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Things Fall Apart

The worst-case scenario is hurtling toward us pretty damn fast.
October 28, 2022
Things Fall Apart

Let’s go dark

We’ve talked before about what a strange election 2022 is. Normally in a midterm we know the directionality of the outcome and the uncertainty is about the magnitude: How far will the swing go?

In 2022, even the directionality is uncertain.

It is highly likely that Republicans will retake the House. But not certain. And a very small swing of votes could be the difference between Republicans picking up enough seats to take control and Democrats holding on.

In the Senate, the directionality is even more uncertain. If you were drawing a distribution curve for outcomes, the fattest part of the curve—the 80 percent in the middle—probably runs all the way from D +4 to R +4. And the actual number of votes needed to get from one end of that range to the other is quite small.

That’s because we have a bunch of races which are going to be much closer than they should be.

J.D. Vance should win Ohio by 8 points. He probably won’t. So the question is, does Tim Ryan sneak out a 1 point win, or does Vance hang on and win by 3?

Mike Lee should win Utah by at least 10 points. He probably won’t.

John Fetterman should have been clobbering Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania—but he had a stroke and health events always scramble races.

Hop around the map and you see one place after another where favored candidates—Herschel Walker, Blake Masters, Adam Laxalt, Ron Johnson—are underperforming for one reason or another.

The most important voters in 2022 will be split-ticket voters and the results in the Senate will be determined by whether or not there will be enough of them to hit the tipping point in these races.

But let’s pretend, just for today, that nearly all of the Democrats fall just short.

Tim Ryan, John Fetterman, Raphael Warnock, Catherine Cortez Masto, Mark Kelly, Mandela Barnes—they all lose by a point or two. This would not represent a Democratic collapse. It would mean that most of their candidates overperformed the fundamentals of their races by a fair margin. But there are no moral victories in politics. It would still mean that on November 9 we’d wake up with the prospect of 53 Republican senators.

Again: We’re not talking about a 1-in-1 million shot here. This is probably a 1-in-10 outcome.

And while we’re at it, let’s assume that, since the ticket-splitters didn’t show up in big enough numbers, the House also winds up in Republican control, with a narrow, but workable, majority.

Now let’s pretend that, in this environment, the attorney general of the United States indicts Donald Trump.


Here’s Frank Foer in the Atlantic:

I have been observing Garland closely for months. I’ve talked with his closest friends and most loyal former clerks and deputies. I’ve carefully studied his record. I’ve interviewed Garland himself. And I’ve reached the conclusion that his devotion to procedure, his belief in the rule of law, and in particular his reverence for the duties, responsibilities, and traditions of the U.S. Department of Justice will cause him to make the most monumental decision an attorney general can make.

Foer believes that Garland is going to indict Trump. In fact, that Garland has already made the decision to indict.

Here’s Foer gaming out what this might look like:

In any event, once the trial began, Trump would be stuck in court, likely in Florida (if he’s charged in connection with the Mar-a-Lago documents matter) or in Washington, D.C. (if he’s charged for his involvement in the events of January 6). The site of a Washington trial would be the Prettyman Courthouse, on Constitution Avenue, just a short walk from the Capitol. This fact terrified the former prosecutors and other experts I talked with about how the trial might play out. Right-wing politicians, including Trump himself, have intimated violence if he is indicted.

Trump would of course attempt to make the proceedings a carnival of grievance, a venue for broadcasting conspiracy theories about his enemies. The trial could thus supply a climactic flash point for an era of political violence. Like the Capitol on January 6, the courthouse could become a magnet for paramilitaries. With protesters and counterprotesters descending on the same locale, the occasion would tempt street warfare.

You should read the whole thing. It should bring you up short.

Now put these two scenarios together.

Republican take control of both houses of Congress with Republicans claiming a mandate to rebuke Democrats. This rebuke will take several forms, as Kevin McCarthy explains to Punchbowl today, including the creation of a debt-ceiling crisis:

Here’s McCarthy on the debt limit:

“You can’t just continue down the path to keep spending and adding to the debt. And if people want to make a debt ceiling [for a longer period of time], just like anything else, there comes a point in time where, okay, we’ll provide you more money, but you got to change your current behavior. We’re not just going to keep lifting your credit card limit, right? And we should seriously sit together and [figure out] where can we eliminate some waste? Where can we make the economy grow stronger?”

We reminded McCarthy that he didn’t pitch these debt limit battles during the Trump era, during which the GOP ran up $7 trillion in new debt in only four years, including pandemic relief funding. Congress raised the debt ceiling three times during Trump’s presidency. Republicans only hold the borrowing cap hostage when Democrats are in the White House. McCarthy countered that President Joe Bidenand congressional Democrats have spent too much money, in his view.

McCarthy also signaled in this interview that he intends to attempt to block military aid to Ukraine, which will have the effect of creating more instability in energy markets as it would give Putin a lifeline to prolong his war.

Republicans have announced that their electoral case to voters is a promise to create economic instability.

There is no reason to believe that, if they take Congress, they can’t keep that promise.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump is running for president while on criminal trial. The Republican majorities will be pouring gasoline on the fire daily, not just on Fox and Newsmax, but from Congress, where they will have many legislative and bureaucratic tools with which to attack the Department of Justice and the Biden administration.

And meanwhile, the sitting president is a 79-year-old man who is beating the actuarial odds on health events, for now.

What do you think would happen?

I’m serious about this. I’d like to know. Discuss it in the comments and please, no name-calling. No sophomoric stuff. This is as serious as a heart attack. Treat it so.

I don’t have a prediction myself because the scenario I just outlined for you is weapons-grade chaos. If it comes to pass, then a lot of unthinkable outcomes start becoming very thinkable. Some of them even become likely.

Maybe there are grand bargains which could be made in order to avoid the most dangerous potential outcomes. Maybe if Garland indicts Trump, Biden could then announce that, in order to lessen the politicization of this extraordinary event, he will not seek re-election. Maybe Biden could even persuade Kamala Harris not to run for the Democratic nomination under the idea that the entire Biden administration needed to be taken off the ballot in order take down the temperature.

I don’t know.

So this is the other thing for you to discuss: Do you see any way of getting out of this trap, should we find ourselves in it? I want you to take it as given that Republicans control Congress and Trump is on trial.

What steps might be taken to defuse this bomb?

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.