Republicans Are Headed For An Epic Wipeout — Their Own
It’s not just Trump’s legal woes that have changed the calculus of the election, but the environment of the election itself
Being bullish on the idea that Trump will be held accountable for his many crimes and offenses has never been a particularly safe bet. People have been betting against him, and losing, for decades. Maybe his whole life. He has eclipsed former mafia boss John Gotti as the most infamous “Teflon Don.” He is beyond the reach of everyday accountability. The rules do not apply.
If you do go so far as to point out his deficiencies, they are dismissed as irrelevant and a misunderstanding of the paradigm shift that Trump represents. They will remind you that no one thought Trump could win in 2016, that polling is forever flawed, that there are troves of silent Trump supporters everywhere, and that you underestimate him at your peril. But this is merely falling prey to a number of cognitive biases that allow us to delude ourselves in the face of facts. I’ll return to that, but first, let’s recap where we stand today.
On Tuesday, August 1, 2023, former president Donald Trump was indicted on four felony charges related to a conspiracy to illegally remain in power after he lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden. As the presumptive nominee for the Republican nomination, and with his closest rival trailing by more than 20 points, the country is going to be following as many as four different criminal trials involving the former game show host as he campaigns to become the first president ever to be elected while federally indicted.
It won’t just be Trump on the ballot. Nearly every other Republican running for office will have to defend their support of the former president or suffer the wrath of his supporters. In safe districts, that’s one thing, but in swing districts, it could prove challenging to overcome, especially if the GOP continues to lose support from moderates and independents not so pleased with their stance on abortion or their support of a felon. They don’t have such an easy path.
Even if everything else remained equal, and we were looking at a rematch of Trump versus Biden, Trump would have to find eight million additional voters in order to win the popular vote. While Republicans have institutional advantages in the electoral college, in the eight years since Trump won an election, the electorate itself has changed dramatically.
As older voters have died, younger voters are coming of age. Gen Z has added 32 million new eligible voters, while 20 million older voters have passed on. That’s 20 million voters they can no longer count on, and 32 million new voters to try and convince.
These latest charges might not end up being the most dangerous threat to Trump actually seeing the inside of a jail cell, but they are the most damaging. For one, this is the first indictment, but likely not the last, to accuse him of criminal wrongdoing while in office.
The hush money payments made in New York to porn star Stormy Daniels happened before he was president, and the charges of illegally withholding classified documents happened after he left office. This alleged crime occurred while he was acting as President of the United States.
A fourth set of indictments are expected out of Georgia sometime this month. These are state felony charges, with offenses also alleged to have occurred while he was president, and offer no opportunity for a federal pardon from a future president. Best case scenario, the Georgia Board of Pardons could pardon him five years after the completion of his sentence, which offers no immediate relief.
Pundits, broadcasters, journalists, and voters are all unsure how to feel about the unprecedented nature of these crimes and the likelihood that Trump will ever see the inside of a prison cell. For decades, Donald Trump has routinely flouted the law, escaping accountability at every turn. If you just look at recent history, it’s difficult to believe this time will be any different. But it is.
Unlike civil trials, or even public scandals that might sink a lesser candidate, the United States government has now charged a former president with committing crimes while in office. This will likely have a lasting effect on the presidency, not just Trump’s ability to walk free. In federal court, there are rules, precedents, and procedures that don’t allow the defendant to appeal to their fans and supporters for leniency.
Unlike when talking with the media or at a political rally, you can’t just boldly lie with impunity. There is no First Amendment right to say whatever you like in a courtroom. Anything you’ve ever said publicly, can and will be used against you. Not to mention that the stakes are not an inconvenient loss of revenue or profit, but a loss of personal freedom; a level of personal degradation not known in the defendant’s lifetime, and possibly lasting the rest of his life.
In the aftermath of Trump’s complete takeover of the Republican Party, they no longer have an ideology that would engender populist support. The GOP was already struggling to see a path forward in a rapidly changing demographic environment. Their electorate, primarily older, white, male voters, was dying off and being replaced by a younger, more diverse, more liberal population.
They were also losing women voters, especially college-educated, suburban women. They needed to attract non-white, younger voters if they had any hope of survival, including more women. But so far, the legacy of the new Maga GOP is that without Trump, they have no message.
Look at the campaign of Trump’s biggest competitor in the Republican field, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a candidate who has claimed to be a big Trump supporter, but who would now like to unseat him as leader of the party. He has tried to move to Trump’s right and become the Cultural Warrior without the baggage, believing that it was Trump’s cruelty that resonated with voters.
The biggest problem with Ron DeSantis, among many, is that he has the personality of a spoiled turnip. If Trump gets by on pure charisma, DeSantis comes off as barely human. Trump is vindictive and petty, but his followers at least think of him as entertaining. DeSantis’ theory of the case for why he should be president amounts to taking all the stuff Maga voters like about Trump, namely his roguish unpredictability, and adding some additional cruelty and awkward social behavior. Trump might eat McDonald’s cheeseburgers and well-done steaks with ketchup, but he doesn’t eat pudding with his fingers.
The timing of Trump’s indictments and the likely timing of their court dates are likely to end up consequential, as it is most likely that the primary nomination will be locked up before a trial even begins, which could mean that Trump could be convicted at a time when his name can no longer be removed from the ballot. Pundits have pointed out that polling shows that a majority of Republican voters would vote for Trump even if he were convicted, but his 35% of loyal base voters simply aren’t enough to win a general election.
As I pointed out, Trump can’t afford to do only as good as he did in either 2016 or 2020, both elections in which he lost the popular vote. The ground has shifted, and he needs to be able to do considerably better this time. While he remains popular with the base, his support with suburban women, moderates, and unaffiliated voters, has stayed stagnant or lost ground. He has no upside, nowhere to go but down, because he’s getting all he can.
In general elections, there has always been a desire to differentiate the candidates and show how what they offer, is completely different from “the other guy.” In more recent memory, however, the parties have become so polarized, that it’s become more critical to identify and demonize who you’re voting against than praise who you’re voting for.
When the general election finally comes into view, Americans will be faced with a career politician whose greatest detraction seems to be his advancing age, running against a man with a lifelong history of fraudulent behavior, who has been twice impeached, and so far, been indicted in four separate criminal trials of 78 different felony charges, with at least one more criminal indictment to follow this month.
It’s not what one would call optimal.
When predicting the outcomes of things, human beings are hindered by all manner of fallacies and cognitive biases that keep us from seeing what is often right in front of our faces. The first that comes to mind regarding the 2024 election is the Hot Hand Fallacy.
Initially proposed by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, this bias is defined by incorrectly assuming a winning streak will continue because of the streak itself. If a player has won six times in a row, or made six shots in a row, you believe there is a better-than-average chance that they will win again or make the next shot. We assume the player is hot and, therefore, more likely to continue to win.
In fact, the outcome of each event is entirely its own, with its own odds. The chances that a thing that has happened repeatedly, will happen again, have no relation to what has happened before. Every time you flip a coin, the odds that it comes up heads are 1:2. If you flip the coin one hundred times, and each time it comes up heads, the 101st would still have odds of coming up tails as 1:2.
There is Confirmation Bias, where we see the world how we want to see it, or how we fear to see it, and not as it really is. If you think the world is going to hell in a handbag, chances are you will find evidence of that all around you. And then there is also Motivated Reasoning, which describes our propensity to “scrutinize ideas that oppose our intuitions less than ideas that support our intuitions.”¹
All that means that just because Trump has gotten away with it before has no real bearing on whether his luck will continue. Not only because a winning streak is not predictable but also because the rules of the game and the field of play have all changed.
There’s really no way to overstate the importance and gravity of the trials of Donald Trump over the next year or more. If he is not held to account, then there’s nothing keeping anyone from attempting the same or worse, not to mention that it’s within the realm of possibilities that he could defy all odds, prevail all four trials without a conviction or prison sentence, and retake the White House.
If that were to happen, Trump has been clear about his intentions. Retribution against his enemies using the full force of the government, including the Justice Department. The seizing and consolidation of power, removing whatever guardrails we have left to constrain unlimited power. Basically, setting himself as a President for life, to select his own successor, likely a family member. It would be the end of America as we know it.
So much of the legitimacy of any government relies on how it’s viewed by its subjects. The only way to maintain power within an illegitimate government is through the use of force. If the source of power doesn’t come from a mandate from a majority of the population, you’re no longer living in a democracy, and everything else falls away.
“Few moments in history,” wrote The Guardian, “including the Watergate scandal, have done so much to puncture the dignified mystique of American government as Donald Trump’s frantic, cynical, and preposterous attempts to hang on to power after losing the 2020 election.”
An infamous curse states, “May you live in interesting times.”
May it become a lot less interesting before too long. I fear another interesting decade. I fear we will not survive it.
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