The Disturbingly High Variance of Donald Trump's Future
We are entering Aaron Burr territory.
This past weekend here in New England was pretty typical of the region — by which I mean it was all over the place weather-wise. I took the picture above while enjoying a balmy Saturday, with temperatures close to eighty degrees. Less than a day later it was thirty degrees cooler and rainy.
In other words, New England weather during the fall can display a lot of variance.1 And variance is the theme for today’s newsletter. Looking at Donald Trump, the variance of his possible outcomes for, say, January 2025 is pretty extraordinary. He could be in prison. He could also be the president of the United States. That is a wide range of possible outcomes.
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It’s been a rough month for Donald Trump in a lot of ways. His myriad criminal and civil trials are going poorly for him. He keeps running afoul of the judges overseeing his civil and criminal trials.2 Some gag orders have been imposed, some gag orders have been reimposed, some fines have been levied, and some judges have characterized Trump testimony as “not credible.” Several of Trump’s former lawyers have flipped in the Georgia case, making things more difficult for his defense team. His former chief of staff Mark Meadows testified to the grand jury in the federal January 6th case. That should frighten Trump.
It will shock, shock, readers to hear that Donald Trump is taking none of this well. He keeps asking his aides if anyone in his coterie is wearing a wire because of the Georgia guilty pleas. According to NBC News’ Adam Reiss, Chloe Atkins and Dareh Gregorian, last week Trump grumped a lot about how his civil case has been going:
Donald Trump stormed out of a New York City courtroom Wednesday after a heated day in court in which the former president was called to the witness stand in his $250 million state fraud case and fined $10,000 for violating a gag order.
Trump's abrupt departure appeared to surprise even his own lawyers and his Secret Service agents, who went scurrying after him. He returned to the courtroom in Manhattan after the court day ended and after his former lawyer Michael Cohen finished his contentious testimony….
A red-faced and angry-looking Trump stormed out of the courtroom about 45 minutes later after [presiding judge Arthur] Engoron denied a motion from his lawyers on a separate legal issue. Trump lawyer Cliff Robert had seized on Cohen's testimony that Trump never explicitly instructed him to inflate his financial statements to ask Engoron for a directed verdict dismissing the state attorney general's claims about the statements, which Engoron refused.
Then there is Trump’s presidential campaign, in which the FPOTUS keeps making verbal flubs on the campaign trail like he’s the GOP caricature of Joe Biden or something. Seth Meyers’ “A Closer Look” from Monday does a solid job of covering Trump’s myriad recent problems.3
At the very end of that segment, however, Meyers acknowledges, “in spite of everything, this guy remains the far-and-away frontrunner for the GOP nomination in 2024, and he’s in a dead heat with Biden in a hypothetical general election.” And it’s true — Trump is the runaway frontrunner in GOP primary polls and is running even with Biden in general election polling. Furthermore, it is not hard to point to polling showing rising disaffection with Joe Biden among Democrats and other key constituencies.
Trump’s electoral strength is apparent despite the U.S. economy under Biden continuing to perform extraordinarily well. As the Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell noted recently, “Remarkably, the U.S. economy is not only exceeding… pessimistic forecasts from a few months ago — it’s also exceeding forecasts made even before the pandemic began, based on predictions published in January 2020 by both the Congressional Budget Office and the International Monetary Fund for where we’d be around now. This is not true for other countries.” Nonetheless, Americans keep saying that it’s a crap economy and giving Biden poor marks for his handling of it. Imagine what could happen if the recession that everyone things is happening now actually starts to happen.
So there is a 2024 scenario in which Donald Trump loses the presidential election, his businesses, and multiple criminal court cases. But there is also a 2024 scenario in which Donald Trump becomes the first man since Grover Cleveland to be elected to non-consecutive terms, pardons himself for his federal crimes, and proceeds to make his first term look like a well-mannered garden party.
I am on record as being more confident about the likelihood of the “Trump loses everything” scenario than the “Trump wins everything” scenario. That remains true. General election polling is meaningless right now; most voters are giving zero thought to an election that remains more than a year away. As bad as Biden might be polling on the economy and in general, his first-world peers are doing even worse, suggesting that this is a general OECD trend rather than Biden-specific. As badly as Biden is polling, he continues to pick up a healthy fraction of support from those who somewhat disapprove of him. The parallels to the 2012 election seem pretty strong.
Still, it is… let’s say “disturbing” that there is any uncertainty about whether the old, competent, normalcore guy can defeat the thrice-divorced, twice-impeached, immature, illiberal, felonious guy who was a trainwreck as a president.
2024 should not be a close election. It should be the end of Donald Trump’s political career and, quite possible, his time as a free man. But if there is anything I have learned in the last ten years, it is that “should” does not necessarily translate to “will.” Which means those of us who dread a second Trump term will have to manage the high variance of the next six to twelve months.
Yes, this is also true of winter, spring, and summer in New England.