When it comes to electoral predictions, there is no there there, in this wild moment. Once-reliable polling outfits are looking at their suddenly inaccurate data the way NASA scientists watched Atlas rockets go corkscrewing off the launch pad in the early days of the Mercury program.
All I know for certain is this: Any time period that can produce an accurate news sentence like this — “Michael Avenatti, the lawyer who pressured former President Donald Trump to pay a settlement to a stripper, was sentenced to 30 months in prison yesterday for trying to extort millions of dollars from sportswear company Nike Inc.” — is not a time frame I’m comfortable guessing about. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell you something — probably a subscription to a polling page. For the present, my election-year yard sign reads, “Meteor 2024: Because That Rhymes.”
Yet there is a cold sense of dread blowing softly through the chambers of my soul, and the chill is something that cannot be safely ignored. I am hard-pressed to recall a time when so many divergent yet implacably dangerous forces have coalesced in such menacing fashion, and it seems that few are prepared to acknowledge it, much less move to thwart it. Some of the perils we face are open-ended, with no clear demarcation between “Hurry up!” and “Too late.” This is not one of those: I can tell you the exact day the deal I fear will go down, if it does go down at all.
So, for emphasis: This is not what I think will happen. This is what I’m terrified could happen, one possibility in an infinite universe. To no small degree, it is already happening.
A political snapshot of the present moment shows a president with approval ratings lower than snake snot. A grumpy, unsettled electorate looking to lay blame for their lost two years has in Joe Biden a convenient target. Inflation, gas prices, supply shortages and the still-muddied economic waters of the COVID era have constantly disrupted the administration’s best legislative efforts, with the help of a coal baron senator whose party designation is as meaningful as a diamond made of glue. Thanks in no small part to this White House’s bizarre disinterest in promoting its positive and popular policy achievements, it is entirely probable these conditions will continue to linger until November.
Meanwhile, war crimes committed in Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s Russian military forces are the daily fare of the news networks. While most agree that the U.S. cannot directly challenge another nuclear power on the battlefield, the anguish unfolding before us has left many urging more “action,” whatever that means in this devastating context.
As with the Afghanistan withdrawal, Biden’s stance is one of grim necessity that has no satisfying answer; there will be suffering no matter what, and that suffering will wear on voters the longer the war drags on. Like as not, Ukraine will be a major issue come November.
The Democratic House and Senate majorities dangle by a thread. Senators Jon Tester in Montana, Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, Debbie Stabenow in Michigan and Jackie Rosen in Nevada among others face razor-close races.
In the House, prospects for the Democrats to salvage their own majority are equally grim. Republicans in both chambers, meanwhile, have all but abandoned the idea of an agenda, and instead are “flooding the zone” with incendiary and harmful nonsense about pedophiles, immigration, “CRT,” the “rigged” 2020 election and whatever else they can fling in order to “win” the news day.
Example: Instead of debating the reinstatement of the enormously helpful child tax credit, which lapsed recently because of Republicans, the most pointed current discussions center on whether godless socialist teachers are instructing students to use litter boxes in the restroom in the event they identify as cats. How did that patently false rumor get going? Republicans. Once again, they are massaging bizarre conspiracy fears to motivate an already-motivated voter base, and to roil the discussion for everyone else. This train is never late.
All of the above, at present, is fact, and it doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Circumstances could change overnight, of course, but it is also those very intangibles I fear most.
A Florida judge just blew up the mask mandate for airlines and most public transportation, just as the COVID subvariant of omicron, the “stealth variant” BA.2, becomes the dominant strain in the U.S. Almost 42,000 people were newly infected yesterday, a two-week uptick of 42 percent. That upward trend has been on the move for weeks now, and is growing. While there is no certainty that BA.2 could cause another sharp infection spike, we have seen this particular moment a couple of times already, and furthermore seen the horrors that came after.
If BA.2 decides to spread its wings like its cousins have before, the outbreak could last for months — and who knows what the COVID outlook will be on Election Day. A population once again asked to wear masks and avoid public gatherings after more than two years of pain and sacrifice, a population forced to endure skyrocketing prices and the shame of a war they can’t stop, might be a loose cannon at the polls. While there will be no predicting that outcome, Democrats could stand to lose both chambers if such challenging circumstances prevail.
At which point, we enter a realm of question marks. Will Biden, stymied for two years after losing the House and Senate, actually run again in 2024? If he does, can he win? If he doesn’t, can the Democrats make a switch-horses-in-midstream argument the electorate can accept? Will the economy or COVID be any better, or will our current elongated crises have taken on the stink of the inevitable and the eternal?
Final question: Will Donald Trump run again in 2024? He has not yet come straight out and said so, but all available signs point to “yes.” If he does announce his candidacy, his still-towering popularity with the GOP base could clear the field of contenders. He received more than 74 million votes in 2020, an astonishing haul for the guy who lost, and he sits today upon a campaign war chest of equally astonishing size.
The possibility of Trump not running doesn’t mean we can breathe easy, either. Whoever takes the Republican nomination in 2024 is likely to be a creature of Trumpist fascism, perhaps without all the hideous personal flaws of Trump himself. If you thought nobody could be more dangerous than Trump, think again.
None of this is certain by any stretch, but all of it is why I don’t sleep much anymore. If you have some ideas on how to head this potential cataclysm off its path, I invite you to get started immediately. It’s never too late, until it is.
An earlier version of this article stated Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown was up for re-election. This was incorrect; Brown won his last race in 2018 and won’t face re-election until 2024. Ohio’s other Senator, Rob Portman, is leaving office after this term ends. The error has been corrected.