It's finally Election Day. It's possible for either candidate to win, of course, but Joe Biden has been firmly ahead in the polls, and Donald Trump is not behaving like someone who expects to win fairly. Instead he is celebrating his thug supporters attempting to drive a Biden campaign bus off the road with a caravan of trucks, and promising that the moment Election Day is over, he will send in his lawyers to try to halt the counting of votes.

In this he has the lockstep support of virtually his entire party. State party leaders have worked hard to halt or slow advance counting of early ballots, so Trump can have an illusory lead on Election Day in key swing states. His administration has deliberately fouled up the Post Office to interfere with mail-in voting. His loyal toadies tried to throw out 127,000 mostly-Democratic ballots in Texas, though a federal judge ruled against them Monday. In other states, GOP-appointed judges look set to prevent potentially decisive numbers of legal votes from being counted.

In short, Trump is trying to steal the election, more blatantly than any previous president, and providing a clear preview of how Republicans would move to further erode democracy if given another four years in power. It's an unusually clear and stark choice this election: a continuation of America's republican institutions, or its probable replacement with a tyranny.

The meaning of republic, much like similarly-broad terms liberty, democracy, or socialism, is contested. But bracketing quite a lot of political theory, it's fair to say that a republic is a political entity in which government is the business of the public. The word comes from the Latin words res publica, which translates as "public thing." A republic is thus often contrasted with an absolutist monarchy in which the government is the private property of a hereditary ruler, as Machiavelli did in his Discourses on Livy. When French revolutionaries overthrew King Louis XVI in 1792, for example, they proclaimed a republic.

It follows that there can be many varieties of republic. The Roman Republic, for instance, was not particularly democratic. It had popular assemblies and elections for the highest offices, but in practice the oligarchic Roman Senate, composed entirely of the rich, had the bulk of the power. Elections were also routinely marred by overt intimidation and violence. But so long as the republic lasted, there was real competition for political power, carried out (mostly) through the legible rules of a constitutional system — as opposed to the later Roman Empire, in which a single person held all power so long as he lived, and political disputes were typically resolved by open military conflict.

The American Constitution was written by men who romanticized the janky Roman Republic to a preposterous degree, which accounts for many of its anti-majoritarian structures. Still, even at the time there was a broad understanding that in a republic, the majority opinion should predominate in general. In Federalist #10, James Madison wrote that in case of a minority faction trying to oppress the majority, "relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote." In his first inaugural address, President Thomas Jefferson advocated an "absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics."

As republican practices and thinking have evolved over the centuries, it has become more and more strictly accepted that the voice of all ordinary citizens should predominate in a republic, without any kind of structural barriers aside from protections for civil liberties (freedom of speech, habeas corpus, trial by jury, and so on). It once was the case that only land-owning men could vote in most republics, but property and gender qualifications to the franchise have been gradually removed. Upper houses dominated by aristocrats have largely been abolished or neutered. Virtually the only kind of republic today, excepting dictatorships that ineptly hide behind the phrase, is the representative-democratic variety. Republics like Finland, South Korea, or South Africa have slight variations in their electoral systems, but they all have competitive elections in which the party that wins a majority of votes gets to run the government. That is how government is a "public thing" today.

The last 160 years of United States history has seen a lot of advance and retreat of republicanism. At the start, of course, there was chattel slavery — as gross a violation of the idea as it is possible to imagine. The Civil War and Reconstruction saw a sweeping mass enfranchisement of former slaves in the South, but were followed quickly by a violently racist one-party tyranny in the region that lasted for 90 years. In general, at no point have American electoral systems, with their onerous ballot qualifications for third parties, obnoxious voter registration requirements, and malfunctioning administration, lived up to serious republican standards.That said, for all its faults the national American government has always had some republican character, even at its worst points. National elections have always been at least somewhat competitive in most of the country. Senators were directly elected starting in 1917. Most American women did get the vote in 1920. Jim Crow apartheid was overthrown after 1965. Even crummy election administration has been dramatically improved in many states over the last decade, with automatic voter registration and other reforms.

Moreover, despite the president still being elected through the indefensible Electoral College, and the ridiculously unrepresentative Senate, republican principles are still the foundation of the American state's legitimacy. It's supposed to be "government of the people, by the people, for the people," not one-party rule by cheating liars who steal elections and loot the taxpayer. Even conservatives tacitly admit this by never stating outright that they simply want to stop their political opponents from voting. Instead they come up with pretexts. For instance, conservatives have lately argued it's an infringement of state sovereignty to force former Jim Crow states to not disenfranchise Black people (which has allowed them to once again disenfranchise Black people en masse), or alternatively that state courts shouldn't be allowed to interpret their own state constitutions (if and only if doing so provides partisan advantage to the GOP).

Trump's last-minute flailing in the final days of this election, as he admits to his own aides that he faces possible bankruptcy and prosecution, makes clear that he doesn't think he will receive a majority of votes. But if he can successfully reinstall himself in power through a judicial coup, and get another four years of collecting bribes and looting the state, I would guess that will be the last fair election America could see for decades. The general formula is already shaping up: stack the game in your favor with partisan redistricting and interfering with the census; prevent liberals from voting to the greatest possible extent, using violence if necessary; then use an increasingly partisan judiciary to throw out their ballots or stop them from being counted; then declare oneself the representative of the nation. Taken far enough, it will be impossible for Republicans to lose. Jim Crow tyranny was built on a facade of supposedly-neutral institutions in much the same way.

Now, even if Joe Biden wins the presidency and the Democrats take Congress, the U.S. will still need fundamental reform to its political system — with a guaranteed right to vote, statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico, a total overhaul of the rigged federal courts, a national popular vote for president, a ban on gerrymandering, and so on — and fundamental reform to its economy. It remains to be seen whether the hapless Democrats will have the vision, courage, or even desire to do any of that. But it is at least possible to imagine bullying them into it, and they do not propose to entrench themselves in power permanently. The American people might make their voice heard in future elections, and have a chance to bring our wretched national institutions up to a modern standard of decency.

Another four years of Trump, and it won't matter what we think.