Whatever the eventual outcome of the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses — and whether or not anyone in our conspiracy-addled country believes in the veracity of the officially certified result — there is one clear winner of the vote, and that is President Donald Trump.
That's because the night was a disaster across the board. It was a disaster for the Democratic Party of Iowa, which suffered a total meltdown before the country and the world. It was a disaster for the Democratic National Committee, which showed that it was incapable of overseeing a functional election. It was a disaster for the crowded and jumbled field of Democratic presidential candidates, which lost a valuable opportunity to achieve some early clarity before heading into next Tuesday's New Hampshire primary. And it was a disaster for American democracy, which added another faceplant to the hanging chads of 2000 and the winning-the-White-House-while-losing-by-nearly-three-million-votes absurdity of 2016.
It was a night of chaos that set up what is bound to be a week of chaos, with individual campaigns touting their own internal numbers and casting doubt on those of the other candidates. Meanwhile, once official numbers are released — assuming they are eventually released — the losers will object, alleging foul play or sloppiness so widespread that the vote should be disregarded. And really, who will be able to blame them? The results weren't released slowly and carefully over several hours, precinct by precinct. They were almost totally embargoed all night long, raising questions that no explanation will be able to dispel. The result is bound to be tainted.
And that is why Trump is the true winner. Jeb Bush was right to call him the chaos candidate early on in the 2016 primary season. Bush meant that Trump sowed chaos. He did, and he does. But it was also true in another sense. Trump thrives on chaos, even that which he doesn't create. The more American democracy degrades, becomes a circus, and gets permeated by a miasma of bad faith and bad blood, the more politicians like Trump will flourish and succeed in their efforts to act as ringmasters of a carnival freak show at the core of our public life.
But there's another reason why the Iowa imbroglio benefits Trump. Democrats are dying to do things with government. That's even truer this cycle than others, when candidates of a newly energized left are proposing litanies of stupefyingly complex and expensive policies. But voters are only going to endorse agendas like that if they feel they can trust America's institutions and elites to enact them with competence.
Levels of institutional trust are at record lows, creating a significant headwind for ambitious Democrats. But that doesn't mean it can't get worse. Every time a political institution falters or flubs its appointed task, those numbers drift lower, laying the groundwork for greater cynicism about what government can and should be doing. That's the atmosphere in which Republicans — yes, Trumpian as well as Reaganite Republicans — prosper.
The sad fact is that Monday night was stunning display of rank incompetence. "You mean this is who you want to put in charge of taking over health-care delivery from sea to shining sea?" That isn't a thought you want running through the heads of voters as they contemplate which party to support in November 2020. Nine months from now, the Iowa caucus fiasco will be a distant memory. But narratives start somewhere, and the president and his party aren't going to miss their chance to begin driving home the message that Democrats are so inept that they can't even figure out how to count the votes in their own election contest.
It didn't have to turn out this way. Iowa didn't need to stick with its electoral anachronism. It didn't have to greatly complicate the tabulation process this year in the name of "transparency." It didn't need to give into technological fetishism by adopting a fancy (but obviously glitchy) app for the transmittal of precinct results to party headquarters. And it didn't have to skimp on training, practice, and rehearsals, as the outcome of the evening appears to indicate it did.
All of which means that there was nothing inevitable about Trump ending up as the winner of Iowa's Democratic caucuses. And yet it happened. Just like Trump's implausible victory in November 2016.
After the debacle in Des Moines, Democrats are reduced to hoping the president's luck finally runs out. And soon.
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