If Trump runs again, he’s got good odds of beating a deeply unpopular incumbent who won in 2020 by .02 percent of the vote. So what happens if Trump takes office in 2025? If you’re a Dem in Congress, are you in physical danger? Do you work with him? Do you flee the country?
There’s lots of “democracy will collapse” talk about this scenario, and it seems to be basically correct, but no one really talks about what that collapse would look like specifically, even as we sale [sic] past off-ramps and towards that scenario becoming an actuality.
If Trump runs and wins again, are we just going to pretend that all that uncomfortable coup stuff didn’t happen? Will Congress debate his policy proposals? Will he give State of the Unions? Will some anchor inevitably say “Today is the day Donald Trump finally became president?”
In a second term, would Trump even bother with appointments, or will he revert to his habit of recess-appointing everyone so he can shuffle corrupt toadies around at will? Presumably, there won’t be “adults in the room” this time – it’ll be all the worst people right at the start
Is anyone thinking about this stuff at all? Because right now, it feels eerily like 2015 all over again, with everyone sort of gawking and laughing – “Can you imagine??” – as if this clearly plausible scenario is impossible and therefore needn’t be guarded against
Writing about the future of American democracy has become tougher, at least for me, as it becomes increasingly likely that American democracy has no future. There are several interlocking crises, each of which might be manageable on its own, but, when combined together, form an almost intractable situation.
The first is Trump. It seems hard to fathom that a person who tried to have his Vice President killed for failing to unlawfully rig the election in his favor is currently the odds-on favorite to be president in 2024, but here we are. Trump poses several threats to American democracy. The most dangerous is that, quite obviously, he does not believe in elections. It is not an exaggeration to say that we might never have another fair election in this country if he wins in 2024. This could happen in a number of ways. He could install as Vice President someone far more pliant; someone who would do what Mike Pence would not. (”Presumably, there won’t be “adults in the room” this time – it’ll be all the worst people right at the start.”) He and his colleagues on the Supreme Court could embrace the Independent State Legislature Theory, in which the results of votes in battleground states, such as Wisconsin, could be overturned by their Republican-controlled state legislatures. (As the linked article explains, the “embryo” for this theory was fertilized by William Rehnquist, one of the “reasonable” Republican Supreme Court justices.) Trump could rig the vote counts in swing states, as he tried to get Brad Raffensperger to do in Georgia, or as the “Cyber Ninjas” attempted in my home state. (One of the January 6 revelations was that Trump proposed using the military to seize voting machines, although he never ultimately issued that order.) Or he could dispense with the idea of elections entirely, echoing what happened in the Republican Party primaries in 2020. (”It would be malpractice on my part to waste money on a caucus to come to the inevitable conclusion that President Trump will be getting all our delegates in Charlotte,” said one state party chair.) In the most prescient piece published during the 2020 election cycle, Barton Gellman wrote in The Atlantic that this election could be the one that “break[s] America”. He identified a number of scenarios I haven’t even covered, including the obvious one of Trump refusing to concede an election that doesn’t go his way and remaining in office despite the nominal outcome. I found this paragraph striking:
Conventional commentary has trouble facing this issue squarely. Journalists and opinion makers feel obliged to add disclaimers when asking “what if” Trump loses and refuses to concede. “The scenarios all seem far-fetched,” Politico wrote, quoting a source who compared them to science fiction. Former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade, writing in The Atlantic in February, could not bring herself to treat the risk as real: “That a president would defy the results of an election has long been unthinkable; it is now, if not an actual possibility, at the very least something Trump’s supporters joke about.”
(If few figures in the media write about the end of American democracy, it is for this precise reason. They treat it as almost “unthinkable”, and therefore have “trouble facing [it] squarely”.)
Even setting aside elections, a Trump victory would renew the hollowing out of American government, the replacing of public servants with Republican cronies, the stocking of the judiciary with Federalist Society hacks, the emboldening of right-wing paramilitary groups and vigilantes (such as the “very fine people” in Charlottesville). A crisis of government is not simply a crisis of elections: it also matters what that government does, and who it is for. We cannot expect a Trump-run government to administer the laws fairly, to represent all of its citizens, and to function properly for anyone but the white, rich, and Republican. (To be fair, these notions barely exist now, and never have truly existed in American history, but, under Trump and his successors, they will not even be aspirational.)
All the while there will be an undercurrent of fear and terror created by right-wing nuts who have virtually unfettered access to guns, and who, naturally, will be encouraged by the Republican Party. (State and non-state actors work in lockstep; paramilitaries are able to reach where the state cannot.)
Yet it is also difficult to imagine a non-Trump Republican president behaving very differently. Whether this is a “Trump takeover” of the Republican Party or something else is purely a matter of semantics. The crucial point is that the Republican Party shares Trump’s dismal view of elections, good governance, and the popular will, and so it is almost irrelevant who the next Republican president actually is. Each of the criticisms I put forth against Trump would apply equally well to DeSantis or Cruz. The odds of avoiding Trump in 2024 are low, but not impossibly so. The odds of avoiding a Republican presidency before the Republican Party “rediscovers moderation” are almost nil.
The Supreme Court represents a separate set of problems. What is often unremarked is that the Supreme Court has become almost hereditary. Each justice picks his or her successor. Kennedy, infamously, picked Kavanaugh. Breyer retired to allow Biden to pick his successor. In fact, with the exception of Scalia and Ginsburg, every liberal in the last 30 years has retired under a Democratic president, and every conservative has retired under a Republican president. So, for the Democrats to reclaim the Supreme Court, it is not simply a matter of “winning” elections. You have to win election after election after election, long enough to outwait the bastards — who only need one break in continuous rule to reset you back to the beginning. Otherwise, you must pin your hopes on an accidental death, like Scalia’s in 2016. (And, even if you have the presidency, you must also have the Senate, or risk being given the Merrick Garland treatment by McConnell.) The odds of pulling off this streak of success are, too, infinitesimal.
As the court becomes more radical, and more emboldened by the lack of public backlash to its radicalism, it works with other parts of the Republican party to further cripple democracy. Vicious cycles abound. The Supreme Court handed an election, unjustly, to a Republican and that Republican nominated two more Republican justices. A Republican court removed the last barriers preventing Republican millionaires from flooding elections with money — money that allows Republicans to win elections and nominate more Republican judges. Republican legislators draw rigged district lines and become immune to swings in popular opinion; the Court endorses this behavior; and these same legislatures might, under the Independent State Legislature Theory, pick the president who further stacks the courts. It is a perfectly interlocking circle of bullshit. I remember talking to one of my libertarian friends about how gerrymandering was unfair, and he shrugged, saying, “It’s the game, isn’t it?” But if there are no limits to gamesmanship, then what’s the point of playing?
Both the electoral college and the Senate are horribly skewed and give rural (read: Republican) voters more voice than urban or suburban ones. Nate Silver showed that, after analyzing the 2016 and 2020 results, the “tipping point” in the Senate is in a state roughly 7% skewed towards Republicans. Silver and Matthew Yglesias, another political “wonk”, have discussed how Democrats’ only recourse might be to add small states of their own. But here the vicious cycle flips on itself. Yglesias writes, “creating new states would require Democrats to win a Senate majority first”. And, as the last 2 years have demonstrated, it is even worse than that: this anticipated majority would have to be of sufficient size not to be derailed by liars and morons like Joe Manchin. The situation with the electoral college is slightly better, but still dismal: David Shor points out that Democrats would have to win the popular vote by roughly 4 percentage points to guarantee an electoral victory. These disparities — between the popular will and how it is represented — are expected only to grow as out-migration from rural states continues. Philip Bump writes, “In 2016, the five largest states are home to 37.2 percent of the population; by 2040, those five most populous states will be home to 39.6 percent of the population.” Recall that these 5 states are allocated only 10 senators, or 20% of a Senate majority.
It was hinted at already, but perhaps the most dire threat to American democracy is at the state level, not the national one. In Wisconsin, in 2018, Republican state legislators won 45% of the vote and 64% of seats. In Ohio, 52% and 62%. In Pennsylvania, 44% and 54%. (Somewhat surprisingly, the figures are slightly closer in Southern red states like North Carolina, Texas, and Florida, although I expect that to change if Republican majorities are ever imperiled.) Republican state legislatures have made themselves almost immune to vote swings within the expected range. Perhaps the most remarkable statistic about that 2018 Wisconsin election is that, even as the vote share swung by 7%, the Republicans lost only one seat out of 99.
State legislators, uniquely, occupy the only elected office that sets the terms of its own election. Once they entrench themselves in power, it becomes exceedingly difficult to undo. (”Based on the 2018 results, the tipping point district was District 29, which the Republicans won by a margin of 12.12%, therefore Democrats would have needed to win the statewide popular vote by a margin of 20.36% to win a majority of seats.”). Losing electorally despite winning popularly has the corrosive effect of undermining public faith, both in the Democratic Party as well as elections in general. A rational person might ask why they should vote for Democrats, or at all, if nothing ever seems to change.
Let me be plain: there are two highly plausible paths for American democracy, and both are extremely bleak. The first is that elections continue, but the playing field is so tilted that Republicans can convert popular minorities into governing majorities, using voter suppression, gerrymandering, skews in the electoral college and Senate, advantages in money and media, and, all else failing, the Supreme Court to overturn any liberal legislation that might eke through. (Note: the GOP is not condemned to being a popular minority, of course. Biden is horrendously unpopular, and it might be impossible for a Democratic president to manage the economy with the tools at his or her disposal — more on this in a follow-up post. This makes any Democratic electoral breakthroughs fleeting, if they do indeed occur.)
The second is that Gellman’s prophecy comes true, and elections are dispensed with entirely. In this scenario, America finally does break, forever. Trump seems the most likely catalyst, but he need not be the only one. The Constitution, that holy document, is weak enough to make this scenario like a ticking time bomb. There will surely be another Republican candidate for president with an even dimmer view of checks and balances and norms. In fact, we might get that person as early as 2024!
I admit this might be foolish, but I almost prefer the latter ruin to the former? The bang instead of the whimper? At the very least I wouldn’t have to continue to read about how we keep losing elections because we use more than two pronouns, or criticize the police, or aren’t nice enough to white men, or have too many college educated, “out of touch” voters, or aren’t “popularist” enough, while, at the same time, nothing the other side does or says seems to matter (including, by the way, preventing a child rape victim from getting an abortion and then smearing her and her doctor after the fact). It might be time to give up on the pretense that we have real democracy and contemplate what comes after electoral politics have failed. To return to Will Stancil’s question at the outset: “Is anyone thinking about this stuff at all?” Because we should be.