The Trump-Biden Rematch Is Inevitable

The choices will be a traditional American politician or a de facto cult leader—again.

Trump and Biden participate in the final presidential debate at Belmont University, in Nashville, Tennessee, in October 2020.
Trump and Biden participate in the final presidential debate at Belmont University, in Nashville, Tennessee, in October 2020. (Jim Bourg / Pool /AFP via Getty)

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Most Americans do not want President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump in another head-to-head match for the White House. But barring a dramatic change in circumstances, that’s the contest we’ll see in 2024.

First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic:

Existential and Inevitable

Polls for the past six months or so have consistently shown that a majority of Americans do not want to see a rematch between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. And yet, unless health issues sideline one or the other (or unless a newly unemployed Tucker Carlson decides to take his angry-racist-preppie shtick into politics), the Trump-Biden showdown feels inevitable.

But Trump and Biden are likely to be renominated for very different reasons. Obviously, Biden is the incumbent—and, as I have argued, has been a remarkably successful president under difficult circumstances. Whatever the grousing from Democratic faithful, parties do not torpedo their own president: The only sitting chief executive who was elected in his own right and then denied renomination for another term was Franklin Pierce, in 1856. (Four others were denied nomination after becoming president upon the death of the incumbent.)

My colleague Mark Leibovich, however, has suggested that Biden’s age is too big a problem to ignore, and that the Democrats would benefit from a contested primary:

The public silence around the president’s predicament has become tiresome and potentially catastrophic for the Democratic Party. Somebody should make a refreshing nuisance of themselves and involve the voters in this decision.

I don’t quite agree. Biden, as the expression goes, has lost a step, but I kind of like the new Joe Biden. As a senator and a vice president, Biden was often a great source of Kinsley gaffes, the accidental truth-telling that made him a must-watch on the Sunday shows. Biden as president is different, and not just older. There’s a greater seriousness to him, a somberness, and an obvious weight on his shoulders. To me, that’s a better Biden.

But the president is older. He’s still liable to blurt out a gaffe or scramble his sentences, and it sounds less charming or amusing now than it did a decade ago. And sometimes, his rambles go off into mystifying detours, some of which are untrue. But on the man’s record alone, it’s going to be hard to argue to Democrats and independents that he somehow doesn’t deserve another term. Republicans, for their part, seem to know this, which is why they’ve rarely bothered attacking Biden on policy, resorting to debt-ceiling chicanery and invocations of Hunter Biden rather than more substantive (and legitimate) criticism.

Let’s put it this way: If Ted Kennedy could not take out Jimmy Carter, no one in today’s Democratic Party is going to defeat Joe Biden.

But let’s also admit an uncomfortable truth that the Democrats dare not say out loud: At least some of the concerns about Joe Biden’s age are in reality barely veiled worries about Kamala Harris. Biden’s approval ratings are struggling, but the vice president’s numbers are worse—in fact, among the worst of any modern vice president at this point in an administration. (Mike Pence is a strong competitor in this category.) I think Harris ran a lousy campaign and has been, at best, a lackluster VP. Yes, Joe Biden rambles, but Harris, when off script, often sounds like a compilation of disjointed clichés, delivered with a kind of corporate-trainer earnestness. (Some of this is likely related to her reported staffing problems.) Her few forays into policy have been unimpressive, and even her intensely dedicated online supporters seem to have become a bit quieter.

Personally, I have no doubt that if something happened to President Biden, Vice President Harris—along with an able and well-staffed administration—would be a reasonable steward of the White House for the remainder of Biden’s term. Nevertheless, when health and age are prominent issues (as they were with Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower), voters are going to look more closely at the vice president. Harris no doubt still has dedicated supporters in the party, but that might not be enough to overcome how much of America just doesn’t like her.

Concerns about Joe Biden’s renomination, however, are trivial compared with the problem facing those Republicans—roughly four in 10—who do not want Donald Trump as the GOP nominee.

The GOP as a political institution has functionally ceased to exist at the presidential level. The nomination process is controlled, at this point, by a cult of personality; Trump bitter-enders are now the backbone of the party, and their fanaticism gives Trump a stable plurality of votes that no other candidate can match. To defeat Trump for the nomination, a conventional candidate would not only have to attack Trump hammer and tongs; they would also have to demand that the national Republican Party buck millions of its own base voters. This is even more unlikely than Biden getting primaried by some youthful Democrat, because it would require the Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel and other GOP leaders to replace the tapioca in their spines with something like principle, and declare that the Party of Lincoln will not lend its money and support to a sociopath who has incited violent sedition against the government of the United States.

That’s not going to happen. It is possible, I suppose, that if Trump is facing multiple state and federal indictments by late summer, Republicans will finally throw their support to someone else, perhaps even Ron DeSantis, out of desperation. But for now, the nomination belongs to Donald Trump.

I would be relieved to be wrong about this, but if nothing changes, 2024 will again be a stark and existential choice. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has grumbled that if the election is Biden versus Trump again, he probably won’t vote. The rest of us, however, cannot afford this kind of petty tantrum. The Republican Party has mutated from a political organization into an authoritarian movement. Democracy itself will be on the line for the third time since 2020, and staying home—or taking the dodge of voting for some no-hope third-party candidate—is not a responsible option.


In Remembrance

Image of Michael Kelly
Courtesy of Michael Kelly’s family

Michael Kelly, who was the editor in chief of The Atlantic from 1999 to 2002, worked at many publications in a career that was tragically cut short 20 years ago this month. He wrote for small newspapers and big ones, for political magazines and general-interest ones. He was a beat reporter and a writer of profiles and feature stories, a war correspondent and a columnist. He led a number of publications—The New Republic, National Journal, The Atlantic. His acclaimed reporting on the Gulf War, in 1991, was eventually turned into the book Martyrs’ Day. Mike was covering the Iraq War for The Atlantic in 2003 when he was killed on the outskirts of Baghdad.

Michael Kelly is remembered the same way by everyone who worked with him. He was disorganized—his desk drawers held manuscripts but also laundry and dishes—and his handwriting was illegible. He was disarmingly funny, raised by journalist parents in a boisterous Irish family. He was passionate about his principles—a collection of his writing, Things Worth Fighting For, was aptly titled. Perhaps counterintuitively, given his own strong convictions, one thing he believed in was the value of publishing diverse points of view: Ideas need vigorous testing. Another was the central importance of character in public life.

Mike’s family—including his wife, Madelyn, and his children, Tamzin and Jack—and many friends and colleagues gathered this past weekend in Washington, D.C., to mark the 20th anniversary of his death. Tamzin and Jack were 6 and 4 when Mike was killed. “One lesson my father taught me,” Tamzin Kelly said in her remarks, “is the importance of standing up for what you believe in. More than that, the importance of believing what you believe in.” Jack Kelly spoke about the experience of encountering his father through the pages of Things Worth Fighting For—discovering the opinions they shared and, more important, the ones they did not:

It’s both useful and comforting to think about our similarities with those we’ve lost. But there’s a flatness to it—it takes a static image of the dead and asks us to find a portion of ourselves in it. Thinking of our differences with those who are gone is at once more difficult and more rewarding: It asks us how we might have co-evolved with them, how we may have changed each other, and how we would have loved each other as humans who—like all humans—argue and disagree.

A year after Mike’s death, Robert Vare, the editor of Things Worth Fighting For, wrote about his colleague and friend in an article for The Atlantic. You can find Vare’s article here.

Cullen Murphy, editor at large at The Atlantic

Today’s News

  1. CNN released a statement declaring an end to its relationship with the anchor Don Lemon.
  2. Myles Cosgrove, the former Louisville officer who fired the fatal shot that killed Breonna Taylor, has been hired by a police force in a nearby county.
  3. Countries are hurrying to extract their citizens from Sudan as violence continues between the military and the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group.


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Culture Break

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Thomas Jordan

Read. AAAAdam,” a new poem by Adam Giannelli.

“my mother liked // the name because it couldn’t be undone / by a nickname and my father loved my mother.”

Watch. The Canadian comedy Letterkenny (available on Hulu), which delights in wordplay and linguistic silliness.

Play our daily crossword.


Tucker Carlson was reportedly fired from Fox News today. I will not deny the schadenfreude of seeing Fox boot one of the most cynical and destructive figures in American public life off the air. (And one who took a weird shot at me in his program some weeks ago.) If the reports of his firing are true, this would be Carlson’s third dismissal from a media network; he’s only 53, so maybe he can take a bit of time to consider why this keeps happening to him. Unless his replacement is someone worse—and my colleague David Graham thinks that’s a distinct possibility—Fox has made at least one decision that will improve our public discourse.

Today’s news reminded me how much it seems as though the writers of the HBO series Succession have a crystal ball somewhere. Last night’s episode (covered here by The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber) had Lukas Matsson, the internet tycoon trying to buy out the Roy family businesses, talking about how it’s time for ATN—the series’ obvious Fox News stand-in—to dump its “news for angry old people” format. As I’ve told you, I have a bit part in some upcoming Succession episodes as an ATN pundit, and although I cannot tell you what happens next, I think it’s fair to say that art and life will remain intertwined in the coming weeks.

— Tom

Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.