When Joe Biden beat Donald Trump to win the US presidency, I was one of tens of millions who rejoiced. Here in Brooklyn, as in many places all over America and the whole world, spontaneous parties erupted in the streets, a testament to how hated Donald was, and remains. (As the meme went: “Try to do your job in such a way that people don’t dance in the streets when you get fired.”)
But glad as I was, from the beginning I was also among those who worried that we were only entering a lull before the vile hate machine that is the modern Republican Party came roaring back on the counter.
It was not hard to predict. But it is now impossible to deny that that is precisely what is underway.
I wrote at the time that there could be no return to normalcy, but even that warning has proven a vast underestimation of the threat.
Biden has been in office just under a year. Just under a year from now, with the midterms, and the probable Republican re-taking of the House of Representatives, we may be at the end of the phase in which he has appreciable control of the governance of the United States. Matters are likely to get dramatically worse from there heading into January 2025, which may well see the reinstallation of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. That event, not coincidentally, would likely mark the effective end of representative democracy as we know it in the United States.
Alarmism, you say? I don’t think so. All around us we can see the forces of white nationalist authoritarianism engaged in a second, far more methodical, far better coordinated, and already more successful attempt to do what they failed to do on January 6, 2021. If matters continue on this path, the Biden administration will prove only a brief respite before those forces snuff out the grand American experiment and secure a permanent, countermajoritarian chokehold on the erstwhile republic. That outcome is especially likely when we observe how tepid the response of our elected Democratic leaders has been thus far as regards this threat.
I am not trying to be some Eeyore-cum-Schleprock-cum-Debbie Downer and kill everybody’s buzz. The die is not cast, but it’s damn sure being shaken and blown on, Nathan Detroit style. We should not stop fighting (NB: metaphor) against this threat, nor working with all our might on all legitimate fronts to stop it. But the chilling truth is, the defenders of American democracy—working within the political system, the confines of morality, and the realm of fealty to objective truth—are at a decided disadvantage against a foe that respects no law, no rule, no norm, no boundary at all, to include the use of lethal violence against their fellow Americans in order to seize and retain power.
Therefore it has become increasingly clear that even as we work to stop a GOP takeover, we must at the same time look ahead—”over the horizon,” in the preferred Pentagonspeak of the moment—and gird ourselves for that possibility, and begin to think about how we will resist a looming right wing autocracy, one that promises to make the first Trump administration look like a ukulele-strumming stroll through the marigolds.
IS IT “PRESHY-ENSE” OR “PRE-SCIENCE”?
The unfolding Republican threat to American democracy is two-pronged. The first is the bubbling possibility of political violence by the kind of seditionists who attacked the Capitol on January 6th (and tried to kidnap and murder Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, and staged the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville). The second is the lower-profile but equally hostile takeover of the mechanisms of government in order to control the electoral process going forward—chiefly by installing Trump loyalists in positions where they can deliver victories to Republican candidates up and down the chain, from local school boards all the way to the White House, irrespective of the actual vote.
The two aspects are twinned, of course, and mutually reinforcing.
In the new issue of The Atlantic, Barton Gellman has a provocative cover story in which he outlines the mechanics of that slow-motion coup in great detail. Titled “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun,” it is a kind of follow-up to his equally influential piece of a year ago, “The Election That Could Break America.” That story proved prescient and I’m afraid this one will too.
Gellman’s predictions ahead of Election Day were pretty good. He predicted that Trump would challenge the results (a calamity against which the US had “no fail-safe”), predicted his meritless legal challenges, and predicted the attempt to interfere with the counting of the electoral votes and the pressure that would be put on Mike Pence. He even predicted the attempts by Trump, Meadows, Eastman, et al to get state legislators to set aside the popular vote and choose a slate of electors directly.
“We are not prepared for this at all,” Julian Zelizer, a Princeton professor of history and public affairs told Gellman at the time.
Gellman was especially clairvoyant (not that it took a Kreskin) about Trump’s refusal to admit defeat, all the way to Elba-Lago:
Let us not hedge about one thing. Donald Trump may win or lose, but he will never concede. Not under any circumstance. If compelled in the end to vacate his office, Trump will insist from exile, as long as he draws breath, that the contest was rigged.
It takes nothing away from Gellman’s psychic powers to note that Trump himself told us that in advance. Over and over again in both 2016 and 2020 he refused to commit to accepting the results of any election he didn’t win. Even in an election he did win, he obsessed over losing the popular vote and claimed, “baselessly but not coincidentally, that at least 3 million undocumented immigrants had cast fraudulent votes for Hillary Clinton.” (He just happened to have lost by 2,868,692.) So we should have been prepared.
Gellman wrote: “(T)here is no version….in which Trump congratulates Biden on his victory. He has told us so. ‘The only way they can take this election away from us is if this is a rigged election,’ Trump said at the Republican National Convention on August 24.” We didn’t take him literally or seriously or whatever the hell we were supposed to do. But we should have.
Yet no one, not even Gellman, I think, fully contemplated the scope, duration, or above all the impact of that non-concession.
IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED
In the end, as we know, Trump didn’t generate enough confusion and doubt to enable him to hold onto power, though he damn sure tried. But he generated enough to create a fog of illegitimacy around his successor, and in so doing pointed the way for how the Republicans could take power back in 2024. They have been at it ever since.
Gellman argues that ”the next attempt to overthrow a national election….will rely on subversion more than violence, although each will have its place. If the plot succeeds, the ballots cast by American voters will not decide the presidency in 2024. Thousands of votes will be thrown away, or millions, to produce the required effect.”
For more than a year now, with tacit and explicit support from their party’s national leaders, state Republican operatives have been building an apparatus of election theft. Elected officials in Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and other states have studied Donald Trump’s crusade to overturn the 2020 election. They have noted the points of failure and have taken concrete steps to avoid failure next time. Some of them have rewritten statutes to seize partisan control of decisions about which ballots to count and which to discard, which results to certify and which to reject. They are driving out or stripping power from election officials who refused to go along with the plot last November, aiming to replace them with exponents of the Big Lie. They are fine-tuning a legal argument that purports to allow state legislators to override the choice of the voters.
Any Republican might benefit from these machinations, but let’s not pretend there’s any suspense. Unless biology intercedes, Donald Trump will seek and win the Republican nomination for president in 2024. The party is in his thrall. No opponent can break it and few will try. Neither will a setback outside politics—indictment, say, or a disastrous turn in business—prevent Trump from running. If anything, it will redouble his will to power.
Heather Cox Richardson writes:
Republican-dominated legislatures in 19 states have passed 33 laws to make it harder for Black and Brown Americans, as well as others expected to back Democrats, to vote. Some of those states have taken the power to certify official votes away from nonpartisan officials and given it to Republicans. Had these laws been in place in 2020, Trump would almost certainly still be in office.
Essential to this effort at all levels is the recruitment of capos willing to do the God-Emperor’s bidding.
In 2020 Gellman wrote, “If the vote is close, Donald Trump could easily throw the election into chaos and subvert the result. Who will stop him?” Turns out that’s exactly what happened, and the people who stopped him, chiefly, were a mere handful of principled, relatively low-profile Republican officials at the state and county levels. The GOP duly took note, and has methodically removed most of those officials and replaced them with fanatic Trump loyalists who are currently engaged in a frenzied competition to prove who loves the taste of Donald’s butt cheeks the most.
Affirming a widely held view, the Princeton historian Kevin Kruse told Gellman that the integrity of these Republican officials was the crucial factor in the ultimate failure of the attempted coup. “I think you replace those officials, those judges, with ones who are more willing to follow the party line,” said Kruse, “and you get a different set of outcomes.”
“Today that reads like a coup plotter’s to-do list,” Gellman writes. “Since the 2020 election, Trump’s acolytes have set about methodically identifying patches of resistance and pulling them out by the roots.” Brad Raffensperger in Georgia, Aaron Van Langevelde in Michigan, Doug Ducey in Arizona. (And these are Trump supporters…..just not supportive enough.) The Republican-controlled state legislature in Arizona has even passed a law forbidding the Democratic secretary of state from taking part in election lawsuits, as she did last year. “The legislature is also debating an extraordinary bill asserting its own prerogative, ‘by majority vote at any time before the presidential inauguration,’ to ‘revoke the secretary of state’s issuance or certification of a presidential elector’s certificate of election.’ There was no such thing under law as a method to “decertify” electors when Trump demanded it in 2020, but state Republicans think they have invented one for 2024.”
In Georgia, a new law has taken power away from the county authorities who normally manage elections and given it to “a GOP-dominated state board, beholden to the legislature, (that) may overrule and take control of voting tallies in any jurisdiction—for example, a heavily Black and Democratic one like Fulton County.” That board can also “suspend a county board if it deems the board to be ‘underperforming’ and replace it with a handpicked administrator” who will have the power to disqualify voters and declare ballots null and void.”
“Instead of complaining about balls and strikes,” Gellman writes, “Team Trump will now own the referee.”
If those people and provisions were in place in the weeks following the 2020 election, Donald Trump would still be in the White House today. The GOP is going to make damn sure they are there come ’24.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFEKT
In his new piece, Gellman writes: “January 6 was practice. Donald Trump’s GOP is much better positioned to subvert the next election.”
Donald Trump came closer than anyone thought he could to toppling a free election a year ago. He is preparing in plain view to do it again, and his position is growing stronger. Republican acolytes have identified the weak points in our electoral apparatus and are methodically exploiting them. They have set loose and now are driven by the animus of tens of millions of aggrieved Trump supporters who are prone to conspiracy thinking, embrace violence, and reject democratic defeat. Those supporters….are armed and single-minded and will know what to do the next time Trump calls upon them to act.
The midterms, marked by gerrymandering, will more than likely tighten the GOP’s grip on the legislatures in swing states. The Supreme Court may be ready to give those legislatures near-absolute control over the choice of presidential electors. And if Republicans take back the House and Senate, as oddsmakers seem to believe they will, the GOP will be firmly in charge of counting the electoral votes.
Against Biden or another Democratic nominee, Donald Trump may be capable of winning a fair election in 2024. He does not intend to take that chance.
“Electors are the currency in a presidential contest,” writes Gellman, “and, under the Constitution, state legislators control the rules for choosing them.” In 2020, Trump tried to “decertify” electors after votes had been cast—an outrageous, Hail Mary ploy, and one that failed. In 2024, Trump and the GOP intend to circumvent that problem by attacking it further upstream, before the electors are even chosen. They intend to do that by controlling how the states choose those electors, and who in the state government oversees that process.
News flash: they’ll be wearing elephant pins.
(Of course, the Republican attempt to subvert the vote goes far beyond just the presidential race, to include almost every level of elected office. Therefore the GOP has been assiduously laboring to ensure that it has ironclad control of the electoral process at every level, from local election commissioners to state legislatures to Congress and the presidency itself.)
Anticipating that this effort might well end up in the courts, “Trump’s legal team is fine-tuning a constitutional argument that is pitched to appeal to a five-justice majority if the 2024 election reaches the Supreme Court.”
This, too, exploits the GOP advantage in statehouse control. Republicans are promoting an “independent state legislature” doctrine, which holds that statehouses have “plenary,” or exclusive, control of the rules for choosing presidential electors. Taken to its logical conclusion, it could provide a legal basis for any state legislature to throw out an election result it dislikes and appoint its preferred electors instead.
Four conservative justices—Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Thomas—have already signaled support for…..an absolutist reading of legislative control over the “manner” of appointing electors under Article II of the US Constitution. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s last appointee, has never opined on the issue. The question could arise, and Barrett’s vote could become decisive, if Trump again asks a Republican-controlled legislature to set aside a Democratic victory at the polls.
It is no comfort to remember that Trump lost 64 of 65 legal challenges to the 2020 election, because Donald has upgraded his team considerably since then, the same way he “upgraded” the Supreme Court, from a reactionary point of view.
Trump is not relying on the clown-car legal team that lost nearly every court case last time. The independent-state-legislature doctrine has a Federalist Society imprimatur and attorneys from top-tier firms like BakerHostetler. A dark-money voter-suppression group that calls itself the Honest Elections Project has already featured the argument in an amicus brief.
“One of the minimal requirements for a democracy is that popular elections will determine political leadership,” Nate Persily, a Stanford Law School expert on election law, told me. “If a legislature can effectively overrule the popular vote, it turns democracy on its head.” Persily and UC Irvine’s (Richard) Hasen, among other election-law scholars, fear that the Supreme Court could take an absolutist stance that would do exactly that.
Another aspect of this insidious Republican crusade is more abstract, but possibly more important.
Though Trump no longer commands the advantages of an incumbent president, Gellman believes that “the balance of power is shifting his way in arenas that matter more,” the informational one being perhaps paramount. For essential to his scheme is a relentless propaganda effort to marshal support from the MAGA base and even casual mainstream voters—call it “consciousness-lowering”—with a bullshit Orwellian justification for what the GOP is doing.
Though his attempt to overturn the vote in 2020 failed, “the Trump team achieved something crucial and enduring by convincing tens of millions of angry supporters, including a catastrophic 68 percent of all Republicans in a November PRRI poll, that the election had been stolen.”
Nothing close to this loss of faith in democracy has happened here before. Even Confederates recognized Abraham Lincoln’s election; they tried to secede because they knew they had lost. Delegitimating Biden’s victory was a strategic win for Trump—then and now….
Trump has reconquered his party by setting its base on fire. Tens of millions of Americans perceive their world through black clouds of his smoke. His deepest source of strength is the bitter grievance of Republican voters that they lost the White House, and are losing their country, to alien forces with no legitimate claim to power.
This is not some transient or loosely committed population. Trump has built the first American mass political movement in the past century that is ready to fight by any means necessary, including bloodshed, for its cause.
As Heather Cox Richardson writes, this large majority of Republicans who believe the Big Lie gives cover to GOP officials to undermine future elections under the risible rubric of “making the vote more secure.” Indeed, it provides a mandate for even more draconian steps, if necessary. Gellman again:
Trump and his party have convinced a dauntingly large number of Americans that the essential workings of democracy are corrupt, that made-up claims of fraud are true, that only cheating can thwart their victory at the polls, that tyranny has usurped their government, and that violence is a legitimate response.
Trump’s army of the dispossessed is hearing language from Republican elected officials that validates an instinct for violence. Angry rhetoric comparing January 6 to 1776 (Representative Lauren Boebert) or vaccine requirements to the Holocaust (Kansas House Representative Brenda Landwehr) reliably produces death threats by the hundreds against perceived enemies—whether Democratic or Republican.
Rewriting the true history of January 6th is a key part of that campaign.
Gellman writes: “For a few short weeks, Republicans recoiled at the insurrection and distanced themselves from Trump. That would not last.” By this past October Trump was crowing in a statement released by his fundraising group, that “The insurrection took place on November 3, Election Day. January 6 was the Protest!”
It is difficult today to find a Republican elected official who will take issue with that proposition in public. With Trump loyalists ascendant, no room is left for dissent in a party now fully devoted to twisting the electoral system for the former president. Anyone who thinks otherwise need only glance toward Wyoming, where Liz Cheney, so recently in the party’s power elite, has been toppled from her leadership post and expelled from the state Republican Party for lèse-majesté.
Trump is successfully shaping the narrative of the insurrection in the only political ecosystem that matters to him. The immediate shock of the event, which briefly led some senior Republicans to break with him, has given way to a near-unanimous embrace. Virtually no one a year ago, certainly not I, predicted that Trump could compel the whole party’s genuflection to the Big Lie and the recasting of insurgents as martyrs.
During the (first) Trump administration, the mainstream media was constantly looking for the moment when the GOP would break with Donald…..as if the party was actively searching for a chance to do so. After January 6, I hope we have learned that such a moment is never coming, because the GOP does not want to break with Trump. Why would it, when he offers a once-in-several-generations means of inspiring fanatical support among the conservative electorate?
So if he says jump, they’ll say how high. And if he says the sky is red and 2+2=5 and hang Mike Pence, they’ll salute and say “Three bags full, sir!” to that as well.
Yet still Trump apologists scoff in condescension at the very idea that the man would ever do anything untoward, or that we should lose sleep.
I have written before—including just last week—about New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s infamous essay of October 2020, “There Will Be No Trump Coup,” which was itself a response to Gellman’s Atlantic article warning of just that. In his new piece, Gellman takes measure of Douthat’s subsequent attempts to justify his embarrassingly wrong prediction, attempts which center on the idea that Trump failed in the end.
“There are risks of foul play, (Douthat) writes, but “Trump in 2024 will have none of the presidential powers, legal and practical, that he enjoyed in 2020 but failed to use effectively in any shape or form.” Douthat argues that the odds of Trump’s overturning an election from outside the Oval Office are slim once we recall “his inability to effectively employ the powers of that office when he had them.”
Gellman makes short work of that:
That, I submit respectfully, is a profound misunderstanding of what mattered in the coup attempt a year ago. It is also a dangerous underestimate of the threat in 2024—which is larger, not smaller, than it was in 2020.
It is true that Trump tried and failed to wield his authority as commander in chief and chief law-enforcement officer on behalf of the Big Lie. But Trump did not need the instruments of office to sabotage the electoral machinery. It was citizen Trump—as litigant, as candidate, as dominant party leader, as gifted demagogue, and as commander of a vast propaganda army—who launched the insurrection and brought the peaceful transfer of power to the brink of failure.
All of these roles are still Trump’s for the taking. In nearly every battle space of the war to control the count of the next election—statehouses, state election authorities, courthouses, Congress, and the Republican Party apparatus—Trump’s position has improved since a year ago.
2024 IS COMING IN 2022
This is all plenty terrifying all on its own. But it gets worse.
Contrary to the wishful thinking of an exhausted electorate, the point of (almost) no return is not the next presidential election three years away in 2024; it is the midterms, less than a year away, in 2022.
As it stands right now, Republicans are tipped to re-take the House. If they do, they will already have their boot on the neck of democracy, making the rest of the slow-motion coup even more likely. What will that look like?
A GOP-controlled House will impeach Joe Biden. No ifs, ands, or buts. It might impeach Kamala Harris too. All of it will be on specious, frivolous grounds (trumped up, you might say) and they won’t get a conviction, but they will gum up the works, prevent the White House from doing much else, and above all tar Biden as corrupt and even criminal in the eyes of tens of millions of low-information voters.
The Biden agenda will come grinding to a halt while red America celebrates his subjection to this Inquisition. The GOP will then blame Biden and the Democrats for not getting anything done, and lots of Americans will look at the news on their TVs and smartphones and thoughtfully stroke their chins and say, “Hmmm, I agree.”
From there, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to a red wave two years later, putting the GOP back in charge of the Presidency, the Senate if they don’t already have it, a majority of statehouses and governorships, and more.
The Republicans will gin up special committees on everything they can think of, from Afghanistan to mask mandates to Biden’s dog Major, all with the aim of crawling up the lower intestines of their Democratic colleagues as they haul them before Congress HUAC-style. In the process, Republicans will also suddenly recall their ferocious belief in the sanctity of subpoenas and start throwing people in jail if they refuse to cooperate. If you liked Benghazi, you’re gonna love this.
When they manage to get control of the Senate, too, they will do infinitely worse than that, like hold open indefinitely any vacancies on the Supreme Court—for years even—until they can get a Republican back in the Oval Office (and you know which one I mean). They will propose and pass outrageous legislation, reverse attempts to arrest the pandemic, ramp up their Atwoodian war on women, make sure firearms are as readily available as chewing gum in the checkout line, and generally behave unfettered by even the shred of principle that pestered them last time.
And 30% of America will cheer.
And above all, they will change voting laws to further entrench the anti-democratic control of the electoral process that they desperately need to gain and hang onto power. Their entire reason for undermining the process in the first place is because they know that the demographic trends are against them and that they can’t win elections on a level playing field going forward.
Once they get control, therefore, they are never going to give it up, or risk having free and fair elections ever again. Indeed, we may have already seen the last one.
THERMOSTATICS FOR BEGINNERS
But maybe we can defy the pundits and the prognosticators—and the odds—and keep the GOP out of office. Right?
Two days before Gellman’s essay came out, the researcher David Atkins published a piece in Washington Monthly that was less discussed but just as seminal. In clinical, non-hyperventilating prose (readers of this blog may not be familiar with the style), Atkins elegantly laid out how “the American electorate seems to have an unalterable tendency toward thermostatic behavior,” and explained for us dummies what that means….which essentially is, the unalterable tendency to want to “throw the bums out”:
In layman’s terms, the electorate grows cranky and dissatisfied for reasons often out of government’s direct control (gas prices, a pandemic, economic fluctuations, and so on), and the party out of power gains an advantage accordingly. Voters of the dominant party become complacent even as the opposition grows angrier and more determined.
(Contrary to the hopes of some—Democrats especially—hyperpolarization has not negated this effect. Neither, apparently, has behavior so egregious that some of us thought it might doom That Other Party for good.)
Compounding the problem is what Atkins calls America’s “dangerously archaic and outdated two-party presidential system that fails to account for modern political realities.” He adds that “the mechanisms of accountability, such as impeachment and conviction, against a lawless president are nearly worthless if his own partisans refuse to take action.”
The part of Atkins’s article that falls under the rubric of “tell me something I don’t know” is this:
The Republican Party has become an antimajoritarian, antidemocracy organization driven to extreme tactics. This is mostly based out of fear of permanently losing America’s culture war. The GOP only has a few actual policy ideas beyond owning the libs and causing blue America as much pain as possible, all while giving goodies to its donors and base. And it is willing to overthrow democracy to hold on to power.
Extreme gerrymandering in statehouses and the US House of Representatives, plus disproportional representation favoring conservative rural whites in the Senate and Electoral College, is stacking the deck in favor of a radical minority—and Republicans have grown brazen about simply stealing elections for themselves even if those advantages prove insufficient.
Sadly, it’s Atkins’ view that “Democratic politicians have limited options right now regarding what to do about it,” and even changes to protect voting rights “still wouldn’t prevent Democrats from losing elections fairly and organically in the normal thermostatic way.” That is not a problem in a normal political system: it’s simply how the game is played. It becomes a real problem, however, when the opposing party is a neo-authoritarian one that has made no secret that it intends to hold onto power permanently, should it get back into the driver’s seat.
Which brings us to the really scary part:
So, the key challenge is this: Democrats would need to win every single election from here to prevent the destruction of democracy, while Republicans only need to win one. And the American system is set up so that Republicans will win sooner or later, whether fairly or by cheating. What to do?
If that is so, we’re fucked.
OK, you can start hyperventilating now.
THE MASTER’S TOOLS AND THE MASTER’S HOUSE
In summary, we are in a world of hurt. As The Atlantic’s editor Jeffrey Goldberg writes in a preface to this week’s issue, “We are close—closer than most of us ever thought possible—to losing not only our democracy, but what’s left of our shared understanding of reality.”
I myself have tried to remain hopeful, but I am increasingly resigned to the likelihood that, per Atkins, the Party of the Big Lie will eventually regain power one way or another—perhaps legitimately, through the thermostatic effect and general American dumbfuckery, perhaps through electoral suppression, chicanery, or even brute force—if not in 2024, then in 2028, or 2032, but eventually. And when they do, they will install permanent, unvarnished, right wing, white nationalist, Christian supremacist authoritarianism in America.
We will not be able to stop this eventuality from within the system, a system in which we play by the rules and they do not. We have to get ready to work outside the system. Atkins writes:
Blue America needs to start thinking about and planning for what “Break glass in case of emergency” measures look like—because it’s more likely a matter of when, not if. It not only can happen here; it probably will happen here.
In the coming months, this blog will devote more time to what we must do to prepare for the possibility of full-blown, right wing, white nationalist autocracy in America, even as we struggle to avoid that fate. More of that to come in part two of this essay next week.
In the mean time, let’s give Bart Gellman the final word:
There is a clear and present danger that American democracy will not withstand the destructive forces that are now converging upon it. Our two-party system has only one party left that is willing to lose an election. The other is willing to win at the cost of breaking things that a democracy cannot live without.
Democracies have fallen before under stresses like these, when the people who might have defended them were transfixed by disbelief. If ours is to stand, its defenders have to rouse themselves.
Photo: Trump supporters—including David Viviano, a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court (foreground, right, in Hillsdale College jacket) at a Trump campaign rally in Sterling Heights, MI in early November 2016.