Little in America has seemed quite right in the seven years since Donald Trump won his improbable election victory in 2016.
The news that the US government is indicting the former president on four counts of attempting to overturn the 2020 election might seem to be in keeping with the Through the Looking Glass world that Trump – by turns malevolent and buffoonish – led us into. But in fact, the move is a big step back into reality.
Trump is, of course, presumed innocent – but now let’s see what the evidence is against him. That’s normal, and that’s a tribute to the American system. The fact it took 2½ years to get here is problematic, but that’s a discussion for another time.
All that said, the 16 months between now and the presidential election will be a rollercoaster ride, and 2024 promises to be the weirdest political year of our lifetimes.
First of all, the Republican presidential primary, in which Trump is far and away the front-runner, will be surreal. The predictable line-up of second-tier politicians and narcissistic nobodies has manifested itself. But they have been, with the exception of outspoken Trump critic Chris Christie, subdued.
In a normal primary, your opponents would never shut up about your failings. A calamitous pandemic response. Cozying up to Russia, racists and militias. A thoroughly corrupt administration. Two impeachments. Doing nothing while goons and creeps attempted to sack the US Capitol. Being found responsible for sexually assaulting a woman. Accusations of criminal campaign violations, and then retaining classified documents and obstructing justice.
And yet no one besides Christie brings up any of this. The reason: they aren’t really running against Trump. They merely hope to be standing fairly close to him at the moment he might get taken down. That’s not a normal election.
Meanwhile, it’s fair to point out that both Trump and his opponent, President Joe Biden, are old. Trump was the oldest-ever US president – until Biden succeeded him. Way back when, we thought Ronald Reagan was too old when he became president at the ripe old age of 69. On Inauguration Day 2025, Trump will be 78 (older than Reagan was when he left office), and Biden 82.
Either Trump or Biden could have a heart attack, fall or suffer some debilitating ailment between now and then, throwing their party, and perhaps the election, into turmoil. Democrats are playing with fire as well; if something were to happen to Biden, his presumed successor, Kamala Harris, would be a much weaker candidate.
In any case, as the primaries proceed, and we head to the general election, it seems assured that one of the candidates will be in and out of courtrooms facing a sprawling array of charges. The cases against Trump are in some ways complex; the actual trials in at least one and perhaps all may be delayed past the election, potentially raising bizarre constitutional issues. (Can a sitting US president be sent to jail in, say, Georgia?)
The new charges have a wildcard, too: a Star Wars cantina of co-conspirators may be facing their own trials during election season. (They are as yet unnamed, but the indictment contains hints that one is Rudy Giuliani, the one-time respected mayor of New York City who has become one of Trump’s most degraded myrmidons.) These legal madhouses will dominate the news. Trump’s opponents in the Republican primary will find it hard to get noticed. And in the general election, it’s hard to imagine the media talking about anything but Trump Trump Trump.
One more twist: spoiler candidates. Robert F. Kennedy Jr, son of the assassinated senator, is mounting a fruitless but potentially damaging campaign against Biden for the Democratic nomination. He’s an anti-vax crusader and conspiracy theorist – and getting multimillion-dollar donations from people on the right. There’s also a mysterious group called No Labels, funded by so-called “dark money”, working to put a purportedly independent candidate on the general-election ballot to siphon votes away from Biden in swing states.
These moves might prove consequential. A razor-thin vote count in Florida, you will recall, put the second George Bush into the White House in 2000. His official margin of victory over Al Gore? Five hundred votes. Progressive activist Ralph Nader, on the Florida ballot as well, took almost 100,000 votes away from Democrats.
Barring a health scare or the significant rise of one of those third-party stalking horses, Biden should take Trump out cleanly in November 2024. Yes, there have been some recent polls showing a close race that have Democrats atwitter.
Still, this is the big picture: Biden beat Trump by 7 million votes in 2020, a fact that you will never hear uttered in Trumpland. Since then, the Supreme Court’s tectonic abortion decision, which allowed states to ban the procedure, continues to polarise younger voters against the Republicans. Right now, the economic outlook seems positive for the Democrats.
In the all-important Electoral College, the state-by-state vote that technically determines the winner, Biden won by 74 electoral votes in 2020. Since then, two of the four key battleground states, Michigan and Wisconsin, have swung wildly Democratic; the other two, Arizona and Georgia, have been trending steadily blue.
To win, Trump will have to figure out a way to expand his base of support. If the past seven years are any guide, he will reach a new low, and will fare much worse than we thought possible.
But could something raise to favour Trump? To paraphrase Sarah Palin: Oh, you betcha. Consider this. Remember those four swing states? If Trump does manage to campaign well, and takes Arizona and Wisconsin back, and then wins either Michigan or Georgia as well, the result would be … an Electoral College tie between Trump and Biden!
The resulting constitutional rabbit hole would melt down cable news and social media, and throw the world’s greatest democracy into uncharted territory, or at least an episode of Veep. In the immortal words of Margo Channing in All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts – it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
Bill Wyman is a former arts editor and assistant managing editor of National Public Radio in Washington. He teaches at the University of Sydney. Connect via Twitter.
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