Calling a Lid on This Election
It’s possible for Trump to win. It’s also unlikely.
Dear Reader (Including the full panoply of NES, Genesis, and Atari households),
As Jeffrey Toobin said when asked if he could do a second Zoom call right away: I just don’t have it in me.
A bunch of people have written their big “Why I’m not voting for Trump” pieces. My former colleagues, Ramesh Ponnuru, Kevin Williamson, and Jay Nordlinger have all penned great ones. Peggy Noonan has a good one in the Wall Street Journal today.
I’ve been asked by a few folks if I’ll make a contribution to this oeuvre. And I just don’t have it in me. It seems to me that if you’ve been reading me for four years, you know where my head is at. Moreover, after four years of arguing against blurring the lines between analysis and partisanship, there’s just something about telling people how to vote, even obliquely, that rubs me the wrong way (“I can’t believe you didn’t go for the Toobin joke there.”—The Couch).
The state of the race.
Speaking of analysis, let’s talk for a minute about where I think we are. I think Trump is going to lose. My confidence isn’t total (though Charlie Cook’s analysis gets me close). If you’re looking to find proof he could win, it’s possible to do it. I mean, it’s harder to do it without fantasies about a “Red Wave” or convoluted theories about millions of people lying to pollsters. Poking at the “270 to Win” map like a Tic-Tac-Toe Chinatown chicken definitely can get you there. But even looking at reality, it’s possible. It’s just pretty unlikely.
The main reason I think Trump is poised to be only the fourth incumbent president to lose in a century, as I argued last week, is that it’s not 2016. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was essentially the incumbent looking for another four years of Obamaism and Trump was the challenger promising “change” (and, importantly, some actual concrete proposals). Barely enough voters in a handful of states voted for change—and they got it, good and hard. If Trump had spent the last four years trying to expand his coalition rather than entertaining his base, he would be in a completely different place.
In the post-WWII era, presidential approval ratings are tightly correlated with reelection prospects. If they’re above 50, they win every time (Harry Truman might be an exception because we don’t know his approval rating right before the ’48 election). If they’re below 50, they lose every time—except in 2004 when George W. Bush’s approval was 48. Regardless, Trump’s approval is 43.6 as of today, which is close to the norm over four years.
Low Democratic turnout in key states in 2016 made it possible for a coalition of pro-Trump and anti-Hillary voters to draw an inside straight in the Electoral College by capturing 78,000 extra winning votes in a handful of states while still losing the national popular vote. We’re not looking at low voter turnout this year. More people have voted in Texas than the total in 2016 and 85 million people have cast ballots nationwide already. It looks like roughly 25 million more people will vote in 2020 than in 2016. That is probably not good news for a president with an approval rating that—Rasmussen notwithstanding—has been stuck in the low 40s. Even if the polls were as wrong as they were in 2016—very unlikely because pollsters insist they have adjusted for their mistakes—Biden wins.
And so: I think he wins.
Trump: A pre-mortem.
In May 2016, I wrote about how I thought Trump could win. Basically, Trump’s candidacy implied a more entertaining payoff:
… Trump bulldozed his way through the primaries in part because the nomination was his MacGuffin and people wanted to see the movie play out. Many voters, and nearly the entire press corps, got caught up in the story of Trump — much the same way the press became obsessed with the 'mythic' story of Obama in 2008. People just wanted to see what happened next.
In the film Wag the Dog, a Hollywood producer and a political fixer conspire to get the president re-elected by concocting a fake international crisis in which an American soldier is taken hostage. They agree that the American POW has to be returned after the election. Why? Because as Robert De Niro's character explains, that's the final act of the story. The president needs to win the election for the audience to see the end of the story. “Psychologically,” De Niro says, the voters will understand that that's the bargain. Make them pay for him...the price is their vote.”
In 2016, Trump was Chekhov’s gun and people wanted to see it go off after Election Day. Against the backdrop of conventional politics, it was as if Bluto Blutarsky was cast as the lead in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and people were like, “Oh, I’ve got to see how this plays out.”
Again, incumbents have to run different races than challengers for the simple reason that they are incumbents. And even in the upside-down reality show dimension midwifed into existence by inappropriate orb-groping, that rule still applies. If you want to run on four more seasons of the Trump Show, you gotta promise more than what we’ve gotten (“In 2021 Trump challenges Mork to a Holitacker in the Rose Garden!”).
But thanks to his inability to let go of the 2016 mindset combined with his belief that the single best thing about his presidency was him—not his policies, not his accomplishments, just him—he didn’t think he needed to promise anything concrete for his second term other than more him. The message was, “You like my cowbell presidency? Well, reelect me for more cowbell because I am the cowbell made flesh.” (The more I picture it, the grosser it gets.)
He could have still promised more clanging. Indeed, he’d have to, because nobody at this point believes Trump can be anything other than the guy you see constantly. But despite desperate attempts from friendly interviewers, he couldn’t define or explain a second-term agenda that people could vote for if they didn’t like the constant Blue Oyster Cult refrain—or people who may even like the cowbell but don’t think it’s sufficient.
My own theory is that plenty of folks tried to design a second-term agenda for him, but he resisted it because he couldn’t stomach the idea that people needed more reason to vote for him other than his Magnificent Himness. For Trump, a coherent second-term agenda is like the prepared text he will occasionally read through like a mandatory disclaimer from the lawyers, the Magnificent Himness is the self-indulgent schtick he feeds to the adoring crowds whom he thinks represent a winning coalition.
Zugzwang und torschlusspanik.
General Kutuzov is my favorite character in War and Peace. Now, I know that’s a really pretentious thing to say, so let me confess something. I read War and Peace 30 years ago and I barely remember any of it. But one of the things that has stuck with me is “Kutuzov’s maxim” (as Albert Jay Nock called it). "The strongest of all warriors," says Kutuzov, "are these two: Time and Patience." Dismissing a rival general's accomplishments, Kutuzov rails: "Kamenski would have been lost if he had not died. He stormed fortresses with thirty thousand men. It is not difficult to capture a fortress, but it is difficult to win a campaign. For that, not storming and attacking but patience and time are wanted."
Joe Biden has run a Kutuzovian campaign. Someone convinced him—or maybe he even figured it out himself—that staying out of the way as Trump sucked up all the oxygen was the surest way to beat him. For a long time, progressives wanted him to say or do bold things. And Biden resisted. For even longer, Republicans wanted him to say or do stupid things. And he resisted.
Interestingly, there’s considerable overlap between the bold things progressives wanted and the stupid things conservatives wanted. For instance, if he campaigned on the full Green New Deal or reparations for slavery, both the Democratic and GOP base would be happy.
This strategy drove a lot of people on the left and right nuts. But because it worked, the progressives and the media made peace with it (while many on the right went even nuttier than Mr. Peanut diving into a bowl of cashews). Indeed, many liberals now believe that anything that might alter the trajectory of the race is not just bad, but evil. I think the Hunter Biden stories—so far—are collectively nothing close to the scandal that Tucker Carlson & Co. want them to be. But there’s no legitimate reason not to cover that angle at all. Pro-Biden world is suffering from a kind of zugzwang dementia.
On the off-chance you didn’t know, zugzwang is a German chess term describing the “compulsion to move.” If you could just skip a turn and not move any of your pieces, you’d be in fine shape. But moving any piece will worsen your position. But here’s the hitch: In chess, you have to move when it’s your turn; in politics, you don’t. In politics, like war, not moving is a move. Biden’s Kutuzovian patience paid off. And most of the media is determined to keep it that way. For Biden world, any suggestion that Biden should do or say anything that constitutes a game-changing move is outrageous.
Trump & Co. are understandably—and often justifiably—furious about this. They wanted to run against Bernie. When Biden got the nomination, they fell back on the hardly insane hope that Biden would implode by constantly spouting stuff that sounded like World War II resistance radio code: “The chair is against the wall!” “These apples taste like chicken!” “Don’t eat the armadillo on Tuesday!” Biden’s done some of this, but not enough to look more unstable than the guy who wanted to apply disinfectant internally to COVID patients.
Still, Trump is basically right about Biden’s kid-glove treatment by the press. Biden’s constant “lids”—a term almost no one outside the Beltway press ever heard of until this year—must be maddening for an opposing campaign that needs to make the election a 2016-style choice, not a referendum on Trump. Biden has been like Matt Damon in Rounders, constantly checking Teddy KGB. “Lid, lid, lid!” is the new “check, check, check!”
Of course, Trump—who insinuated that Ted Cruz’s dad killed JFK and compared Ben Carson to a child molester—is the last person with any objective right to complain that his political opponent isn’t playing fair. Particularly when the unfairness boils down to letting Trump have the limelight to himself. “How dare you give the baby his bottle!”
So now zugzwang has given way to torschlusspanik, another great German word. It comes from medieval times—not the place that serves Pepsi—and literally describes the panic one feels when the city gates might close before you can make it back, leaving you at the mercy of highwaymen and lycanthropes. Today, it just means “The fear that time is running out.” Obviously the zugzwang is feeding the torschlusspanik, on both the left and right.
But the panic is largely helping Biden. It keeps the media friendly and, more significantly, the massive early voting numbers are the direct result of liberals freaking out that Biden might blow it at the wire. On the right, the panic is hurting. Trump is rallying his way through swing states experiencing COVID surges, whining that COVID is essentially a media hoax. Among his supporters, the increasingly hysterical obsession with “corporate media” bias (which is real, I’ll be the first to admit), Hunter Biden—and of course those November criminals—the “Never Trumpers,” are all signs of torschlusspanik. For four years, the Trumpists have told us that they were the apostles of the revealed truth about “real America.” When things were going their way, or at least seemed to be, conservatives who refused to see the emperor’s new clothes were irrelevant fools who “no one listens to.” Now, we are the authors of what increasingly looks like the MAGA’s nakba. Anything to shift the blame.
By encouraging Trump at every turn to go full Trump (Never go full Trump), they contributed to Trump fatigue, and now a majority of Americans and voters have lost interest in seeing what another season might look like (even if Trump does win, it’s virtually impossible he’ll win the popular vote). I don’t think a lot of people, on the left or right, are eager to watch four years of the Biden show. But a lot of people are eager to see a new spinoff series, “Trump in Exile.”
Various & Sundry
I did a long interview with Guy Denton of Bournbrook Magazine all the way over there in Britain on a whole bunch of topics. You might find it interesting.
Animal update: So Zoë still brings out her leaf every night. The only new development on that front came last night. The leaf from the night before was still on the floor when she brought out the new one. She decided the old one needed to be chewed up. So, the mystery deepens. I know a lot of people think this is a maternal cry for help and proof she wants a puppy. I don’t think that’s it, though. She doesn’t really object when I remove the leaf. And one thing I’m sure about is that if Zoë were a mommy, she would be the fiercest, most protective, mommy in canine history. But who knows? Meanwhile, Pippa went to the beauty salon. I think she looks quite fetching—in both senses. There was a funny development with Ralph. I was sitting in a comfy chair my wife usually uses during the day. Ralph jumped on my lap as if I was the Fair Jessica. I was stunned. I mean, Ralph has warmed to me thanks to the treat regimen. But Ralph hasn’t sat in my lap for like five years. But it was not to be. Ralph looked up, saw that I was not her, and bolted away. Oh well. Meanwhile Gracie remains the goodest cat.
And now, the weird stuff
Photograph by Brendan Smialowski and Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.