Of Course Trump Can Win in 2024
Republican brains are breaking as they contemplate being lashed to the Orange Man once again
I almost can’t believe I’m writing this post. I aspire to think deeply about hard questions in our politics, not shoot a rich stock of fish in an undersized barrel. But I just couldn’t resist the temptation.
Andrew C. McCarthy has written an utterly unpersuasive essay for National Review that expresses a view that risks becoming the conventional unwisdom of our political moment. One hears it regularly now among (occasionally) anti-Trump conservatives. It’s also repeated among very online progressives and certain Democratic Party strategists and consultants, who are united in considering Florida Governor Ron DeSantis both more dangerous (because more competent),1 and a more formidable general-election challenger to President Joe Biden, than former President Donald Trump.
The view McCarthy articulated is this: “Trump can’t win.” That’s it. That’s the irritable mental gesture in its entirety.
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Words Mean Things
Now, I’m one of those old-fashioned writers who thinks words mean things and should be chosen with an eye for precision. And here’s the problem with McCarthy’s core assertion: “Can’t” is a shortened version of the word “cannot,” which is an auxiliary verb that negates an action. “I, Damon Linker, cannot fly” means I am incapable of flight. If I run off a cliff edge, I will plummet to the ground no matter how fervently I flap my arms. That’s because I’m a human being, and human beings are unable to fly unaided by technological enhancements.
“Damon can’t fly.” Clear enough.
McCarthy himself appears to half understand that the statement “Trump can’t win the presidency in 2024” isn’t like this. He admits that “nothing in life is certain,” which he describes as a “caveat” to his thesis that should lead him to concede that “if Trump wins the Republican nomination, anything could happen, so of course he has a chance to be elected president again.”
In one of the most bizarre lines of reasoning I’ve seen published in an outlet employing editors, McCarthy then writes this:
No, I am not playing along. At this point, I concede only that we cannot say with certainty who will be elected president in November 2024—or even who the nominee will be for either party. That said, I am as certain as I am writing this that Donald Trump will never again be elected president of these United States.
Really? You admit to uncertainty about who will become the Republican nominee but will not grant the possibility that if that nominee is named Donald Trump he could well end up winning the presidency? It won’t happen? It can’t happen? Like I will not soar upwards into the wild blue yonder if I hurl myself off the observation deck of the Empire State Building?
I wish there were some signs that McCarthy is joking. But alas….
So Many Maybes
Look, if this were just a matter of establishing that McCarthy’s absolute formulations (“will never,” “can’t”) are foolish, this would be a 300-word squib of a post. Because just about everyone with a functional brain will admit that in a two-party system, one party’s presidential nominee obviously has some chance of winning. I mean, for God’s sake, even the Huffington Post gave Trump a 1.7 percent chance of beating Hillary Clinton in 2016! That’s pretty lopsided! But it isn’t “will never.” It isn’t “can’t.”
But I’m not going to go that easy on myself or McCarthy. Instead, I want to demonstrate not only that Trump can win the presidency in 2024, but that he’ll have a decent shot of doing so. I won’t try to state the probability in mathematical terms. I’m not Nate Silver, and, like ABC News, I don’t own his forecasting models. (It’s also much too early to use them efficaciously.) But I’m pretty much with The Bulwark’s Jonathan Last in thinking that GOP nominee Trump would probably fall somewhere between a 35 and 50 percent chance of winning in 2024. He certainly wouldn’t be a shoo-in. He could certainly lose. But he could also win. It could be a coin toss. Or maybe like having two blue chips and one red chip in your pocket and pulling out the red one. Events with those kinds of odds happen every day.
But the strange thing about making this kind of argument against McCarthy is that most of the evidence in its favor is already right there in his own column.
McCarthy knows that the GOP’s electoral coalition is now so efficiently allocated with regard to the Electoral College that, despite losing the national popular vote by 7 million in 2020, Trump came within fewer than 43,000 votes2 in three states of tying Biden at 269 electoral votes.
He knows that Trump picked up 11 million votes between 2016 and 2020.
He knows that Biden is going to be 81 years old next year and often looks and sounds like it.
He knows that the economy could well be headed into a recession over the next year.
And yet, McCarthy insists Trump “will never be president again.”
Based on what? The same thing you hear every day on Twitter from DeSantis stans (a surprisingly large portion of whom have some kind of connection to NR): Trump has lost three elections in a row for the GOP. On top of the 41-seat midterm wipeout in 2018 and the Biden victory two years later, Trump’s “appalling post-2020 election behavior” has made him radioactive to independent voters and even some Republicans (like two-time Trump-voting McCarthy himself). This alone explains why Republican hopes for a red wave in the 2022 midterms fizzled so badly, leaving the Senate in Democratic hands and giving the GOP the narrowest of majorities in the House.
Put it all together and it’s (supposedly) obvious that Trump is “the Democrats’ chief enabler” who “guarantees that they win elections” (italics added to yet another absolute formulation).
To which I can only say: Maybe.
Maybe Trump won’t be able to benefit from every populist’s greatest advantage: A position outside a governing establishment hurling insults at it in the name of “the people.”
Maybe he’ll fail to convince meaningful numbers of independents to change their minds and decide that voting for Trump is preferable to giving the woke-endorsing Democrat in the White House another term.
Maybe the cross-racial shift in non-college graduates away from the Democrats and toward the GOP in recent election cycles won’t continue and accelerate but will slow down, halt, or reverse.
Maybe the 65 percent of 12th grade boys who self-identified as conservative in 2021 won’t vote for Trump or make a significant difference in the outcome of the 2024 election.
Maybe Biden’s anemic 44 percent approval ceiling over the past two years will rise over the next year and a half.
Maybe we won’t have a recession or see a return to higher inflation or additional bank failures over the next 18 months.
Maybe Biden won’t be incapacitated or die—and if either happens, maybe in taking over as president Kamala Harris won’t display the same level of political ineptness she consistently has since 2019.
That’s a lot of maybes! So many, in fact, that I have a hard time understanding how anyone could ponder the probabilities and conclude anything other than: As an incumbent president, Biden probably has an edge. But he’s vulnerable. He can be beaten. That doesn’t mean he will be beaten—by Trump or DeSantis or anyone else. But he can be.
I mean, just look at the very early head-to-head polls. As McCarthy notes, Trump is a known quantity, as much as Biden is. And yet, there they sit, statistically tied in the RealClearPolitics average, with Trump up on Biden by 0.5 points. The less well known DeSantis, meanwhile, is also all-but-tied, up just 1.6 points.
Is McCarthy really saying that this 1.1-point difference is what separates DeSantis’ absolutely can win from Trump’s no way he can possibly win? Give me a frigging break.
What’s Really Going on Here
When I took to Twitter on Monday to call McCarthy’s argument moronic, someone responded by saying I shouldn’t call people bad names. But I didn’t call McCarthy a moron. I just said he’d written something moronic. (I’ve done the same from time to time.) How did a non-moronic person come to make this moronic argument?
This is just speculation, of course, but I think it happened because of severe cognitive stress brought on by an intense desire to avoid having to face the prospect of voting once again for Donald Trump in 2024. Note that, just after declaring, “Donald Trump will never again be elected president of these United States,” and just before admitting he voted for him in 2016 and 2020, McCarthy tells us in the following words that he won’t vote for him again in 2024: “I could no longer in good conscience vote for Trump.” That’s a peculiar formulation. Why not “can no longer” or “will no longer”? Why make it sound like something conditional or imagined or wished for rather than a statement of fact?
The answer, I suspect, is that McCarthy’s entire column is a prayer or a plea written in the form of a piece of dispassionate analysis. He isn’t telling us how the world is. He’s telling how it ought to be. He’s not describing political reality. He’s prescribing the way political reality should be. The column isn’t a declarative piece of writing. It’s a normative one.
Please, Lord, I’m a Republican. I detest the Democrats. Don’t force me to choose between casting a ballot for Biden and voting once again for this horrible, dangerous, unfit, incompetent, malicious, narcissistically damaged imbecile! Because if that is the choice, I fear I will do the latter! Please give me a better option! Save me from myself!
Sorry, Andrew McCarthy, but no one (or One) is going to intervene to save you from having to make this decision. At the moment, Trump looks like he’s on track to win the Republican nomination. If he does, you will need to make a choice in November 2024. If I’m right that you fear you’ll end up supporting your party in the breach, you can at least seek solace in the knowledge that you will have a lot of company.
Which, come to think of it, is just another bit of evidence that Donald Trump most certainly can win the presidency again.
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