By Matt Taibbi / Racket News
At this stage of the cycle three elections ago, on August 1, 2011, President Barack Obama signed a controversial debt deal and headed back on the trail, starting with a pair of birthday fundraisers in Chicago. Meanwhile, Michelle Bachmann left the stump in Iowa to return to Washington and vote against Obama’s deal, saying it “spends too much and doesn’t cut enough.” This was considered campaign excitement once. Boring is too mild a word for those mechanized non-dramas of yore.
A dozen years later, the campaign is pure chaos, Pompeii after the blast. In the annals of presidential races we haven’t experienced many days like yesterday, July 31, which ended with the futures of all major candidates appearing hopelessly clouded. Forget the national debt; there are now not-improbable scenarios in which the main issues in next year’s debates, which could easily involve both nominees in ankle monitors, are nuclear fallout and alien visitation. Our leaders, who once had the election process reduced to scripts more predictable than Everybody Loves Raymond, now seem to have no clue what will happen beyond the next few minutes.
If not for the fact that the disintegration of American society might be imminent as a result, I’d be laughing harder. It might be funny anyway. Consider: the establishment plan for the Republican Party this cycle was clearly Ron DeSantis, but a New York Times/Siena poll published yesterday shows he’s plunging like a stone, falling to 17%, a.k.a. 37 points behind Donald Trump.
Meanwhile Trump, indicted in multiple jurisdictions and the recipient of a target letter two weeks ago about a new January 6th-related charge, was by late last night reading headlines about a pending new indictment, coming as early as today (Trump just posted that he believes it’s coming). Prosecutors keep applying new charges to him like leeches on a medieval convalescent, and news audiences need a CNN case tracker to follow Trump’s charge count (76, with more on the way). The punchline? The man facing death in prison is in the strongest position of the major candidates.
Incumbent Joe Biden not only has the lowest approval rating in history — he “shouldn’t” be this unpopular “but he is,” mused a mortified Washington Post — but as of Monday, when his son’s former partner Devon Archer testified in Congress, he appeared to be careening toward withdrawal due to impairment, scandal, or both. As dire as Trump’s legal situation may be, the political panic on the blue side is as striking. CNN’s numbers guru Harry Enten woke up Democrats yesterday with a piece explaining that Trump “is in a better position to win the general election than at any point during the 2020 cycle and almost at any point during the 2016 cycle.” Enten cited a “number of surveys showing Trump either tied or ahead of Biden,” a situation he called “arguably… more amazing.”
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It’s not amazing at all, but papers like the New York Times and Washington Post keep pounding the idea that it is. These outlets are suddenly filled with baleful criticisms of Biden, appearing to notice flaws for the first time. Pamela Paul in the Times compared her dread feelings about a Biden-Trump rematch to Lars Von Trier’s film, Melancholia, whose premise is an inexorable collision of a rogue planet with Earth. As if surprised, Paul wrote that Biden “appeared to actually wander off a set on MSNBC after figuratively wandering through 20 minutes of the host Nicolle Wallace’s gentle questions.”
Philip Bump at the Post meanwhile mourned the administration’s bet on “Bidenomics,” which polls show the public overwhelmingly associates with inflation and tax increases. The sudden stream of criticism from outlets that not long ago were in lockstep support of the administration advances a delusion that’s apparently widespread in elite circles, to the effect that Biden’s troubles are the result of traditional policy decisions, as opposed to the more obvious problem that the party in 2020 nominated a corpse with a slew of known corruption issues.
It’s written on the faces of Democratic politicians that no one expected a multiple-indicted Trump to be competitive in polls with Biden this late in the game. This is causing messaging paralysis. No one knows what to say or think.
Democratic congressman and ex-Mueller deputy Dan Goldman, present during Archer’s in camera hearing and usually a font of viperous overconfidence, looked like an elk taking a bullet yesterday as he stammered out the admission that Biden was on the phone with his son’s “potential business partners — or business partners.” Watch this agonizing sequence as Goldman tries to thread a needle between Archer’s testimony about the phone calls and Biden’s former comments that “I’ve never spoken to my son about his business dealings”:
The press explanations for Trump’s Jason Voorhees-like refusal to die are amazing. In one desperate CNN article, “Even Trump’s indictments haven’t shattered the deadlock between the parties. Here’s why,” Ronald Brownstein supposes the problem is that America’s two parties represent “such divergent visions of America’s future, particularly whether it welcomes or resists racial and cultural change,” that not even herding the other side’s candidate to prison will change minds. What a shock!
A BBC article from yesterday, “Why Trump’s Poll Lead Went Up After Criminal Indictments,” was even more tortured. The British news service quoted pollster Clifford Young:
[Trump] said on Friday that he would not end his presidential campaign even if he were found guilty and sentenced.
That’s uncharted territory in US politics, but Mr Young says the key “leading indicators” to watch will be whether Mr Trump’s favorability standing in polls and his “electability” — the view as to whether he can win back the White House — take noticeable shifts.
If that’s the case, it could presage an erosion of his support in a way that the string of indictments, as well as all the other controversies over his eight years in the public sphere, have not.
This argument is a circle: Trump’s indictments haven’t eroded his support to date, but if we keep watching polls hard enough, we may see a change that would “presage an erosion of his support.”
The cognoscenti never figured out or accepted that the support for protest candidates like Trump or Bernie Sanders even is rooted in wide generalized rage directed their way. To this day they don’t accept it. They keep thinking they can wish it away, describe it away (see Bump’s description of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. as “not at this point serious competition”), indict it away. If you drop 76 charges on a candidate and he goes up in polls, you might want to consider that you might be part of the problem. But they can’t take even that heavy a hint.
This race is turning into a parodic repeat of 2016, the difference being the shock waves that rippled across Washington on Election Day that year are already here, with all conceivable counter-measures already deployed. Instead of starting up a Russia investigation leaders hope will end in indictment, this time the guy is already indicted many times over, and voters have already signaled they’ll be unfazed by conviction.
Democrats meanwhile are repeating the process of cooling turnout by blasting their own protest candidate, and instead of an alert-if-off-putting Hillary Clinton on the ticket, the standard-bearer is a half-sentient, influence-peddling version of Donovan’s Brain, with no one behind him but Kamala Harris — who just got asked by a trying-to-be-friendly reporter at ABC if “race and gender” were a cause of her own historically low approval rating. Absent a big switch, our future is either Donald Trump, who by next year will be in more restraints than Hannibal Lecter on the tarmac, or this DNC dog’s breakfast. Other countries are surely already laughing. It’s getting harder to resist joining them.
Matt Taibbi, author of the New York Times bestsellers The Divide, Griftopia, and The Great Derangement, was a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and winner of the 2007 National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary.