After the 2016 election, I was hanging out with a group of friends discussing how badly the press had screwed up its predictions about Donald Trump’s chances at victory—seeing as how he had just won the presidency, despite the apparent odds.
One attendee, a fellow political journalist, came up with a particularly evocative metaphor for the situation. “It’s like we were weather reporters who told viewers that it was a sunny day to go to the beach, and instead there was a Category 4 hurricane,” he said.
To a certain extent, members of the national media have been trying to make up for this mistake for more than five years, seemingly vowing to themselves to never again underestimate this era’s “Teflon Don.” The notion among the media that Trump was bulletproof only grew as he seemed to escape accountability following a series of presidential scandals that included a calamitous initial version of his Muslim ban, the illegal and monstrous family separation policy, an obstruction of justice criminal probe, an impeachment over his blackmailing of Ukraine, and ultimately a second impeachment for inciting an insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021.
At every seemingly disastrous turn of his candidacy—and then his presidency—the media would speculate breathlessly on whether this was it, the breaking point of Trump’s political career, and then, it never was.
Famously, this dynamic—Trump seeming to have finally crossed some horrifying line to the point where he had to be held accountable, but ultimately facing no real consequences—was encapsulated on Twitter in October 2016, by the writer Jesse Farrar:
Well, I’d like to see ol Donny Trump wriggle his way out of THIS jam!
*Trump wriggles his way out of the jam easily*
Ah! Well. Nevertheless,
These days, it seems, no national reporter wants to be seen, once again, predicting ol’ Donny won’t be able to wriggle his way out of THIS jam. Those jams currently include continued unpopularity among the general electorate, falling support in the Republican Party, rising potential rivals in that party, public hearings that have exposed his extraordinary level of responsibility for the mob violence on Jan. 6, a civil case set to go to trial next year over an allegation that Trump committed rape, a civil investigation in New York that is pursuing allegations of fraudulent business practices against the Trump Organization, and a series of state and federal criminal investigations over Trump’s actions surrounding Jan. 6.
The point is that it should be easy to view Trump as an incredibly weakened figure who has better odds of ending up in an orange jumpsuit or losing his fortune in a lawsuit than returning to the White House. However, almost nobody in the national media seems to report it that way.
As a whole, I think the press corps is overcompensating for the trauma of our admittedly terrible 2016 prognostications by defaulting to what I call “ah, well, nevertheless” syndrome. Under the logic of “ah, well, nevertheless” syndrome, Trump’s wriggled out of so many prior jams that one would look foolish to predict he won’t wriggle out of his current ones. No political reporter wants that, especially when it comes to Trump.
I would argue, though, that Trump’s invincibility should have been viewed as broken once and for all following the 2020 election, which he lost decisively enough. It’s true Trump came close to winning in a handful of states—Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Michigan—three or four of which would have secured him the Electoral College and the presidency. He lost all five, though, and Hillary Clinton actually came closer than Trump to flipping the three states she needed to capture the presidency in 2016, by more than 25,000 votes.* (She too lost the presidency by a fairly decisive margin, which is why she conceded, like a sane person.)
More to the point, Trump became only the fourth elected incumbent in more than 125 years to lose the presidency, joining such illustrious company as George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Herbert Hoover. Indeed, Trump’s 4.4 percent margin of defeat was up there with men whom political watchers still consider to be historic failures. Trump lost the popular vote by a greater margin than Hubert Humphrey, Mitt Romney, Gerald Ford, and John Kerry. In terms of the share of the popular vote won, Trump did just 1.2 points better than Michael Dukakis, a man whose political career is synonymous with “loser.”
While, after the election, Trump mounted a weekslong attempt to remain in power through false claims of fraud, that effort was laughed out of court in nearly every single case he and his allies brought. In the end, he sparked an insurrection that (admittedly, only briefly) turned the nation against him further, and then became the first president in history to be impeached twice by the House of Representatives. While Trump was not convicted, with the Senate falling short by 10 votes after he had already been removed from office by the voters, more senators from his own party voted to convict him in that second impeachment than any other president in history. Now he faces a series of state and federal criminal probes for his actions that led to that impeachment, which are by all reported accounts heating up dramatically.
Still, reports that Trump says he has “decided” to run again in 2024 are treated as breaking news, even as he’s been saying the same thing for more than a year. Indeed, he’s been telling this to anyone who will listen—and has been since he was dragged out of office literally thrashing and screaming 18 months ago. (That includes, ghoulishly, a group of first responders at an event commemorating the 20th anniversary of 9/11, where he said, “For me, it’s an easy question. … I know what I’m going to do. … I think you’re going to be happy, let me put it that way. I think you’re going to be very happy.”)
Personally, I don’t think Donald Trump is going to win the presidency in 2024. I don’t even think he’s going to win the Republican nomination. In fact, I don’t think he’s going to run for president, not really. Maybe I’ll deeply regret writing this once Trump returns to power and locks up members of the press in defamation gulags at Gitmo, or maybe this will just be the kind of embarrassing headline that haunts me the rest of my professional life. But—as far as I see it—Donald Trump’s career as a realistic candidate for major office is over.
There are a several reasons I’m willing to break free from my own severe bout of “ah, well, nevertheless” syndrome to say this.
First, I take seriously the civil and criminal probes Trump is facing between now and the time our next president is elected. Two weeks ago, it was revealed that Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis sent “target letters” to people involved in Trump’s efforts to overturn the election, signaling to the recipients that they are potentially facing indictment. Last week, there was news that a DOJ grand jury is looking at Trump’s actions related to a scheme to use “false electors” to overturn the election on Jan. 6. This week, we learned Trump’s own former White House counsel Pat A. Cipollone has been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury investigating Trump’s actions surrounding Jan. 6.
Even if Trump doesn’t go on trial for crimes related to Jan. 6, his associates are facing possible criminal culpability and direct scrutiny that could land them in jail or cause them to testify against the former president in other forums, keeping the president’s misdeeds in the news indefinitely. Trump and his children are also facing depositions in a civil probe in New York that will drag them further into the legal morass. Last month, meanwhile, a February date was set for a likely explosive defamation trial involving E. Jean Carroll’s allegation that Trump raped her, an event that could make the coverage around the Depp-Heard trial look like a small story.
Of course, it’s been reported that one reason Trump is considering running is to help escape his legal woes. A wise lawyer would tell him that won’t work. It also has the potential to backfire: Trials are strictly run things with rules enforced by judges with the power to hold people in contempt of court, lock them up, and fine them almost infinitely. If Trump uses a presidential campaign as a way to attack prosecutors or judges involved in criminal or civil cases against him, there’s nothing stopping a judge from placing a firm gag order around what the candidate can say publicly about the trial so as not to taint the jury pool—or even revoking bail if Trump faces criminal charges and disobeys such a gag order. This should be a major motivation against running.
But my second reason for thinking Trump won’t run is that there are numerous financial incentives in the other direction—including one big one tied to Trump’s legal woes. That is: The Republican National Committee continues to pay his sizable legal fees and has said it will only do so if he is not a candidate for president, as it “has to stay neutral” in any contested Republican primary. You see, paying for a candidate’s legal bills would break that neutrality. And there’s another financial incentive for Trump to hold off on declaring his candidacy, which is that if he becomes an official candidate for president, he loses control of all but $5,000 of the more than $100 million war chest he has stockpiled in the Save America PAC.
The third reason I doubt a Trump candidacy will actually materialize is that even as he remains the most popular figure in the Republican Party, there are many, many signs GOP voters are already starting to want something different in 2024. According to a recent NYT-Siena poll, Trump’s national polling share of the total vote in a widely contested primary is under 50 percent, with his closest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, rising up to 25 percent. Another recent Suffolk University–USA Today poll found DeSantis actually leads Trump when GOP voters’ first and second choices are combined. So, if the Republican field were to narrow quickly enough—unlike what happened during the 2016 Republican primary—DeSantis would currently have the advantage over Trump. Perhaps more importantly, there have been a number of state polls showing DeSantis ahead of Trump, including in the home state of both men—the critical early primary state Florida—as well as in the first-in-the-nation-primary state of New Hampshire.
Further signals that GOP primary voters—and the party elites—will crave something new in 2024 abound. They include: a recent set of focus group surveys published in the Atlantic showing Trump voters cooling to a 2024 candidacy; editorials by the very conservative editorial boards of two Rupert Murdoch–controlled newspapers in recent days beseeching the party to move on from Trump in the wake of continued Jan. 6 revelations; numerous reports that GOP megadonors have stopped giving money to Trump and are turning to other candidates, with a focus on DeSantis; and a set of embarrassing primary defeats for Trump-endorsed candidates in key swing states.
My final reason for not believing Trump will mount a serious candidacy for the presidency in 2024? I think that deep down Trump knows he lost in 2020 and that there are decent odds he will lose again in 2024. Being tarnished as a two-time loser would be too devastating to his psyche to risk it.
Admittedly, I do not have any personal insight into Trump World. I’m not the only one, though, who has made this argument. In November, former Trump national security adviser John Bolton made a firm prediction that Trump would not run in 2024. “He knows deep inside, although he will never admit it, he did lose in 2020 and very much fears losing in 2024, because if he hates anything in the world, he hates being called a loser,” Bolton said. “He will talk about running incessantly until the very last moment because if he were ever to say he was not going to be a candidate, it would turn the spotlight off, and he doesn’t like that either.”
Another Trump adviser, former White House chief of staff John Kelly, also gave a rendition of this calculus last year, predicting, “He’ll continue talking about it. He may even declare, but he will not run. And the reason is he simply cannot be seen as a loser.”
This is my view as well. He may say out loud, “I am a candidate for president,” at some point, but if he does I bet he will find an excuse to pull the plug on such a “candidacy” before the start of the primaries in early 2024 because of his fear of being branded a loser. As the Washington Post’s Philip Bump cleverly put it, Trump does not want to be seen as “the Buffalo Bills of the presidential popular vote.”
The rebuttal to this from others who watch politics for a living is pretty straightforward and compelling: Trump denied the reality that he lost the last election; won’t he just declare himself the winner of the next one no matter what happens and say he was cheated because of “fraud” even if he loses? Yes, Trump can do that—and, if I’m proved wrong and he runs and loses, he certainly will. But such claims will be a lot harder to make if he runs in the Republican primary and loses a GOP nomination. If that were to happen, yes, Trump would claim fraud and likely tear the GOP apart at the seams. But doing so would utterly wreck his cherished place as a hero of Republican voters, and is that something he really wants to risk as a cherry on top of the label of becoming the first former president in modern primary history to seek and lose his party’s nomination for the White House?
To me, Trump will be a politically crippled figure heading into the 2024 primary. At his most dangerous, he will be a political albatross hanging around the neck of the Republican Party, tearing it apart.
Perhaps history will repeat itself. Trump will run again, crush a split Republican field as he did in 2016, and claim the White House, or maybe lose but still bring us to the brink of another coup. Maybe, though, others in the media will also begin to shed their “ah, well, nevertheless” syndromes as Trump continues to look weaker and weaker and his legal woes mount and mount. We should have our answers soon enough.
Correction, Aug. 4, 2022: This piece originally misstated the amount of votes by which Hillary Clinton came closer to winning in 2016 than Trump in 2020. It was by more than 26,000 votes, not 60,000.