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It Might Get Loud

The post-election chaos to come.

(Photograph from Getty Images.)

The midterms feel like an anticlimax.

That’s a strange thing to say at a moment when the out-party is poised to clean up, I know, since the out-party cleaning up is what always happens in modern American midterm campaigns. The president’s party huffs and puffs about everything they’ve accomplished; they fall behind in the polls in the home stretch and panic; in desperation, they resort to kitchen-sinking the opposition with every line of attack they can think of; then they watch helplessly as they lose 30-plus House seats.

That’s not an anticlimax. It’s a climax. It’s S.O.P.

We’re deep into the third “flop sweat” phase of the dynamic I just described. On Wednesday morning, White House chief of staff Ron Klain took to grumbling about Republican plans to reform entitlements, a critique that’s gotten short shrift from Democratic candidates for most of the campaign. Hours later, news broke that the president would deliver a previously unscheduled speech warning of “the threat of election deniers and those who seek to undermine faith in voting and democracy” on Wednesday evening. After months of all-abortion-all-the-time messaging, flailing Democrats are reaching at the eleventh hour for any weapon to hand. It won’t save them. It never does.

So why does that feel surprising?

It’s because of the “Dobbs mirage,” of course. For two months, a backlash on the left to the end of Roe v. Wade gave liberals hope that this might be a black-swan election a la 2002. Just as 9/11 warped political gravity and propelled George W. Bush’s party to overperform in a midterm they were expected to lose, pro-choice fury at the end of constitutional abortion rights would erode the GOP’s advantages on inflation and crime. Democrats surged on the generic ballot after Dobbs was handed down and proved more competitive in special elections this summer than anyone expected, a hint that the black-swan theory would bear out. We were headed toward an unexpectedly suspenseful finish to the midterms in which any outcome seemed possible. Exciting! 

Then fall arrived, late deciders began making up their minds, political gravity reasserted itself, and now we’re headed for a boring ol’ 30-seat pick-up by the out-party again. Anticlimactic.

But there’s good news if you’re the sort of sicko who relishes excitement and unpredictability in your politics and didn’t get enough of a fix during the Trump era to last a lifetime. The post-election period might give you every thrill you were hoping for from the black-swan election—and more. There are three developments on the near-horizon that could thoroughly scramble American politics.

Things could get crazy. Wild. As exciting as even the most addicted chaos junkie could desire.

By and large, it’s gonna suck.

1. Biden might decide not to run for reelection

John Fetterman’s debate debacle led conservatives to half-joke last week that the media taboo on questioning Joe Biden’s health will lift soon after the midterms, especially if Democrats get crushed. To all appearances, the press suppressed information about the extent of Fetterman’s impairment before he foolishly revealed it himself on live television. Some of the reporters who interviewed him this summer must have come away with the same alarming impression that NBC’s Dasha Burns did about Fetterman’s incapacity, but only Burns dared articulate it. And after she did, she found out the hard way why no one else had. Liberals savaged her for having jeopardized their chances at a Senate seat by affirming that voters really should worry about Fetterman’s health.

A Democrat’s health is something you talk about only after the ballots have been cast.

For the same reason, conservatives reckon, there’s been a tight seal on speculation within the media about the president’s cognitive wherewithal. “Biden is losing it” would be an unhelpful narrative for the Democratic Party during a high-stakes midterm campaign.

But that campaign will end in less than a week. And when it does, and attention shifts to 2024, the political incentives of Democratic insiders and liberal-leaning reporters will shift with it. No longer will protecting Biden for the sake of the party’s midterm chances be paramount. Rather, exposing his health problems so that the party isn’t saddled with a nominee who’s unfit for a second national campaign will become top priority.

I was thinking about that when I stumbled across this surprising headline on the New York Times website on Tuesday.

That could be a prelude to something bigger that’s coming after November 8.

We should consider the real and growing possibility with a red wave en route that Biden will become the first president in more than 50 years not to seek reelection.

Democrats have already entered the “precriminations” phase of grief following a massive electoral defeat; as it progresses, Biden is destined to bear much of the blame. He’s too old, too uncharismatic, was too incompetent in withdrawing from Afghanistan, and turned out to be far too short-sighted by signing the COVID relief bill that turbo-charged inflation. He’s a poor messenger relative to the ultra-charismatic Barack Obama, never mind how Obama fared in two midterms during his own presidency.

Most of all, the whispers that Biden is too senile to plausibly run again for president will turn to murmurs and possibly shouts. If Erick Erickson is right that the Times is preparing a major scoop about this, it’s only because White House insiders are feeding its reporters information in hopes of sowing so much public doubt about Biden’s competence that he won’t credibly be able to run for reelection even if he wants to. Given the likelihood that the U.S. will enter a recession next year on his watch, Democratic Party bosses might have decided that it’s better to shove “Jimmy Carter, except older” toward the exit sooner rather than later.

Needless to say, Biden loyalists and Democrats who’ve concluded that he’s the party’s only plausible option in 2024 will resent this ferociously. That alone will make the post-election period contentious among liberals.

Biden’s rhetoric about running again has softened notably in recent months, with the president saying in September that it’s “much too early” to make a decision. But it isn’t. Ideally, his party will want him to decide by the end of 2022. If he’s destined to stand aside, Democrats would prefer to begin the wrenching process of choosing a successor as soon as possible. 

And it will be wrenching.

The last time a president declared that he wouldn’t run for a second term, his party could console itself with the fact that the vice president was a viable national alternative. That was Hubert Humphrey, who nearly pulled out a Democratic victory in the 1968 election after Lyndon Johnson opted against running. Democrats don’t have a Humphrey waiting to succeed Joe Biden. They have Kamala Harris, a figure who’s become an object of ridicule to the right and an object of anxiety within her own party. She’s a poor retail politician, she has no meaningful achievements as VP, and she performed dismally in the last presidential primary. The best thing she and Biden could do for their party, writes George Will, would be to announce their retirements before 2024.

But the historic nature of Harris’ vice presidency makes that practically impossible. It’s unthinkable that the first woman VP—the first African American VP too—would stand aside for a traditional white-guy ticket like Gavin Newsom and Jared Polis. The party depends too heavily on black voters, especially black women, to unceremoniously dispense with Harris. Even if she were willing to forfeit her “place in line” and retire, suspicions would swirl among the Democratic base that party leaders didn’t want an African American woman in charge and had forced her out.

And if Harris were to run and be defeated in a primary by a white and/or male candidate, that would be even more awkward and potentially divisive within the Democratic coalition.

Unless the party persuades Michelle Obama to run, a Biden-less 2024 primary campaign is destined to be chaotic and embittering and to produce a nominee whom most of the country regards as a lackluster “least bad” consensus choice. All it would take to unleash that chaos is Joe Biden admitting that he can manage two more years as president but can’t manage six. That admission could come sooner than we think.

2. Narrow Republican defeats in midterm races could lead to another “Stop the Steal”

Some Dispatch commenters scoffed at my uncharacteristic show of optimism in yesterday’s post about how a red wave next week might undermine election denialism. “Conspiracy theorists will always find a way to salvage their belief in the conspiracy,” they scolded me. At best, election truthers will process a Republican landslide by insisting that Democrats tried to cheat but were thwarted by the immensity of right-wing turnout.

They have a point. Only a fool would bet on populists relinquishing a belief that sustains them over something as paltry as evidence. 

I maintain that a truly enormous red wave would give some election skeptics pause about whether American democracy is hopelessly rigged against the right. The sort of idiot who wears “Trump Won” T-shirts to MAGA rallies won’t be swayed, but the type of person who isn’t marinating in populist media and has nurtured a suspicion about cheating based only on things he’s heard Trump say might reconsider. Getting some of those people to believe that not every election is rigged, at least, would be a moral victory.

That said, I agree that it’s wise to assume the worst about how the modern Republican Party will behave in any situation. And it’s true that next week’s results are likely to give them an opportunity to behave badly somewhere even if the GOP performs stunningly well in the aggregate.

Georgia is one possibility, although an unlikely one. Herschel Walker is an election denier and there’s every reason to think he’ll revert to form if he comes up short against Raphael Warnock, but I expect his complaints won’t gain much traction. Brian Kemp should win big over Stacey Abrams, after all, an outcome that won’t square with theories that Democrats somehow rigged the state’s vote. And Walker has been sufficiently damaged by scandal that it won’t be hard for Republicans there to understand how he might have lost. He’s a poor candidate. QED.

Pennsylvania is a better possibility. As I said yesterday, Fetterman’s debate fiasco will lead Republicans to conclude that he couldn’t conceivably be the choice of more voters than Mehmet Oz is. MAGA types will also point to the Democrat’s strong performance in voting by mail as a reprise of the “fraud” of 2020, accusing the left of stuffing the ballot box to secure a win. Trump is reportedly watching the Pennsylvania race closely for that reason, because he knows that seeding doubt about a Fetterman victory will make it easier for him to seed doubt (again) about the result if he himself ends up losing the state (again) in 2024.

But Pennsylvania isn’t optimal for a reprise of “Stop the Steal” either. Every conspiracy theory requires an appealing martyr figure and, for the MAGA base, Oz simply isn’t that. Most of the exciting statewide races this year pit an establishment Democrat against a populist Republican but in Pennsylvania the dynamic is reversed. Fetterman is more extreme ideologically than Oz, a guy who fails the populist right’s “one of us” test for all sorts of reasons. How outraged can someone with a “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.” bumper sticker on his car get about seeing a mega-rich Muslim RINO known for peddling quack cures on Oprah’s show lose to a huge tough-looking bald dude in a hoodie?

If there’s to be a near-term “Stop the Steal” rerun, it’ll happen in Arizona. Amanda Carpenter knows.

Lake may very well win her race for governor outright; as of this writing, she is up 3.2 points in both the RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight polling averages. But should Lake lose her race, that loss will be certified by her opponent, Katie Hobbs, who has been Arizona’s secretary of state—the state’s top elections official—since 2019. Lake has repeatedly accused Hobbs of engaging in criminal activity throughout the 2020 election. With that baseline, it’s hard to imagine that Lake would, in good faith, assume Hobbs is running a fair election now.

For example, in an October 2021 appearance on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast, Lake called Hobbs “basically the mastermind of the 2020 election here in Arizona,” responsible for “fraud” and “what appears to be criminal activity,” and said she belongs “behind bars.”

Hobbs’ role in certifying Biden’s 2020 victory is one reason the state’s political climate is unusually combustible but there are plenty more. Nowhere was Biden’s margin of victory over Trump smaller than it was in Arizona. Nowhere were the half-assed efforts by conspiracy theorists to “audit” the balloting more dogged. Nowhere is the state Republican Party as crazy as it is there. 

And nowhere is a Trump-worshiping newcomer expected to perform more strongly this year than Kari Lake is in Arizona. Walker, Oz, and Blake Masters are all stuck in toss-up races while Doug Mastriano has been left for dead in Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial election. But Lake is ahead in most polling, as Carpenter notes. She’s been blessed with a bland opponent in Hobbs who’s run a terrible campaign, having repeatedly declined Lake’s invitations to debate and having failed to unite her party’s stars behind her. Lake, by contrast, has been heralded even by unfriendly media as the most poised and charismatic rookie politician in years, already a shortlister to be Trump’s running mate in 2024 if she holds on in Arizona and wins.

Arizona feels like a mismatch, even when Lake lets her freak flag fly. Which she does, quite often.

To a normal person, Lake losing narrowly to Hobbs won’t be much of a surprise. The polls were tight to the end, abortion is still in the back of swing voters’ minds, and Lake may have let her freak flag fly just a bit too much. But to a MAGA populist who can’t cope with setbacks absent a conspiracy to explain them, it’s plain as day what the explanation for Hobbs’ victory will be. Kari Lake herself will make the case to them that they were defrauded, with full support from Donald Trump.

And the beauty of it from their perspective is that their “rigged election” theory will profit no matter what happens nationally on Election Night. If Republicans clean up everywhere else and Lake loses a nailbiter, that’s evidence that Arizona is a suspicious outlier. If Republicans underperform everywhere and Lake loses, that’s even more suspicious. The polls that expected a huge red wave couldn’t have been that wrong, could they? The only possible explanation is massive fraud on a national scale.

The one outcome that would be hard for Lake to spin is if she lost to Hobbs while Blake Masters defeated Mark Kelly. But that’s unlikely, as she reliably outpolls Masters.

If Lake loses, every Republican official in America will be pressured by her and Trump to take a position on whether Arizona’s result is legitimate or not. Stopping “the steal” there will become the latest and greatest litmus test among Republican voters of whether their candidates are willing to “fight.” A figure with national ambitions like Ron DeSantis would need to pay lip service to her fraud claims somehow for fear of losing his populist credibility if he refused.

It’ll be a mess. And since it’ll drag on for weeks or months, it’ll end up cannibalizing most of the good vibes the party should be enjoying following a national victory.

3. Trump might get indicted

Believe it. Teflon Don’s 76-year streak of dodging personal accountability for anything he’s ever done could end in a matter of weeks.

And not just with one indictment.

The great Mar-a-Lago document caper has been off the front pages of late because the Department of Justice goes dark on investigations with political ramifications shortly before an election. But if you’ve been reading past the front page, you know that the facts have grown more damning with time.

Reportedly the DOJ suspects Trump still hasn’t returned all of the sensitive material he took with him when he left the White House despite an FBI search of his home, multiple subpoenas, and repeated pleas from the National Archives (and his own lawyers) to return the documents last year. Trump has undermined his own defense, like when he admitted to Bob Woodward that documents from Kim Jong-un later found at Mar-a-Lago were “top secret” or suggested to Sean Hannity that he had knowingly sent sensitive documents to his home. A worker at Mar-a-Lago allegedly told federal agents that Trump himself ordered the worker to move documents from a storage room inside the building to the personal residence after a subpoena was served, an apparent attempt to hide the material from the DOJ.

The feds are looking at charging Trump with violations of the Espionage Act for retaining defense-related documents without authorization and with obstruction of justice for resisting their return. If the reporting above is accurate, Merrick Garland might have a harder time explaining why he shouldn’t be charged than why he should.

And even if Garland decides to pass, the district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, is reportedly set to start issuing indictments as early as December in her probe of TrumpWorld’s attempts to tamper with Georgia’s election in 2020.

If and when an indictment is handed down, that’s when things will get loud.

Trump will get loud by inciting Republicans to riot, as he’s wont to do and has already begun to do in response to the Mar-a-Lago search. His fans will get loud, and some won’t stop at merely raising their voices. GOP officials will get loud, obliged to defend the cult leader no matter how damning and inexcusable his behavior may be. Right-wing media will get loud, believing that every story about Trump’s malfeasance is ultimately a story about liberals unfairly trying to hold him responsible for it. And the liberal media will get loud, insisting that the rule of law is defunct if Trump doesn’t serve hard time.

If a DOJ indictment is coming, it’s coming soon. “A couple of weeks after the election, I assume that Garland will indict Trump,” said one veteran Republican aide to The Hill, astutely. Garland will want to file charges before Trump declares his 2024 candidacy, knowing that the department will be accused of trying to sabotage his new campaign if it waits until after he’s in the race. (They’ll be accused of that anyway, of course.) Trump has an incentive to announce soon for the same reason, hoping that once he’s officially a candidate the department will get cold feet about the political optics and decline to indict him after all. Conceivably both developments could come before the end of November, playing out side-by-side on the news with Kari Lake’s reprise of “Stop the Steal” in Arizona.

Won’t that be fun.

A Trump indictment would upend the coming Republican presidential primary, needless to say. The challenge for every ambitious rival, from Ron DeSantis to Mike Pence to no-hopers like Mike Pompeo and Chris Christie, would be calibrating how aggrieved on his behalf they should and shouldn’t be. In the hours after news of the Mar-a-Lago search broke, the entire party loyally united behind Trump’s “witch hunt” narrative. But as more details emerged in the following weeks about the lengths to which he went to conceal documents, the usual suspects went quiet.

With the midterms soon past and the 2024 primary ahead, the political calculus in defending Trump will get trickier. DeSantis, for instance, would be a fool not to try to use Trump’s legal jeopardy to his own advantage. It’s another bullet point in the case that the governor of Florida would be more electable as Republican nominee in a general election. But the more DeSantis tries to weaponize the indictment, the more he risks populists perceiving him as “siding” with Biden’s DOJ against Trump.

The sheer nihilism of the Republican base may prove impossible for a Trump challenger to navigate, even a top-tier one like the governor. After the Mar-a-Lago search in August, Trump cronies were less alarmed by how it might affect his 2024 chances than elated. One crowed that the fantasy among DeSantis fans that Trump might be toppled (the “DeSantasy,” as one memorably put it) was well and truly dead, as the populist right would surely insist upon nominating Trump a third time to spite Biden, Merrick Garland, and the DOJ. As a wise man once said, one should never underestimate mindless spite as a motive in how modern Republican voters behave. 

It’s possible, in other words, that despite the strength of the criminal case against Trump and the stochastic terrorism he’s sure to unleash if he’s indicted, charges might actually improve his chances at being nominated a third time in 2024. You can imagine him framing the upcoming primary as a partisan loyalty test aimed at scaring his rivals out of the race. “Once I’m elected president again, the DOJ won’t be able to prosecute me. So anyone who tries to stop me from winning the nomination must want to see the corrupt deep state send me to prison!”

Would DeSantis even run?

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.