Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 11 January 2024

The Voters Finally Get Their Say

Each party seems set to make a big mistake, but a Trump-Biden rematch isn’t yet inevitable.

Peggy Noonan

Jan. 11, 2024 at 6:38 pm ET

Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley at CNN's Republican presidential primary debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 10. PHOTO: KYLE MAZZA/ZUMA PRESS

Finally we vote. Iowa is Monday, New Hampshire a week from Tuesday. I refuse to see the story as over. “Nothing is written.” Both big parties look set on making a mistake, but there’s time to turn it around.

Democrats on the ground are making a mistake in not rebelling against the inevitability of Joe Biden. He’s no longer up to the job, the vice president never was, and this doesn’t go under the heading National Security Secret Number 379, everybody knows. 

The problem isn’t the Biden campaign, however lame it may or may not be. It isn’t that the president’s most important advisers are in the White House, not the campaign. It’s him, and it’s not only his age. His speeches are boring, he never seems sincere, he seems propped up. He doesn’t have a tropism toward intellectual content and likes things airy; his subject matter isn’t life as most people are experiencing it but something many steps removed. He often seems like he just met the text. 

His advisers would think, “Then we’ll do more interviews,” but he’s not good there either—hesitant, lacking the confidence you must have to express your own thoughts as they arrive in your head. This means we have a president who, in an election year, has no way of communicating effectively, in person, with the American people. He hasn’t provided the sentence that makes the case for his being kept in office, and he hasn’t painted what a second term might look like, what its Great Intention might be. 

Democrats on the ground should raise a ruckus, issue a mighty roar. They can do better than this. To win, I think, they must.


Republicans similarly shouldn’t accept the inevitability of Donald Trump. On the debate stage Wednesday Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis were the Bickersons, and seemed smaller. On Fox, in a counterprogramming coup, the former president was Big Daddy with a sinister side, and seemed big. He’s riding high. He thinks he’s got this thing.

In just the past seven days we learned that he refused to sign Illinois’s traditional candidate’s vow not to attempt to overthrow the U.S. government. Everybody signs it and always has. He warned of “bedlam” if he’s convicted in court and he loses the election. A few days before, Rep. Elise Stefanik, major MAGA mover, refused to say, on “Meet the Press,” that she would accept the outcome of the election. Is that all stubbornness and rhetorical posturing, or is it something more, something hiding in plain sight? If there is ever another day like Jan. 6, 2021, it will be led by people who were there the first time and are now better at it. Last time we didn’t wind up in full constitutional crisis, because systems held. Will they next time? Do we really want to find out?

Mr. Trump will say anything for attention; he wants the cameras on him. He says—again, confining ourselves to the past week—the Civil War could have been negotiated and avoided. Heroic figures in Congress for decades attempted precisely that, trying to thwart and limit the spread of slavery while keeping the nation together. Mr. Trump implied Lincoln wanted war: “If he negotiated it, you probably wouldn’t even know who Abraham Lincoln was.” Yes, Lincoln was a cynical, self-aggrandizing pol, not a genius deal maker like Mr. Trump. What an idiot he is.

What is behind a Republican voters’ decision to stick with him?

Hope—he’ll be better than Mr. Biden, he was good until the pandemic and 1/6, but he’s learned. 

Pride—you took a lot of guff for past support, you’re not gonna back off now. Identification—he’s a nonelite. Anger—he’s a living rebuke of the system that has produced disorder. Cold calculation—“In a world full of animals, he’s our animal.”

Mischief, sheer humor—his antics make you laugh, and it isn’t a bad feeling to subvert things when you feel what you’re subverting is decadence. 

Some other things, I think. Americans have long used political debate as a distraction from their real lives. Once Mr. Trump is in office again you have a job again. When he’s in power he dominates the stage, the national conversation. Everyone is forced to argue about Trump. Your job the next four years is to defend him. It’s a full-time job so you get to ignore your life and what needs fixing in it. These tend to be the hard parts—lost kids, loneliness, job problems. You can’t fix them, you’re too busy saving the nation! You have to avoid them! 

The left does this too, maybe more so. But it all got turbocharged in the Trump era.

More seriously—most seriously—deep down a lot of hard-core Trump supporters, and many not so hard-core, think it’s all over. They love America truly and deeply but think the glue that held us together is gone. Religion and Main Street are shrinking into the past, and in the Rite Aid everything’s locked up. School shootings, mass shootings, nobody’s safe, men in the girls’ locker room, race obsessions, a national debt we’ll never control. China, Russia, nukes and cooked-up plagues. If they decide to do a mass cyberattack and take out our electricity for six months we’ll never get through it. Once we would. 

I am always struck by how many jolly, kind, cheerful, constructive Americans hold this sense of impending doom in their hearts and go cheerfully through each day anyway. 

But they figure if we’re at the end times, he’s the perfect end-times president, a guy who goes boom.

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