I thought I had a sure thing. After the D.C. insurrection, I’m not so sure

January 20, 2021 5:55 am

Donald Trump addresses the nation from the Oval Office about the widening Coronavirus crisis on March 11, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images).

There’s an old poker adage that says, “if you look around the table and can’t figure out who the fish (that is, sucker) is, then you’re probably the fish.”

In a very different realm of gambling, I had a recent experience evoking that maxim.

Just after the Dec. 14 Electoral College vote, an old friend and poker buddy called me. He knew a fellow high-stakes player looking to bet $100,000, with 20:1 odds, that Trump would be sworn in for a second term on Jan. 21.

That meant he needed someone willing to risk $2 million to win $100,000. The funds would be held in escrow for one month at a law firm upon which both parties agreed.

It felt like free money to me.

I’m a former political scientist with a background in campaigns and elections, and given all the evidence-free Trump legal filings, I saw no plausible scenario under which the outcome would change. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations it was a 60 percent annualized return with infinitesimal risk. And where else can you get that, with interest rates approaching zero and savings accounts offering less than 1 percent?

So I started rounding up the dough, using my own savings as seed money.

I had thousands of former donors, some of whom remain friends, from my days as a state senator and congressional wannabe. So I had a decent list of contacts to ask.

“Hey man,” I texted the first. “I never use the phrase ‘sure thing’ but I think I’ve got one for you.” Then I outlined the terms.

“So I gotta put up $100K to win $2M if Biden is actually sworn in? Hm. Maybe. I gotta think about it. I honestly don’t think Trump’s gonna leave.”

“Nah man, it’s the other way around – the odds work the other way,” I replied. “And look, he can squat in the White House for all I care. But we’d still win the bet! All that has to happen for us to win is Biden be sworn in — he can live across the damn street. Nothing else matters.”

“Dunno man. ”

OK, 0 for 1.

Obviously if the guy wasn’t champing at the bit to take the wager at 1:20 odds — which I found astonishing — he wouldn’t ever take it at 20:1.

I reached out to a second friend, a longtime politico whose husband is a very detail-oriented lawyer, and explained the proposed bet.

“LOLOL, are you Nigerian prince-scamming me?” she asked. “We’re not willing to risk $ because with a lunatic like this it’s going to come down to enforceability of contract. If he can’t acknowledge Biden won, he’ll litigate until the end.”

I decided to change things up and try a phone call, this time to a progressive who, based on my experience playing poker with him, definitely enjoyed to gamble and didn’t mind high stakes.

“No f***ing way,” he replied after I described the proposal. “Trump would sooner start a riot than walk out of the White House voluntarily.”

The next few prospects said they wanted to research the inaugural process a bit more, or wanted to check with their lawyer to make sure it was legal, or had to talk it over with their wives. The fourth asked, “Who wins the bet if there’s massive unrest, like the start of a civil war, and they can’t even hold an inauguration?”

I rolled my eyes impatiently, thinking to myself, As nutty as some of the hardcore MAGA types who think Trump will be president-for-life are, Trump’s broken brains on the left, too. Wake up, people — this is free money!

Clearly, I needed to recruit partners who were less emotional and more sophisticated about politics.

At wit’s end, I started thinking out of the box, and reached out to a savvy Republican strategist with a different approach. “I’ve got a business proposition for you. But first: What do you think the percentage is that Trump is sworn in for a second term?” I figured I should ask, since the strategist had publicly raised doubts about the election outcome.

“Zero,” came the instant reply.

“OK, then do you wanna make some easy money? I have someone who wants to bet 100 grand versus two million that Trump gets inaugurated next month.”

“Thanks, but I gotta take a pass,” he said. I understood. As a vocal Trump supporter, he wisely realized that if word of this ever got out, it could hurt his career as a Republican consultant.

Nearly all of the dozen of so progressives I called were absolutely convinced that Trump would try to stay on, possibly by declaring martial law or through other violent means, and that there was a 50-50 chance he’d succeed. They had taken his offhand rally comments about being president for life — perhaps with the help of “our tremendous military” or “our great police” or even the white supremacist gangs he had directed to “Stand back and stand by” in the first presidential debate — both seriously AND literally.

These are all very intelligent, successful businesspeople and lawyers who were so traumatized by the last four years of norm-breaking that they’ve completely given up on our democracy’s guardrails, and our capacity to self-correct. They lost faith that Republican leaders will stand up and ensure a peaceful transition of power.

It took me overnight and into the morning to round up the money, and by the time I did, it was too late. The man found someone else to take the bet. Since I’d figured to make a nice chunk of dough in a hurry, I was disappointed — and surprised that even when windfall profits seemed imminent, something akin to progressive PTSD prevented people from pursuing them.

Now, a few weeks later, after images of the violent mob that stormed the Capitol and caused the deaths of five people — a mob egged on not only by Trump but, memorably, by Missouri’s United States senator — have been indelibly etched on our minds, it was humbling to realize that the friends I’d casually dismissed as philistines may have been prescient in their hesitance to risk so much money banking on a peaceful transition of power.

In other words, as I scanned the proverbial poker table of potential partners for the bet, I realized that maybe “I” was the fish.

Since the assault on Congress, nearly everyone has seemed to condemn Trump — even former loyalists such as ex-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. But while House Democrats moved quickly toward quick impeachment proceedings, some senators were more cautious.

Missouri’s other senator, Roy Blunt — who had admirably stood against his home state colleague by immediately rejecting Hawley’s move to stop election certification — was more circumspect when it came to impeachment. “The president touched the hot stove on Wednesday and is unlikely to touch it again,” he predicted, sounding a tad like Maine Sen. Susan Collins after the Ukraine-related impeachment, when she insisted that “the president has learned from this case … (and) I believe he will be much more cautious in the future.”

But is that continuing to assume, much as I did, that we’re operating within the normal confines of American politics even after we’ve jumped the shark? What will come next, when hordes of people who as of this morning believe Trump will remain in office are crestfallen and angry? Will Trump retire to a leisurely life of golf at Mar-a-Lago, or will he see profit in further inciting his base?

Maybe there’s no such thing as a sure thing in American politics anymore.

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Jeff Smith
Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith is executive director of the Missouri Workforce Housing Association, which supports development of safe, affordable housing. Previously, he taught public policy at Dartmouth College and The New School, represented the city of St. Louis in the Senate, and wrote three books: Trading Places, on U.S. party alignment; Mr. Smith Goes to Prison, a memoir and argument for reform; and Ferguson in Black and White, an historical analysis of St. Louis inequality. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Washington University.