Can Trump Be Stopped?

While everyone is exhausted, the “magamachine” rolls on. Is a Trump presidency inevitable?

I work as a professional political commentator, and the question I’m asked most often these days is some variation on: “Is Trump going to win, do you think?” Sometimes it’s phrased more like “Oh my God, Trump’s not going to win, is he?” People would like me to reassure them that this time next year, Donald Trump won’t be taking the oath of office and becoming the second person in American history to serve two non-consecutive terms.

Sadly, I can’t offer them any reassurance at all. In fact, my position is that we need to take very seriously the possibility that Trump will not only be the Republican nominee (a virtual certainty at this point), but will defeat Joe Biden, possibly by a substantial margin. 

Of course, I don’t know. I can’t predict the future. I used to try predicting the future, and I got as much wrong as I got right. I got some credit for predicting that Trump would win in 2016. But I had backed off that prediction close to the election. And in 2020, I thought he’d get reelected (although that was before Covid hit). I don’t do prophecies any more. Who knows what might happen?

But I do try to draw people’s attention to the facts we know. One fact, for instance, is that Trump is leading Joe Biden in the polls. That is to say, he’s doing better in polling against Biden than he was doing against Hillary Clinton, and he beat Hillary Clinton. Things look particularly dire for Biden in swing states, and with independent voters.

Those optimistic about Biden’s chances have been repeating for a long time that the election is a long way off, that things could change. But a lot of things seem to be changing for the worse. Biden’s approval rating seems to do nothing but drop, and young progressives now associate him with the genocide of Palestinians. Countervailing tendencies could indeed show up—measurements of “consumer sentiment” have been ticking upward lately, for instance, and Democrats could be right in their theory that when voters start paying attention, they’ll remember Trump sucks. But if the election were held today, it looks like Biden would lose. So things better start turning around soon, and it seems like the Democratic Party doesn’t have much of a plan for how to do that. Worse, they appear to possess some of the same unfounded confidence that Hillary’s people displayed in 2016, right up to the moment of defeat.

Maybe it’s true that the criminal punishment system will swoop in as a deus ex machina and lock Trump away. Maybe the many decades of a hamburger-centric diet will finally catch up with Trump’s cardiovascular system. Maybe greater exposure to Trump in a general election will sour people on him.

But don’t count on it. It’s just as likely that when Biden has to speak more frequently to the public, people will be reminded of just how old and weak he seems. And as I tried to warn people in 2016, Trump actually has pretty formidable political skills. I wouldn’t be surprised if he picked Tim Scott as his V.P. in order to try to peel away Black voters from the Democrats. And while I don’t think, for instance, that he’s going to run on a “free Palestine” platform, I do think he might position himself as an “anti-war” candidate against Biden, and this might be effective. This is what he did with Hillary Clinton in 2016, running to her left on foreign policy and criticizing her (correctly) for her role in the Iraq disaster. He knew Americans were sick of useless, expensive, and unjust wars, and he saw an opportunity. Likewise, Trump has been relatively quiet on Israel-Palestine since October 7, rather than taking the typical right-wing approach of hammering Democrats for insufficient deference to Israel. I suspect he understands that Biden is making himself unpopular with his base by hitching himself to Benjamin Netanyahu’s psychopathic government, and Trump follows Napoleon’s maxim: never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake. Trump will likely argue in the general election that he brought peace to the Middle East and Biden messed it up and is now dragging us into more disastrous wars. Trump will promise that Israel and Palestine will stop fighting the moment he takes office. (Just like he’ll end the war in Ukraine within 24 hours.) Will it matter that this is bullshit? I don’t know. A war-weary public, seeing that Biden is pursuing violence even when he admits it isn’t working, might be persuaded to vote for Trump. Or they might just be dissuaded from showing up and reelecting Biden.  

The Great Exhaustion

That’s a major shift. If I had to coin a term for our moment, I’d call it “the great exhaustion.” It’s hard to pin down a zeitgeist. Trillions of things are always happening at once. There is a lot of inspiring activism going on at the moment, including regular eruptions of huge anti-war protests in favor of a Gaza ceasefire. Since the George Floyd demonstrations in 2020, street protests had been minimal, but all of a sudden a lot of people are angry and energized over a hideous injustice.

But it’s also true that a lot of people seem deeply tired when it comes to reading about, thinking about, or doing anything about political issues. News publications are shutting down all over the place. Publications like this one find it harder and harder to get anyone to read about politics. I suspect this is because people feel profoundly demoralized by the available choices. Certainly, plenty of people around my age who were inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign came to feel afterward that there just wasn’t much point in throwing so much energy into something that seemed destined to be crushed by the establishment. Even though people are sour on Joe Biden, there hasn’t been nearly the kind of popular energy behind alternatives like Cornel West and Marianne Williamson. That’s probably partly to do with the candidates and their campaigns, but it’s also, I think, because many people just feel resigned. I am always fighting against that feeling myself. Sometimes I feel like proposing: How about we all just have a little nap for a year or two? The urgency of the crises we face could not be greater. Yet we just haven’t managed to muster sufficient energy. Energy is a strange word, really, because it’s not quite a real thing, or at least it’s difficult to precisely specify where it’s located. But you can feel when it’s there and when it’s not. “The energy went out of the room” is something we can say, and know it’s real, but good luck quantifying this kind of “energy.” Likewise, left politics today feel like they’ve lost some of their energy, gusto, verve, mojo. But how do you measure mojo? 

The Magamachine

In my copy of Lewis Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine (Vol. II), there’s an interesting typo. Mumford’s book is in large part about what he calls the “megamachine,” which is a description of how society itself can become like a giant machine, integrated with its technologies and directed from above. Nazi Germany was a classic “megamachine,” a giant contraption in which human beings at the bottom had virtually no autonomy and everyone was a replaceable cog. Mumford warns that contemporary U.S. society is in danger of becoming this kind of horrible giant machine, with people dehumanized and stripped of their autonomy, doing nothing but carrying out the rules imposed from on high.

The interesting typo is this: at one point in my edition, instead of “megamachine,” it happens to say “magamachine.” Which strikes me as an interesting description of the kind of giant, brainless, unstoppable engine that Donald Trump is trying to build. He plans to fire all the federal bureaucrats who disagree with him, to give himself complete immunity from the laws and to put the whole state in his service. Donald Trump likes having minions. He is building a giant personality cult that defers to him absolutely, and is incapable of self-criticism. 

The magamachine is hugely powerful already. It has swallowed the Republican Party whole. The GOP primary was essentially fake, its outcome a foregone conclusion to the point where Trump didn’t even need to show up to the debates. With Trump formally crowned the victor, the magamachine will turn its sights on the entire country. I am worried that given the “great exhaustion” felt everywhere, and Joe Biden’s total incapacity to inspire anyone, there may be less resistance to Trump this time around than there was in 2016. “How bad can it really be?” people might ask themselves. Or maybe they’ll repeat the Hillaryites’ delusion, and assume that because it would be truly awful, it probably won’t come to pass, since surely no one would stand for it. I don’t know. But having read a few pages of history, I do know that it’s a bad idea to assume that aspiring dictators will be vanquished. The magamachine is gaining steam. It has the “energy” lacked by its opponents. And it’s on the march. 

More In: Politics

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue


A superb summer issue containing our "defense of graffiti," a dive into British imperialism, a look at the politics of privacy, the life of Lula, and a review of "the Capitalist Manifesto." Plus: see the Police Cruiser of the Future, read our list of the summer's top songs, and find out what to fill your water balloons with. It's packed with delights!

The Latest From Current Affairs