Tocqueville 21 was born of the belief that history, and historical insight, can and must contribute to our understanding of the contemporary political and moral landscape. As the American political process enters a new and uncertain era, that imperative has never felt more … well, necessary. The politics of distrust, bad faith, and shameless showmanship are in many ways reminiscent of the political landscape of 19th century France.
Starting this week, Professor David A. Bell brings his insight into electoral dynamics and political history to Tocqueville 21, with the first in a series of posts on the upcoming US presidential election. Professor Bell’s contributions offer an understanding of the turbulence of the electoral process in 2024.
Professor Bell needs no introduction – the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor at Princeton University, Professor Bell’s career began at Yale and then Johns Hopkins. His prolific contributions to French political history have informed an entire generation of scholars and graduates. Beyond his academic work, he has written widely for publications such as The New Republic, Die Zeit, Le Point, and Slate.
We hope you enjoy his insight!
With the Middle East taking center stage in the news cycle since the terrorist attacks of Oct 7, the countdown to next year’s presidential election seems to have stalled. While some media outlets have speculated about whether President Biden’s support of Israel will hurt him among Muslim voters—especially in the battleground state of Michigan—for the most part, election news has moved to the back burner.
It has been all the easier for this to happen because the two major parties already have presumptive nominees—in fact they have had them at an earlier moment than ever before in modern American history. Although the Republican Party has a large (if shrinking) slate of candidates in its presidential debates and primaries, Donald Trump remains far ahead in the polls. Most of the other contenders refrain from serious criticism of him and seem to be running either just to gain attention, or in the hope of gaining the vice-presidential spot. On the Democratic side, a two-term Congressman named Dean Philips recently declared his presidential candidacy, to a resounding lack of enthusiasm or attention. The conspiracy theory-addled former Congressman Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who initially planned to challenge Biden for the Democratic nomination, is now running as an independent.
On November 1, the Quinnipiac Poll made news with a poll showing Kennedy at 22%, with Biden at 39% and Trump at 36%. Even more striking, in the poll Kennedy had a plurality of independent voters: 36%, compared to Trump at 31% and Biden at 30%. Given that at this early moment in the campaign, few voters know much about Kennedy beyond his famous last name, these results mostly testify to widespread frustration at the prospect of a Biden-Trump rematch. On seeing the poll, the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat tweeted: “There’s only one scenario that could make a crank like RFK Jr. president; the two major parties would have to present nominees so decrepit or unpopular or unstable or embarrassing that — hang on, I’m being handed a note …” Meanwhile, polls in several crucial swing states have shown Trump moving ahead of Biden. Despite the surprisingly strong Democratic showing in the off-year elections last week—the party seized control of the legislature in Virginia while important protections for abortion passed in Ohio—nearly two-thirds of self-identified Democrats in a recent poll said they did not want Biden to run again.
It might seem utterly remarkable that Donald Trump has a serious chance of winning the presidency again, given his obvious personal instability, his dreadful record in office, his attempt to overturn the 2020 election, his two impeachments, and his four criminal indictments. Not to mention the fact that the man remains a walking embodiment of the seven deadly sins. And then there is the issue of, yes, fascism. Should we call Trump by this name? I’ve been reluctant, in the past, to endorse the idea (e.g. in this 2020 article). At best, it seemed to me that Trump was, as the Yale philosopher Jason Stanley put it, “performing fascism.” But recently, he has been performing it so well as to become virtually indistinguishable from the genuine article. “We pledge to you,” he posted recently on Truth Social, “that we will root out the Communists, Marxists, Fascists, and Radical Left Thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our Country… The threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous, and grave, than the threat from within.” As Bill Kristol quipped, the post reads better in the original German.
Even so, at this stage his victory looks entirely possible. One large portion of the electorate not only believes what Trump tells it, but genuinely fears that it is “woke” Democrats who pose the true mortal threat to the republic. Many other voters don’t take Trump’s antics seriously, but believe he is on their side, and will fight for them. And others simply remember his presidency, before the COVID pandemic, as a time of prosperity, and give him the credit. It does not help that Joe Biden looks so frail and uncertain on television. Biden may have the most consequential record of any recent president, with major legislative victories and considerable economic success. But Americans have an intensely personal relationship with their presidents. It is no coincidence that since television started to play a significant role in campaigns, in the 1950’s, the presidency has almost always gone to the candidate who strikes voters as more likable—the only obvious exception being Richard Nixon, elected during the strife of the 1960’s. Trump strikes liberals like myself as the furthest possible thing from likeable, but liberals like myself do not exactly command a majority in the United States. Trump makes people laugh. He presents an image of business-like toughness. And in addition to Biden’s age, the economic outlook still seems precarious to voters, who were hit hard by inflation and mostly seem to blame Biden for it, despite the economy’s overall recovery.
But how predictive is the current situation likely to be of the election results a year from now? Given the enormously volatile and dangerous world news, and the great uncertainties attached to both candidates’ advanced age, not to mention the upcoming Trump trials and the surprises that attend any presidential campaign, the answer is probably: not much. Embarking on this chronicle of the 2024 presidential election feels a bit like starting a ride on an old, rickety, and badly maintained roller coaster. Stay tuned!