he’s set to spend the year fending off mounting legal troubles. He faces an astonishing 91 felony charges for crimes ranging from mishandling classified documents to fraud, defamation, sexual assault, and bribery. Any of those could theoretically lead to prison time, but perhaps the most important so far is his prosecution for election fraud in Georgia, which has already seen him arraigned and charged; the trial is set to start next August.

America is tired. Its political psyche is entering its eighth year of tearing itself apart. But it is also a very different country from the one that first put Trump in the White House. Eight years’ worth of elderly people, the demographic among which he did best, have passed on. Eight years of young people have come of voting age. The overturning of Roe v Wade galvanised a whole new generation into political activism, giving Democrats a powerful political message for which Republicans have no answer, and it partly powered their midterm victory.

Whisper it – for fear of jinxing it – but the electoral map the GOP faces next year has fewer paths to victory than before. In 2016, three midwest states swung to Trump over Clinton, in effect handing him the election: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. But Biden is much more popular among white working-class midwestern voters than Clinton was, recently cementing support there by strongly backing the auto unions in a scrap with Tesla and Toyota.

After the midterms, all three of those states now have Democratic governors, Pennsylvania has a Democrat state house majority, and Michigan, where a measure guaranteeing abortion rights was on the ballot, flipped the state house and the state attorney-general to Democrat. That and the passage of another ballot measure expanding voting access means Michigan is almost certainly now out of reach of Republicans. To win next year Trump badly needs these states – all of which he lost in 2020 – to flip back to him. That’s a huge hill to climb.

Florida, once ranked among the tightest swing states, is largely written off today as solidly red – but Trump only won it by three points in 2020, so if he’s on the ticket, the campaign will have to put resources there. Republicans won it in 2016 and 2020 and probably will again. But in 2020, Arizona and Georgia also went from Republican strongholds to knife-edge swing states that Biden tightly won. In the 2022 midterms, Georgia – where former governor Stacey Abrams has built an exquisite political operation that will now be a model the party can use in other states – elected two Democratic senators.

Trump’s never been great at fundraising either, relying instead on his own ability to generate free publicity. He will still have his media outriders on the right like Fox News and the One America News Network, but his social media presence has dimmed since he left Twitter. He will need to tread carefully, too, because posting about his legal cases could draw the ire of judges – and Trump is not a careful man.

Nonetheless, American democracy is about to be tested to its limits in a way it hasn’t since the civil war. Even if Trump loses, the MAGA movement isn’t going anywhere. As January 6 showed, it’s more than just a rabid fanbase – some parts of it would be more accurately described as a heavily armed paramilitary group.

What that looks like if Trump wins is a scary question. What it looks like if he loses might be an even scarier one.

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