How the 2024 election is hinging on capitulation versus character

One of the biggest developments of this campaign — and the biggest difference between 2016, 2020 and today — is the lack of fear of another Donald Trump term.

It may explain why President Joe Biden’s campaign — and before that, the primary campaigns of Republicans like Nikki Haley — struggled to move voters away from Trump by reminding them of his questionable character traits and chaotic governing style. 

And right now, with the decision by Biden’s campaign to do whatever it takes to make this election a referendum on Trump and character, this lack of fear of Trump could be a real stumbling block as they try to galvanize voters to remember what Trump’s presidency was really like. 

Think of it in simpler terms. The first time you went on a roller coaster that goes upside down, you likely had a pit in your stomach and perhaps worried about whether you’d fall out. For some, that fear is so great, it keeps them from even attempting the ride. But after riding said roller coaster without falling, that fear dissipated. 

One of the great disconnects in the coverage of Trump today is the lack of memory the public has for many of the details of the Trump years, as opposed to the scarred memories those of us who covered Trump still have. Thanks to the pandemic and the human mind’s ability to memory-hole unhappy periods, a large chunk of the public has simply forgotten about the daily chaos Trump intentionally created with his presidency. 

And yet, I’m convinced the sole reason why Trump lost the 2020 election was not due to his antics in 2017, 2018 or 2019 — but because of his erratic leadership during the pandemic itself. 

Not everyone believes that’s why Trump lost in 2020. After all, Democrats were fired up to do whatever it took to defeat Trump long before he suggested “it would be interesting to check” injecting disinfectants into the body to eradicate Covid. 

But the Nov. 2020 election was happening during Covid, when voters were sitting at home, feeling as if they were trapped there due to bad governance. And in 2020, there was one head of government to hold accountable: Trump. 

Despite the case I’m making about 2020, there isn’t a consensus about why Trump lost, in part because the Republican Party never did its own after-action report digging into the question. How could they do an after-action report when the person who still is seen as head of the party, doesn’t acknowledge he lost in the first place. 

And that lack of debate on the right about why he lost has really meant a lack of debate on why he lost in general. We’ve been so (rightfully) consumed by Trump’s attempt to overturn reality about his election defeat that little effort has been made into truly researching why the public — narrowly — rejected Trump in 2020. 

Why do I bring this up? Because if you don’t know why Trump lost the first time, you may run a 2024 campaign incorrectly on the question of why voters shouldn’t return him to the White House. 

Right now, Biden is trying a kitchen-sink approach to making this election a referendum on Trump — from democracy to abortion rights to personal character to shady business practices. And so far, at best, perhaps 1 or 2 percentage points of the electorate is still up for grabs and beginning to move based on this message. Now, as I’ve said before, in a very close election, small movements can lead to decisive outcomes. But none of these hits on Trump have been broadly galvanizing, and they certainly aren’t scaring larger swaths of the public today, compared to either 2016 or 2020. 

So why don’t more voters fear a Trump term the way they did in 2020 and 2016, when a slew of long-time Republicans and business leaders set aside their own partisan ideology to do whatever it took to stop him? 

I don’t think it’s any one answer. For the business community, while Trump is not one of them — despite Trump desperately trying to equate himself with business elite — there’s a consensus apparently forming on how to deal with him, which revolves around managing two short-term items: share price and the ability to navigate the regulatory landscape. All of these CEOs are judged by near-term performance, which usually begins and ends with share price. And while Trump may not be preferable as an individual to deal with, these business titans know there’s always a price to pay for a solution they’ll be satisfied with when it comes to Trump. No decision is final for Trump if somebody is wealthy enough to get his attention. Don’t believe me? Just follow his evolution on TikTok.

This mindset falls very much in the “transactional” category of voters that I’ve written about before.

How about the Republicans like Haley and Sens. Mitch McConnell and Marco Rubio, who have all expressed before that they were appalled by the conservative movement’s embrace of Trump? Why have they capitulated? Largely for the same reason the business community has — it’s just easier than fighting it since fighting Trump only seemed to harm or end the careers of the fighters. All of them look at former officeholders like former Rep. Liz Cheney, Sens. Jeff Flake and Bob Corker and even Speaker Paul Ryan and they see folks who don’t have an influential say in the conservative political movement anymore. Haley and others would clearly would rather have a seat at the GOP table, no matter who is heading it, than try to take Trump out.

This growing capitulation or acceptance of the reality of a second Trump term makes Biden’s challenge of injecting fear of a second Trump term even harder.

To me, the most disqualifying period of the Trump presidency was his handling of the pandemic. Whether it was the chaotic nature of his briefings or the whiplash decisions of when to open things up to stoking political debate even within his own Covid response team, it truly was a disastrous example of presidential leadership. We’ll never know what unifying leadership might have done to the death toll, but I’d like to believe it would not have raised it.

It’s likely why Trump likely trailed in the polls for just about all of 2020, post-lockdown. But plenty of voters, for a variety of reasons, have memory-holed 2020, and some have given Trump the benefit of the doubt because the pandemic was a unique challenge that, in theory, could have paralyzed any presidency. 

To add to Biden’s challenge of making Trump’s chaotic leadership style a focal point, the current president has had his own chaotic-looking decisions, starting with the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the handling of the Southern border. If you are trying to convince people that Trump was incompetent, it’s not good to have what appears to be your own incompetency on display for the world to see. 

Ultimately, the winning presidential campaign is going to be the one that produces the most believable picture of the next four years, not the campaign that successfully litigates either Trump’s or Biden’s four years in a White House. 

It’s a cliche for a reason: Elections are always about the future, and while character and competency should count more in the minds of voters, if those voters don’t think much of the character or the competency of either candidate, then don’t be shocked if voters’ more transactional mindset takes hold and they simply vote for their best interests for surviving the next four years. 

For many in the business community, it’s painfully obvious that many have chosen a more transactional path and have made the decision that dealing with Trump is survivable, even if it’s not optimal. The more that mindset takes hold in the electorate itself, the more Biden is going to have to pivot to making this a campaign more about the future than simply fear of a dystopia that more and more voters don’t really fear will come to fruition. 

Social media accountability watch 

Last week, I noted the overwhelming majority in the New York Legislature that supported a bill that would force social media companies to avoid the use of algorithms when it comes to the timelines and social media feeds children under 18 see. I wrote to expect more attempts at regulating social media companies through the prism of protecting our kids. 

Well, just in the last few days, California Gov. Gavin Newsom indicated his support for highly restricting the usage of phones in schools. Ideally, schools could force students to put their phones in a slot on a wall at the start of class and only access them in between classes. In theory, that’s enough time to deal with any messages kids need to receive from parents or guardians. This idea has been percolating in local jurisdictions, as well as other state legislatures. Many private schools already have implemented similar policies. 

The other major move against big tech came from the U.S. surgeon general, who called for youth mental health warning labels to be added to all social media apps. 

While debates about the 1st Amendment can clog up many an attempt to regulate tech, there is a large bipartisan consensus about protecting our kids from the predatory nature of the big tech company algorithms, even if we are not yet in agreement how we protect adults.

The attempt to force the creation of a cleaner information ecosystem for our kids could actually show the way we could have a cleaner information ecosystem for the rest of us. The tools the tech companies will be forced to devise to abide by new laws intended to protect youth will hopefully be accessible to the rest of us who don’t want algorithms to decide what shows up in our social feeds or what gets recommended to us on a music site, unless we ask for it. 

Ranked-choice voting has a red state problem 

According to the state legislative news site, Pluribus, in just the last two months, five states have enacted laws banning ranked-choice voting on any level of office, including any local jurisdiction within the state’s lines. The five states — Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma — are all one-party states where the majority is petrified of losing power.

Ranked-choice voting has shown a tendency to advantage candidates who are more moderate, while costing more partisan candidates (think progressives in New York City during the last mayor’s race, or conservatives in Alaska in the 2022 election cycle). When one looks at the states banning even the local practicing of ranked-choice voting, it’s clear these are partisans fearful of losing their grip on power.

Ultimately, the party primary process in this country has accelerated polarization. Elected Democrats and Republicans are all either more liberal or conservative than their actual constituents in many cases. But because primaries are dominated by a very small subset of the most loyal members of a political party, it leads to the election of candidates who are less compromising.

While many partisans think this is a good thing, it does seem to disenfranchise more voters than it enfranchises. More and more states are seeing the two major parties shrink while the rolls of unaffiliated or independent voters has swelled. In many states, independents or unaffiliated voters are ahead of at least one of the two major parties. And in many of those states, independents are restricted from even participating in a major party’s primary.

Yet while I’m in favor of what ranked-choice voting advocates are striving for — more participation in the primary process by more voters — the concept of redistributing second- and third-choice votes is just not transparent enough to give voters confidence in the results. It is hard to create a “trust but verify” process that won’t leave openings for intentional bad actors to create distrust in the results.

A better goal is simply to open all primaries to all voters. All-party primaries followed by either a top-two or top-four general election, with runoffs only when a candidate doesn’t receive, say, 40%, could go a long way to making sure a majority of the public gets candidates who are responsive to more to them.

The North Star should be more voters voting in primaries, whatever it takes to get that done. It’s about the best solution I could think of to help mitigate this paralyzing polarization that has exhausted so many of us.

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