Donald Trump is Dick Dastardly. President Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the Gruesome

Back in the late 1960s, just before Joe Biden was first elected to Congress as a representative for Delaware, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera launched one of their greatest cartoon shows: The Wacky Races.

Each week, the same motley cast of characters competed to be the first past the chequered flag: the technological boffin Professor Pat Pending, the glamorous southern belle Penelope Pitstop, the dashing but slightly dud Peter Perfect, the Neanderthal Slag Brothers in their Boulder Mobile — and of course the villainous Dick Dastardly and his canine sidekick Muttley.

Every four years, as the U.S. embarks on another ten-month political race to elect its president, I am reminded of the Wacky Races. Each time, it just gets wackier.

So as the 2024 race kicks off with Republican presidential caucuses in the mid-western state of Iowa on Monday, let us consider the runners and riders.

In the cartoon, there was the Gruesome Twosome — Tiny and Bela — who drove a ghoulish ‘Creepy Coupe’.

This year’s Gruesome Twosome are President Biden and his Vice President, Kamala Harris, who will campaign by chilling the blood of Democratic voters with dire warnings that democracy will die if they are not re-elected.

Dick Dastardly is, of course, Donald Trump, whose political career seemed to have imploded after he incited a mob to try to overturn the 2020 election result — with more than 2,000 rioters storming Capitol Hill — but who now has at least a 50:50 chance of securing re-election.

If he wins, it would not be unprecedented. In 1892, Grover Cleveland was elected to a second non-consecutive term. But to listen to Biden and Harris, a Trump victory would spell the end of free elections altogether.

Yet this is not a two-horse race. Coming up fast on the inside lane is the Penelope Pitstop of 2024: Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina.

Still in the race for the Republican nomination is the Right’s answer to Prof Pat Pending: maverick tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. 

And not quite out of contention is the tough but unlovable Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, whose Boulder Mobile hasn’t yet got out of second gear.

Though less open, the race for the Democratic nomination also has its wacky aspect.

In view of Joe Biden’s old age — he turned 81 in November — there is constant speculation that he will pull out at some point, rather as Lyndon Johnson did in 1968.

But no one seriously believes Vice President Harris would stand a better chance against Trump. And only one brave Democrat is running against Biden: Dean Phillips of Minnesota, the nearest thing to the cartoon lumberjack, Rufus Ruffcut.

This year's Gruesome Twosome are President Biden (pictured) and his Vice President, Kamala Harris, writes Niall Ferguson

This year’s Gruesome Twosome are President Biden (pictured) and his Vice President, Kamala Harris, writes Niall Ferguson 

He added that Dick Dastardly is Donald Trump (pictured), whose political career seemed to have imploded after he incited a mob to try to overturn the 2020 election result

He added that Dick Dastardly is Donald Trump (pictured), whose political career seemed to have imploded after he incited a mob to try to overturn the 2020 election result

No one seriously believes Vice President Kamala Harris (pictured) would stand a better chance against Trump, writes Niall Ferguson

No one seriously believes Vice President Kamala Harris (pictured) would stand a better chance against Trump, writes Niall Ferguson

Some well-known names have already dropped out — notably the former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (Republican) earlier this week. But less well-known contenders still hanging in there include the Green Party’s Jill Stein and two independents — Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a nephew of former President John F. 

Kennedy and a rabid anti-vaxxer, and Cornel West, an African-American professor. And let’s not forget the eccentric self-help author Marianne Williamson.

The race begins on Monday night at the Iowa caucuses — a quaint ritual of mingling, chatting and voting at more than 1,600 meetings of Republican party members — where the Republican candidates will vie for the state’s delegates at their National Convention, to take place in July in Milwaukee.

Then the race moves to New Hampshire on January 23 for the first true primary — a straightforward ballot run by the state government — when registered Republicans and Independents will get to vote for the Republican Party’s contenders. (The Democratic primary in New Hampshire will happen later or not at all, after a row over the 2020 contest.)

And then comes South Carolina.

There is a theory gaining traction that the state’s former governor, Nikki Haley, could pose a serious threat to Trump in New Hampshire. Perhaps she may even win it, as John McCain did in 2000.

However, like McCain, she will struggle to beat the frontrunner in the South, including in her home state of South Carolina, where she lags 28 points behind Trump. The reality is that Trump is as far ahead of the competition as George W. Bush was 24 years ago, and even further ahead than Bush’s father in 1992.

Remember: only one frontrunner in the nine competitive primaries since 1976 did not ultimately win the nomination — that was Rudy Giuliani in 2008. So if you feel like a flutter on this Wacky Race, don’t bet against Trump getting the Republican nomination.

My guess is he’ll have it in the bag the morning after ‘Super Tuesday’, on March 5, when a third of Republican Convention delegates will be allotted.

Could anything seriously derail Joe Biden as the Democrats’ contender? The answer is only Biden himself. Either his health fails or he decides that someone has a better shot at beating Dick Dastardly than he does.

Would I bet on either scenario? No. Could Dean Phillips shock Biden as Eugene McCarthy shocked LBJ in 1968? Forget it.

Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, (right) and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, (left), at the CNN Republican presidential debate on January 10

Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, (right) and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, (left), at the CNN Republican presidential debate on January 10

In short, the base case has to be a Trump vs Biden replay of 2020. This will be a strange — though, again, not unprecedented — outcome, as the public seems unenthused about both of them, according to polling data, which suggests more than half of Americans would rather see other names on their presidential ballots.

Equally strange, the election will be decided, like all recent elections, by a small number of voters in a small number of states.

More than 159 million Americans voted in the 2020 election, but the outcome was decided by a margin of 311,000 — the total number of votes by which Biden beat Trump in six key states: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

If just over half those votes had gone the other way, Trump might have won. Indeed, when you reflect on the narrowness of Biden’s margin of victory, you can see why Trump challenged the results.

This year’s election, too, will hinge on decisions in more or less the same swing states (to which you can add North Carolina, where Trump won only narrowly).

If the election were held today, judging by early polling in the swing states, Trump would comfortably win. But it is much too early to regard polls as predictors of the result in November.

Why is Trump looking so strong? It’s quite surprising, considering the state of the U.S. economy. Inflation has come down rapidly since the summer of 2022 without the need for a recession and a rise in unemployment, as many economists had expected.

The answer would seem to be that voters have not quite forgiven Team Biden for the inflation of 2022. Consumer and economic confidence remain surprisingly low. On the economy, Republicans poll more strongly than Democrats.

The same is true of two other key issues: crime and immigration. By comparison, the Democrats lead on climate change, abortion and health care. These issues seem less salient today.

Yet Trump faces a unique challenge for a presidential candidate — he is going to have to campaign while defending himself in four criminal cases: two for allegedly attempting to overturn the results of the 2020 election (one federal, one in the state of Georgia); the third for allegedly falsifying business records (New York); the fourth for wrongly handling classified documents (federal).

True, the attempts by Democrats to use ‘lawfare’ against Trump have thus far backfired, unless they cynically wanted Trump as the Republican nominee, assuming they could beat him.

However, if Trump were tried and convicted in any of these cases, recent polls suggest he would suffer a significant and perhaps decisive loss of support in the swing states.

Other bumps in the road to watch out for include the likely attempt by House Republicans to impeach Biden over his and his son Hunter’s business dealings (which could also backfire, as impeaching Bill Clinton backfired for Republicans in 1996); and the possible appearance on the ballots of a ‘No Labels’ candidate seeking to offer Independent voters a non-partisan option.

Although no third-party candidate as yet seems likely to gain enough votes to decide the result — whether for or against Trump — one might conceivably be found by April. The British media tends to cover American elections as though they are only about choosing the president. In reality, there will be a vast number of names — and in some states also propositions — on the ballots, which are often multi-page booklets far more complex than British voting papers.

The party that wins the presidency typically also wins the majority of closely contested seats in the Senate. However, the map this year is highly unfavourable for Democrats, who currently have a 51-49 majority in the Senate.

Hunter Biden, son of U.S. President Joe Biden, is accused of nine federal tax charges

Hunter Biden, son of U.S. President Joe Biden, is accused of nine federal tax charges

They must defend competitive seats in conservative West Virginia, where Joe Manchin is retiring; Montana and Ohio, as well as Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. By contrast, Republicans have no competitive seats up for re-election that Democrats could pick up.

The key challenge for the Republicans will be recruiting candidates who can win in swing states. Their failure to win control of the Senate in the 2022 mid-term election was due, in part, to the selection in primaries of unelectable candidates.

In the House, meanwhile, the next president’s party will likely win because split-ticket voting (when a voter backs one party’s candidate for president, but the other party’s candidate for the House) is so rare.

However, no matter which party takes control of the House, the margin of victory will remain tight. The final outcome will become clear only in the hours — perhaps days or even weeks — after voting stations close on November 5.

That is Guy Fawkes night in Britain — a night of fireworks and bonfires, when we celebrate the foiling of an attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament more than 400 years ago.

The question many Americans are asking themselves is whether November 5 this year will be the day that they blow up their own democracy. According to a USA Today/Suffolk University poll last year, seven out of ten Americans agreed with the statement that U.S. democracy was ‘imperilled’.

The shares of Democrats (74 per cent) and Republicans (75 per cent) were almost identical — though, of course, each party’s supporters think the peril is posed by the other party.

Disappointed by the public’s response to ‘Bidenomics’, the President and his campaign managers are going to run with the argument that Trump’s re-election would represent a fatal threat to the constitutional order.

Trump would certainly have a strong personal incentive to dismiss all the federal legal cases against him, to ignore the state cases, and to purge the ‘deep state’. That is certainly the recommendation of the pro-Trump think-tank America First.

The Democrats will also argue that Trump 2.0 would pose a threat to international as well as domestic order. He might not only pull the plug on support for Ukraine, but also pull the U.S. out of Nato altogether.

The weakness of this argument is, of course, the miserable lack of success of Biden’s own foreign policy. In 2021 he handed Afghanistan back to the Taliban. In 2022 he failed to deter Russia from invading Ukraine. And last year there was another failure of U.S. deterrence, as Iran’s proxies in the Middle East — not only Hamas but also the Houthis — launched their murderous attacks.

Say what you like about Donald Trump, America’s adversaries risked nothing like these outrageous acts when he was in the White House.

By the time they come to vote, Americans may also have seen a fourth Biden foreign policy failure, if Chinese leader Xi Jinping decides to impose communist control on the autonomous island of Taiwan after its presidential election, which takes place today.

That is why, for all its resemblance to the Wacky Races of my childhood, this year’s American election is a deadly serious matter.

If they choose Biden, Americans may be voting for the collapse of the Pax Americana — the relative peace and prosperity the world has enjoyed with the U.S. as the world’s dominant superpower.

But if they choose Trump, might they be bidding farewell to constitutional government?

Empire or Republic? It is, of course, the ancient Roman question. As the race gets underway in icy Iowa on Monday, none of us should underestimate just how much is at stake.

n Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and managing director of Greenmantle. A columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, he is the author of 16 books, most recently DOOM: The Politics Of Catastrophe (Penguin).

It may seem as crazy as the Wacky Races, but the battle for the White House – which begins in Iowa on Monday – will have repercussions that should alarm us all…

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