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How Trump Could Win
Donald Trump is deeply unpopular outside his base and is facing multiple criminal investigations that could land him in jail. But...he could also win the 2024 US presidential election. Here's how:
Nine months from tomorrow, voters will cast the first ballots in the 2024 presidential election. The conventional wisdom holds that Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee—but that he will go on to lose the general election.
Conventional wisdom can be wrong. And while I broadly agree that those outcomes are currently the most likely, they rely on a series of assumptions that could turn out to be mistaken.
Don’t delude yourself: it is a realistic possibility that Donald Trump could become president again, with disastrous consequences for American democracy and the world. I’ll explain how that might happen—and what to watch out for.
The Persistent Myth of the “Land of Normal Politics”
Since 2016, pundits have repeatedly been wrong about the Republican Party because they’ve used the wrong framework to analyze the Trumpified GOP. Most of the talking heads on television and the columnists in flagship newspapers have been conditioned to think about every political development through the prism of “Normal Politics.”
Their focus has always been the United States, and unlike those of us who study global democracy and the rise of authoritarianism, they don’t have another lens with which to view the world. They still see America as being part of the Land of Normal Politics—a land in which rational choice models work best. Political parties chase the median voter, creating a “big tent” party that captures as many votes as possible.
Crucially, in the Land of Normal Politics, when a candidate drags down a party, they’re abandoned. Parties learn from their mistakes. It’s as ruthless as the forces of natural selection, which, as Richard Dawkins once put it, is “a miserly accountant, grudging the pennies, watching the clock, punishing the smallest extravagance. Unrelentingly and unceasingly.” You either deliver, or you’re ditched.
But Trump shifted America’s Republican political landscape. His party is now within the Land of Authoritarian Politics. This is the world I’ve studied for more than a decade, from Madagascar to Belarus and Thailand—and now in the United States.
In that world, rational choice models fall apart. They’re comically bad at predicting events, because voters will repeatedly cling to a single charismatic individual even if they lose. Policy becomes secondary to personality. And when the charismatic authoritarian leader of the movement lashes himself to the mast of unpopular policies (such as bans on abortion or trying to undermine the integrity of elections), the broader movement stays lashed together right there with him, ignoring the siren calls of pundits who howl about electability.
The cult of personality around Trump has countless loyalty tests. There are the lies you’re expected to parrot, from the Big Lie about the 2020 election to the conspiracy theories that circulate among MAGA disciples.
But there are also the outward displays—flags, hats, bizarre art that depicts Trump as a superhero, or even flying on an eagle. (The lack of similar products for Biden is a sign of a healthy political party in a democracy, in which politics is about policy goals, not a person. When’s the last time you saw a Biden flag?).
The cult-like devotion to Trump persists despite the obvious fact that Trump is an electoral liability. As I wrote previously:
The right way to think about Trump’s strategic “genius” is that the guy had two strokes of genuine political genius: he realized that immigration was an electrifying third rail in US politics and understood that a significant chunk of his party’s voters were latent authoritarians, meaning that the only reason they weren’t voting for a strongman was because one hadn’t been offered to them on the ballot. Those insights propelled him to the presidency. Once he got there, he shot himself in the foot repeatedly, a level of savvy political skills that culminated most deliciously in the Four Seasons Total Landscaping debacle, a fitting coda to a disastrous, slapstick presidency.
As a result, no matter what Trump does, he’s going to remain popular within the GOP. Those who proclaimed he was toast after the 2022 midterms were still clinging to the delusions of the Land of Normal Politics. I wish we still lived in that world, but we don’t. For those who remain deluded, it’s time to adjust your frameworks.
The State of the 2024 GOP Primary
In the Land of Authoritarian Politics, the Republican Primary can easily be analyzed once you accept three basic facts.
Nobody except for Ron DeSantis has enough political support in the party to be able to directly challenge Donald Trump. (See how Nikki Haley and Tim Scott refused to name a single difference between themselves and Trump).
Donald Trump, at an absolute minimum, will have the backing of 40 percent of Republican voters in a competitive primary. (It will probably be much higher).
There will be at least two candidates who aren’t named Donald Trump.
These three facts tell you pretty much everything you need to know about how the race is likely to unfold. It becomes a simple math problem. If Trump can count on at least 40 percent support, and the remaining 60 percent is split at least two ways, it becomes highly unlikely that Trump will lose. You can see these dynamics developing in the polls already, though I suspect that Trump’s grip on the party will strengthen the closer we get to January 2024.
There is also a possibility that DeSantis doesn’t run, and if that doesn’t happen, Trump will almost certainly waltz to the nomination. Here are the polling averages from Five Thirty Eight, with the caveat that it’s still very early on in the race and nine months is a lifetime in US politics—lots can change. But see those flat lines?
Some unknown portion of GOP voters haven’t drank the Kool-Aid and will back a less extreme candidate. That will shave a small, but nonetheless significant, portion away from the Trump/DeSantis wing of the party. And when Trump goes after DeSantis viciously—and he will—that will function like the ultimate MAGA loyalty test. Are you a true believer, or just a wannabe disciple who doesn’t have the stomach to see the movement through to the end?
Moreover, everything that would normally fry a candidacy in the Land of Normal Politics—such as being indicted for dozens of felonies and pending further felony indictments from several active criminal investigations—can electrify a candidacy in the Land of Authoritarian Politics. The victimhood complex that Trump has built—combined with the propaganda machine operating at Fox News—means that an indictment is a political positive in the funhouse mirror reality his base inhabits.
So, is it inevitable that Trump will be the nominee? No, but it’s pretty darn close. I’ve tried to game out scenarios in which he doesn’t get the nomination, and the most plausible pathway to that outcome is Trump himself. The argument goes like this: Trump realizes his electoral vulnerabilities in the general election, recognizes that claiming widespread fraud to explain his defeat will just sound like Sore Loser Syndrome the second time around, and decides to save face by bowing out.
I find that possibility unlikely for three reasons. First, Trump is a compulsive narcissist and, to him, the only fate worse than losing is being ignored. Second, his entire strategy to deal with mounting criminal liability is to paint it as a politicized witch hunt launched by his political opponents. If he's no longer a candidate, that depiction of indictments becomes far less potent. And third, he can raise money through his candidacy, and given his widespread legal problems, he needs the money.
So, he’s probably going to continue to see his run through. And while he’ll enter a general election matchup as an underdog, he could still win the 2024 election.
Trump Has a Path to Victory
Trump has gotten even more deranged since leaving office, regularly promoting QAnon on his social media site, posting a threatening picture of himself holding a baseball bat next to the head of the man who’s prosecuting him, and trying to intimidate those who would investigate him with a promise of “death and destruction.”
In a prospective second term, America’s authoritarian turn would likely accelerate to dangerous levels and political violence would be an enormous threat. American democracy would become an unrecognizable semi-authoritarian mess, making his first term look like the tranquil democracy of Norway by comparison. I suspect Trump would also finally make good on his threat to withdraw the United States from NATO, undercutting the linchpin of global security.
That extremism, combined with the legacy of January 6th, and the shift in political voting patterns based on the end of nationally protected abortion rights have led to two crucial dynamics, which are straightforward political facts:
Donald Trump is really unpopular;
Many of the policies he supports are really unpopular, too.
So, he faces some headwinds. But that’s not necessarily new, or disqualifying. In 2015, several general election polls gave voters a hypothetical matchup: who would you vote for in a race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In May 2015—roughly the same distance from the 2016 primaries as we are today—Trump trailed Clinton by 18 points. In a poll from June 2015, he was down by a whopping 24 points. In the end, he lost the popular vote by just 2.1 percent.
An odd amnesia seems to have obliterated memories of how completely screwed Trump initially seemed as a prospective rival to Hillary Clinton…Advocates for Trump’s non-electability also need to come to grips with the fact that (so far, at least) Trump is not looking particularly weak in head-to-head polls for a prospective rematch with Joe Biden. According to RCP’s averages of Trump-versus-Biden trial heats, the ex-president currently leads the sitting president by an eyelash (44.6 percent to 44.4 percent).
This is often news to people, particularly those who live outside the right-wing media propaganda bubble and therefore take the threat of a second Trump term seriously.
So, how could he win?
Scenario 1: Third Party Spoiler
First, a disclaimer: I think Trump is more likely than not to lose the general election if he wins the Republican nomination. Everything he does to solidify his base comes at a cost in electability beyond his diehard base. But this scenario isn’t far-fetched.
It’s highly unlikely that Trump would win the popular vote in 2024. He has ossified attitudes toward him sufficiently that few persuadable people out there are left. Here’s how I interpret the polling: about 50 percent of likely voters think he’s terrible and will never, ever vote for him. Biden can count on most of those voters.
Another 30 percent think he’s more or less the political Messiah, and they’ll vote for him enthusiastically. Then, there’s about 10-15 percent that will hold their noses and vote for Trump in a general election because they’re Republicans first and they’d rather vote for him than a Democrat. That leaves 5 to 10 percent who are desperate to not vote for Trump, but don’t like Biden, who remains reasonably unpopular.
You might think that a candidate who has already lost half the country is doomed to lose the election, but that view makes two flawed assumptions: first, that the popular vote is what matters, and second, that the vote is going to be split just two ways.
In 2016, Trump won the Electoral College with such a narrow margin, split across three crucial states, that you could fit all of the people who swung the election in a single sports stadium.
Now, what if a third party candidate is able to win even, say, ten percent of the vote? Suddenly, it could upend the demographics of the race in ways that are poisonous to Biden’s candidacy.
Why would a third party candidate hurt Biden more?
Well, in 2020, Democrats already picked the moderate in their field. While Republicans paint Biden as some sort of left-wing extremist, it’s utterly absurd; he’s advanced some progressive legislation, but AOC and Bernie Sanders he is not. The lane that Biden occupied in the 2020 primary was the one of sensible center-left moderate who would listen to, and care about, progressives.
Now, a shadowy well-funded group called No Labels, is trying to use vast resources to recruit and promote a moderate to run as a third party candidate. (The group has been funded by Harlan Crow to the tune of $100,000—yes, that Harlan Crow). (No Labels, despite its name, doles out labels, and one that they gave out was “problem solver” to describe Donald Trump in 2016).
If they succeed and manage to recruit someone who’s viable, then the equation of the 2024 race will be as follows:
Moderate Democrat (Joe Biden) + Moderate Centrist + Extremist Republican (Trump)
At first glance, there’s no real reason to assume that this would hurt Biden more than Trump. However, consider this: based on current projections Trump would be likely to win the electoral college if he lost the popular vote by less than 3 or 4 percent. In a two-party race, it’s possible to imagine Biden wrapping up 50 percent of the vote against Trump. With a third party, that becomes impossible.
Trump’s political floor is rock solid: he’s going to get at least 40 percent of the vote, because we live in the Land of Authoritarian Politics, not the Land of Normal Politics. With a third party candidate, the prospect of a 45/40 race between Biden and Trump becomes substantially more likely. And 45/40 is right on the cusp of what Trump would need to win the Electoral College, assuming the distribution of votes across key states is spread to his advantage, as it was in 2016.
It’s completely crazy and unbelievable. But it’s also possible.
Scenario 2: Biden’s Health Fails
I’m not here to weigh in on the debate about Joe Biden being too old to be president or not. But let’s stipulate a key electoral fact: polls show that a lot of Americans do think he is too old, too frail, and not sharp enough to be re-elected. If Biden completed a second term, he would leave office at the age of 86. Now, Trump’s no spring chicken himself (he’d be 82 at the end of a second term). But for multiple reasons, the polling data show that age and health are political liabilities for Biden but not for Trump.
If, during the campaign, Biden were either to fall ill, or be even temporarily unable to perform his duties as president, it would give Trump a major electoral boost. This line of argument is particularly persuasive to low-information voters who aren’t particularly political; they would be swayed not by a policy speech, but simply by a “sense” that someone isn’t up to the job. In our hyper-polarized world characterized by Granfalloon Politics, there aren’t that many persuadable people out there anymore, but some of them would be swayed—and it could help elect Trump.
Similarly, if Biden were to make a high-profile gaffe during the debate, in which there was even the slightest whiff that he was confused, Republicans would pounce. It’s an unfair standard, clearly, as Trump has repeatedly shown himself to be deranged and dangerous. But the dynamics of our media ecosystem are such that Biden will get savaged for a comparatively minor gaffe, while Trump can just keep on promoting the lie that Democrats are part of a secret worldwide cabal that drinks the blood of children, and somehow, they end up conflated as “both being flawed candidates.”
Scenario 3: The Black Swan
American politics, like any complex system, can be swayed in an instant by the most unexpected developments. Maybe Putin actually uses a nuke. Maybe the world economy collapses. Maybe a new pandemic emerges. Maybe there’s a catastrophic cyber attack on the United States. Calamities produce uncertainty and volatility. Trump thrives on both.
I won’t pretend to imagine all the possible worlds in which Trump will win the election, but as someone who takes the difficult-to-predict contingency of our world extremely seriously (I call this newsletter the Garden of Forking Paths for a reason), I must stress that any election with Trump as a major general election candidate is an election that poses an existential threat to American democracy. It could happen.
I remain hopeful that Americans, in their collective wisdom, will reject a second Trump term. If the election were held today, they probably would. But it’s not a foregone conclusion, and I’ve been skeptical of those who have pronounced Trump toast before. He remains a viable candidate, sadly, and so long as the Republican party remains committed to a dangerous authoritarian, every presidential election with him on the ballot will pose a serious, catastrophic risk to democracy itself.
Thank you for supporting my work. I’m extremely grateful—and I promise the next edition will be more uplifting!