January 4, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

2024, a referendum on the loser

Normally, it’s a referendum on the incumbent. Not this year.

Courtesy of Fulton County, Georgia.
Courtesy of Fulton County, Georgia.

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The Democrats on the House Oversight Committee released a report this morning showing that Donald Trump’s businesses received foreign payments in the amount of $7.8 million while he was president. They came from governments in China, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar.

“These payments were made while these governments were promoting specific foreign policy goals with the Trump Administration and even, at times, with President Trump himself, and as they were requesting specific actions from the United States to advance their own national policy objectives,” according to the 155-page report.

The Post has the rest, including that the Trump Organization solicited “business deals” (ie, bribes) while Trump was the president. But I want to step back and point out something about this news, particularly about how this kind of news is going to play out – it’s going to be the foundation for what will eventually become a referendum on the loser. 

In the center, Trump
Normally, an election year like this one would be what I might call a “reelection election”: a referendum on a sitting president, his record thus far and what he says he wants to do with a second term. The presidency is his. The challenger has to take it, but with the help of an electorate that subjects the incumbent to an up-or-down vote.

The president is usually the center of our collective attention during a “reelection election.” For one thing, he has the biggest platform, as anything that he says is newsworthy and reported widely. But having actual power makes all the difference. When Joe Biden talks, for instance, about the importance of funding Ukraine’s war against Russia, he doesn’t sound like an ordinary politician. He appears to be above politics. Even the wealthiest challenger can’t buy that look. 

Biden and Trump represent opposites in every way, but they seem to agree that 2024 is going to be determined by attention. For Trump, “more attention on me means I win.” For Biden, “more attention on him means I win.”

But this “reelection election” is different for an obvious reason. Donald Trump is not Walter Mondale (who challenged President Reagan) or Bob Dole (President Clinton) or John Kerry (President Bush) or Mitt Romney (President Obama). He’s Donald Trump. His every word has become as newsworthy and widely reported as Biden’s. In terms of his dominance of our attention, Trump is like an incumbent. If 2024 is a referendum on Biden, and it is, it’s equally a referendum on him.

But what sets Donald Trump apart from previous presidential challengers (other than the fact that he’s Donald Trump) is that he’s a loser. He’s been through the “reelection election” dynamic. So has Joe Biden. The former was the challenger in 2020. The latter was the incumbent. The presidency was his. Biden had to take it. With the help of an electorate that subjected Trump to an up–or-down vote, he did. If 2024 is a referendum on Trump, and it is, it’s a referendum on the loser.

You’d think Trump would be worried about that, but he doesn’t seem to be. Maybe he can’t help himself. He appears to think that he can run in 2024 like he ran in 2016, though the gambit has gotten less effective over time, to the point where lots of respectable white people are now willing to recognize openly that his campaign has dictatorial overtures. Instead of trying to rehab his public image as a fascist (or perhaps worse, an incompetent who failed to steer us out of the pandemic), he doubles down on virtually everything, even the fact that he’s a loser

Another thing that makes 2024 different from other “reelection elections” is what Joe Biden is doing. Normally, the incumbent would act like he’s not really running for reelection. He’s too busy doing world-historical stuff. He barely has time to recognize the presence and legitimacy of his challenger. But, according to the Post, Biden is planning a big speech for the anniversary of the J6 insurrection in order to highlight Donald Trump’s unique threat to the republic. 

You’d think Biden would want to draw attention away from Trump, toward his own record of achievement and what he says he wants to do with a second term. He is doing that, of course, to an extent. (And he should, given the paradigm-shifting nature of his legislative record. He is the first president in my lifetime to take the side of working people with the force of law against the very obscenely rich.) But to a remarkable degree, he’s also putting Trump in the center, almost like he’s asking the electorate to subject the loser to an up-or-down vote. 

This pattern is going to get more intense as the year goes by. Today, the news is about Trump appearing to take bribes while president. Tomorrow, it’s going to be about his theft of government secrets. The day after, about his attempts to overturn the will of the voters of Georgia. The day after that, about any of nearly 100 criminal charges against him. Every day is going to be a drip-drip-drip of bad news for the loser. There are lots of good reasons why Trump lost in 2020 and every day of the coming year is going to remind us all of them all. 

Biden and Trump represent opposites in every way, but they seem to agree that 2024 is going to be determined by attention. For Trump, “more attention on me means I win.” For Biden, “more attention on him means I win.” Given that the incumbent already came out on top in the last “reelection election,” one of these bets is better than the other. 


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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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