If Trump wins re-election while losing by 5 million votes
There are two possible authoritarian futures looming over the United States.
In one scenario, President Trump wins re-election in 2020 with solid majority support and uses his mandate to crush the opposition, making good on his threats against the media, erasing millions of Democrats from voter rolls, rounding up and deporting millions of undocumented immigrants, and seizing control of the intelligence services in order to purge them of anyone deemed insufficiently pro-Trump. This would be an American version of what we've seen in Russia under Vladimir Putin, in Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and in Hungary under Viktor Orbán.
Although something like this nightmarish state of affairs haunts the minds of many on the left, it isn't going to happen.
But another scenario might.
In this alternative timeline, which The New York Times foreshadowed on Monday in an ominous analysis of recent polling data, the 2020 election unfolds differently. Trump wins but without a mandate. On the contrary, he earns something like an anti-mandate. George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000 while losing the popular vote by 550,000. Trump himself won in 2016 while falling short in the popular vote by 2.9 million. In 2020, Trump could prevail again, only this time while losing by as many as five million votes.
How could it happen? Trump remains quite competitive in the states that put him over the top in the Electoral College last time — Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Those are states he would likely carry, as he did last time, by a relatively narrow margin. Meanwhile, Trump's extreme and intense unpopularity among Democrats points to a 2020 vote in which the margin of his loss in "blue" states could be enormous. Instead of winning an anemic 31.6 percent of the vote in California, as he did in 2016, Trump might realistically pull in just 25 percent in 2020. If something similar happens in Oregon, Washington state, Illinois, New York, and throughout New England — in other words, if the country's bluest states become even bluer in 2020 than they were in 2016 — then the Democrat's popular vote win could climb quite a bit higher than it was then, with Trump still managing to win the presidency in the Electoral College.
That's when things could really go off the rails.
Democrats would be faced with a truly alarming situation. The president they loathe would be deeply unpopular on a national basis, as he has been for the entirety of his first term. They themselves would know they are favored by millions more voters than he is. And yet they would nonetheless be frozen out of the presidency. Again — for the third time in six presidential elections, and with the gap between the popular vote and Electoral College outcome growing each time.
And it's not just the presidency. Democrats face considerable obstacles to winning majority control of the Senate, too. Those who say they would have better luck with more centrist candidates have a point, but that wouldn't necessarily solve the party's problems. The Democratic Party is big and diverse along ideological and demographic dimensions, and its voters are very inefficiently distributed around the country. Add it all up and we're left with a party forced to do multiple contradictory things at once — win back centrist white voters who switched from Obama to Trump between 2012 and 2016, and excite minority voters who showed up in large numbers for Obama in 2008 and 2012 but stayed home in 2016, and keep the suburban Romney voters who flipped to the Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections.
That's a very tall, and maybe an impossible, order. But if it is, that means Democrats, despite their significantly greater popular support in the country at large, are likely to be denied control of the presidency as well as the Senate for some time to come. And because those branches of government play a decisive role in making lifetime appointments to the judiciary, Democrats could well end up thwarted across almost the entirety of the federal government (with only the lower house of Congress realistically winnable).
In that case, the will of the majority would not so much be checked, as the Constitution intends, as completely blocked on nearly all fronts — very much including those fronts that enable unpopular institutions (like the Electoral College) to be reformed. Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents would find themselves trapped in a system in which they possess almost no institutionally legitimate means to reach and exercise meaningful political power.
That's an untenable situation. There is no democracy in the world that would remain politically stable under such circumstances. It's one thing for Orban's Fidesz Party or the Law and Justice party in Poland to govern in a quasi-authoritarian manner after receiving a solid plurality or majority support in an election. Yes, those elections are often far from perfectly free and fair. With each one, the party in power has additional means of rigging the vote in its own favor. Yet the outcome nevertheless bestows a modicum of legitimacy on the government's rule.
But that wouldn't be the situation in the United States. Democrats and their allies would be perfectly justified in taking to the streets in outraged protest, and they would almost certainly do so — in numbers that would rival or surpass what we've seen in recent weeks in Chile. More radical factions, including troublemaking Antifa activists, would do their best to spark violence, with the president egging them on with taunts on Twitter, and in speeches at rallies and at official events.
With protests growing in size and unrest increasing, municipalities would send in the police, just as Trump would eventually deploy the national guard, to restore order using force. Which would only intensify the indignation fueling the protests, leading the cycle to continue and escalate.
That is how authoritarianism is most likely to come to the United States: through the dialectical interplay between the expression of legitimate anger at America's institutions for failing to adequately reflect majority public opinion and the government's need to uphold law and order.
Maybe it won't happen. Maybe Trump will be impeached and removed from office. Maybe he'll survive impeachment but go into the general election so hobbled that Republican voters stay home on Election Day 2020, preventing him from carrying the states he needs to win. Maybe the Democrats will nominate a candidate who appeals to voters in ways that confound the most pessimistic predictions, propelling him or her to a solid win in the Electoral College.
The future isn't written. Any one of those scenarios, or some mixture of them, could happen, sparing us from having to endure a far darker political possibility. But that doesn't mean we should turn away from that darkness or deny the many factors that could well lead it to envelope us.
This is now our American reality.