By Greg Sheridan in The Australian
The next president of the United States, elected in November 2024, is most likely to be … Donald J Trump!
That’s not a forecast. The election is too far away to forecast. Nor is it a judgment on whether it would be an unmitigated disaster, or have its benefits.
But all the trends we can now track – both the superficial trends and underlying dynamics – suggest that Republican gains in the midterm congressional elections in 2022 are likely, and a second Trump victory in 2024, bizarre as that may seem, is more likely than any other outcome.
The US election will have big implications for the AUKUS agreement between Australia, the US and Britain, and our possible acquisition, eventually, of nuclear-powered submarines.
Given everything that has happened, the mere possibility of a second Trump term is astounding. This is even more so given the shocking revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book, Peril, which covers the transition from Trump to Joe Biden.
Trump’s prospects arise from the position of Biden’s presidency. The numbers are bad for Biden and they are bad for good reasons. A new Quinnipiac University poll puts Biden’s approval rating at 38 per cent. A presidential approval rating with a 3 at the front of it, at any stage of an incumbent’s term, is absolutely dire. It generally forecasts poor prospects of re-election and for the president’s party in congressional midterms.
Even worse, on the keynote question, 61 per cent say the country on the wrong track and only 32 per cent say it’s heading in the right direction.
Biden’s collapsing polls are more remarkable given that less than a year ago he won by a handsome margin with more votes than any president in US history, and his party, the Democrats, control both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Disturbingly for Democrats, Biden is tanking with independent voters. Why? We can list the causes: the military withdrawal from Afghanistan was an incompetent disaster; the failure to control the southern border and the consequent flood of illegal immigrants is another disaster; the continued rise of Delta strain Covid infections and deaths is hurting morale and sapping business confidence; and gun violence and murder rates have soared following anti-police, liberal city policies.
Also, Biden promised unity but his own Democratic Party is chronically divided. Despite controlling all arms of government, it cannot pass basic legislation because it is split between the rising and ascendant left associated with the so-called congressional “Squad” and the remaining moderates who face tough re-election battles.
Biden’s reputation for competence is continually declining. Most US media is so determined to keep Trump at bay that they simply do not play the countless sequences where Biden is truly stumped for words, seemingly having lost his train of thought.
But over time, such performances filter out. An egregious example was when he couldn’t remember Scott Morrison’s name in the highly scripted AUKUS virtual press conference. And while both sides of US politics are now big spenders, even Americans baulk at the $US5 trillion in new spending Biden proposes.
Finally, Hunter Biden is coming back to haunt his dad. Two New York Times columnists, Ross Douthat and Bret Stephens, have detailed a new book, written by an entirely credible political journalist, which shows that the compromising emails involving Hunter Biden, revealed last year in the New York Post and censored on the internet, were not Russian fakes but were genuine. Biden Jnr was using his dad’s connections in a series of sleazy, influence-trading business deals.
Hunter never gets any better. Though he has no record as an artist, a New York gallery now proposes to sell original works of art by Hunter Biden for hundreds of thousands of dollars to anonymous purchasers.
Just after the presidential election, according to Woodward’s book, Joe Biden called his old friend, Republican senator Lindsay Graham, to try to recover a working relationship. Graham wanted to help, but when the conversation turned to Hunter Biden, Graham remarked: “But Joe, if Mike Pence’s son or a Trump person did what Hunter did it’d be game, set, match.” Biden snr was furious.
Finally, it’s very unlikely Biden will run for a second term. If he did, he’d be just about to turn 82 on election day. In order to avoid becoming a lame duck, he will surely keep the possibility of running again alive as long as possible, but his cognitive decline is now so obvious that re-election is surely unimaginable.
His Vice-President, Kamala Harris, looks an exceptionally weak presidential candidate, in which case there would be a raucous Democratic primary contest with every chance the Bernie Sanders/Squad combination could secure nomination for someone from the left. Biden was, notwithstanding his limitations, the Democrats’ best candidate last time because he inherited the left’s enthusiasm for anyone but Trump, he had strong connections in the African-American electorate and above all he was the last Democrat with union connections and blue collar working class support. He was the Democrat with the best chance in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
So it’s pretty clear that Biden and the Democrats are vulnerable. Why is there any chance that Trump could win after all the turmoil of his first term and exit?
For a start, a Harvard-Harris poll puts Trump’s approval rating right now as significantly higher than Biden’s. Trump’s vice-president, Mike Pence, has a substantially higher approval rating than Harris, and Trump’s last secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has a big lead over Biden’s Antony Blinken.
Here’s one little paradox. Trump loved to hire and fire his cabinet secretaries and everyone else. He had to stick with Pence, and Pompeo was a long term Trump administration figure. These two got the best ratings from the Trump years and added most to the Trump administration.
So long as his health holds up, Trump would likely win the Republican primaries and be the candidate. He has the enthusiastic support of at least half the Republicans who vote in primaries, probably more. And while there are a number of credible Republican alternatives, none at this stage stands out. None has Trump’s profile or support level. And they would have to beat Trump in the primaries.
Should the miraculous happen and Trump lose the primaries, he would be an extremely disruptive sideline presence during the election itself, probably happy to see any Republican other than himself lose.
There is no significant anti-Trump movement among Republicans. Many of them privately detest him, but almost none of them running for office wants to make an enemy of him. Trump, grossly self-centred, has shown his dedication to revenge. He supports nominees in Republican primaries if they have been sufficiently devoted to him, and he opposes them if they’ve shown any significant independence.
Concerning the Ohio Republican primaries scheduled for next May, Trump says the key issue will be what he considers voter fraud and the “stolen election” of 2020. That is a crazy recipe. It involves no program going forward. But that’s what Trump wants from someone in order to endorse them. So the nomination is probably his if he wants it.
Can he win? Yes, he can, though he certainly can also lose.
He would benefit by showing himself a kingmaker in the midterm congressional elections but his chances in 2024 may possibly be maximised if the Democrats retain wafer thin control of congress. The Republicans would have enough power to stop the Democrats doing anything significant and then Trump could campaign against the paralysis of the Democrats even when they controlled the White House and the congress.
Trump’s prospects in 2024, however, remain extraordinarily fluid, complex and difficult to interpret. Indeed, Trump was not only the most extraordinary president of recent times but one of the hardest to judge, interpret and predict.
Here is where Woodward’s book is so useful. I have read all of Woodward’s books except his one on the Supreme Court. They are an unmatched guide to the inside workings at the top of American administrations, essential reading for any student of US politics.
Woodward is a good reporter. He doesn’t make things up and is virtually never disproved on a factual claim. His weakness is also his strength – he is very heavily dependent on his sources. But mostly it’s pretty obvious who his sources are.
One of the features of Peril is how much Trump’s closest advisers, especially Lindsay Graham and then attorney-general William Barr, were advising him to stop running on his personal grievances against the FBI or the congressional Democrats, that he should rein in the worst features of his own personality and run instead on his issues – the economy, jobs, economic nationalism, American strength internationally, and law and order.
Even against Biden, and even with the unmitigated hatred of the mainstream media, a disciplined Trump should have beaten Biden. He lost mainly because he mishandled Covid, he gave too much airtime to inside-the-Beltway issues concerning himself, and he lacked all discipline, especially in the first presidential debate.
Trump himself answers Graham, Barr and others who gave him similar advice always by reference to his base. They expect me to fight, he says. If I don’t fight, I’ll lose them. No doubt this was a real consideration for Trump, but you get the sense it was more just that his personality is so completely narcissistic that he couldn’t help himself.
Nonetheless, you can see the spectre of Trump haunting all American politics. Every day this week on CNN there were relentless attacks on Trump as though he were still president. In some hours, Trump got more coverage on CNN than Biden did. This is the surest sign that CNN fears a Trump victory in 2024.
As president, Trump was a mixture of good and bad. It’s silly and just analytically lazy, on either side, to think he was all one thing or all the other. However, after the November 2 election his conduct was utterly disgraceful.
Woodward records conversations straight after the election in which Trump acknowledged that he lost the vote to Biden.
But then he became obsessed with the ludicrous idea that the election was stolen from him. Woodward records that Barr, Trump’s hand picked attorney-general and until that point a complete Trump loyalist, running through with Trump just how absurd all the maniac claims of Rudy Giuliani about election fraud really were. Trump tried almost everything to subvert and frustrate the election result. He tried to intimidate Pence into refusing to count the Electoral College votes, as was Pence’s constitutional duty. He tried to intimidate Barr into declaring, on behalf of the Justice Department, that the election was fraudulent, when Barr knew it wasn’t. He wanted to deploy active service soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division, rather than local National Guardsmen, to restore order in US cities which experienced riots. The then defence secretary, Mark Esper, again until then a complete Trump loyalist, declared publicly there was no justification for this. Trump fired him but nonetheless felt he couldn’t take actions Esper had ruled out.
Why doesn’t all this disqualify Trump from in 2024? Mainly because his enemies from day one have said so many things about Trump that are untrue – Russian collusion etc – that they have given him a kind of immunity against charges of personal dereliction.
There is no way of knowing whether a second-term Trump would resemble the best of his first term, or the Lady Macbeth gothic horrors of Trump in office after November 2.
The fabulous weirdness of the time we live in is evident in the mere fact that we need to actively contemplate such a question.