The threat of civil war didn't end with the Trump presidency

The stage is being set for even more electoral turbulence

A flag.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Donald Trump's presidency was a product of the country's political polarization, but Trump himself pushed that polarization much further than it was before he took office. His actions during his final weeks in the White House — above all, his denial of his own loss in the 2020 election and his incitement of the insurrection against Congress' formal certification of electoral votes on Jan. 6 — brought the country to the brink.

But the brink of what? Most liberals and progressives assume we were facing a coup that would have kept Trump in office in defiance of both the popular and Electoral College vote. That would have overturned American democracy in favor of a form of authoritarianism.

But that wouldn't have been the end of the story. It would have been the beginning — the start of a series of events that culminated in something that looks much more like a second American civil war. That is the ominous possibility that we need to keep in mind as we advance toward turbulent elections of the future.

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The chilling events of Jan. 6 were made possible by profoundly deep differences between Democrats and Republicans — not over policy or morals, but over reality itself. That was Trump's decisive contribution to our civic breakdown. On top of the substantive partisan disagreements that have piled up over the decades, Trump built on and radicalized the polemical style of right-wing media, combining it with the lies and intentional distortions of a well-practiced conman who considers it unacceptable ever to concede a loss. Long-standing, low-grade paranoia on the right about voter fraud now became an outright conspiracy theory denying that any result other than a victory for Trump could be considered legitimate.

That got us to the insurrection on Capitol Hill. But the events that followed — dozens of Republicans voting against certification of state electoral votes, Trump's continued denial of his own loss, the bulk of his party in Congress punishing the few daring to call out the former president's Big Lie, polls indicating that the Republican base continues to believe in it, and state election officials who certified Biden's victory being replaced by Trump loyalists — show that the story isn't over. A significant chunk of the American electorate now resides in an alternative universe of facts about the nation's elections while continuing to share the same political space with the rest of the country.

What might that entail four and eight years from now?

The troubling truth is that precisely how events unfold will be a function not just of the margins between the candidates and which party controls Congress and the legislatures and governorships within the closest states, but also of which party holds the White House at the time.

Let's assume for the sake of a thought experiment that the 2024 election pits Joe Biden against Trump or a Trumpist Republican, that Biden prevails in the popular vote by a healthy margin, that the Electoral College is decided by three states controlled by Republican officials where Biden prevailed by just a couple of percentage points, and that the GOP controls a majority of the state delegations to the House of Representatives. In this scenario, the three key state legislatures, citing unsubstantiated stories of election fraud, refuse to certify the official slate of Democratic electors and appoint an alternative slate ready to vote for the Republican candidate.

This would throw the Electoral College into chaos, requiring the House to assume responsibility for the final outcome. Republicans are favored to take control of the House in 2022, but already they control a majority of the state delegations. That will very likely still be true on Jan. 6, 2025. Which means that they could declare the Republican the victor even if Biden wins the popular vote and the Electoral College — though they would of course claim to be acting on the conviction that in reality Biden lost the key states and so also fell short of the required electoral votes.

What would happen then? As the incumbent who actually won the election and already holds the powers of the presidency, Biden would be in a strong position to appeal to a majority of the population to support his efforts to remain in office, as well as to the leadership of key institutions, including the military, police, executive branch departments and agencies, and big business. But this doesn't mean that sentiment within these institutions would be unanimous. A sizable minority of the population as well as elements within these institutions might break from the president and support his Republican rival instead. How far would that opposition go? Would the bulk of the population relent and accept Biden's victory, leaving dissenters vastly outnumbered? Or would it be a closer call, with the minority feeling emboldened in its rejection of the president and his purported victory?

That would be the most precarious moment for American democracy since the election of 1860. But it's nothing compared to what could happen four years later, in the aftermath of the 2028 election.

If we assume Biden prevails in 2024 by a wide-enough margin that the country avoids the kind of scenario laid out above and then remains president until the end of his second term, we would be facing an election with no incumbent president able to use the momentum of his already established powers to steady the body politic. That could produce a situation in which a still-narrowly divided country finds it impossible to reach consensus on which of the two candidates is the rightful and legitimate victor of the contest to succeed Biden. Congress, state governments, the military, the police, business leaders, the media — all of them could be deeply and sharply split over which side to support.

That's the direction in which we seem to be headed. Not toward the imposition of dictatorial rule, but toward something like its opposite — a cascading breakdown of authority as the country and its citizens, already residing in wholly different realities, break apart into rival camps and find themselves incapable of reaching even the most minimal agreement required for functional and stable government and the maintenance of rudimentary public order.

When a nation gets to that point, it has already slipped beyond the bounds of normal politics into the twilight world of outright dysfunction and the settling of disputes by violence instead of ballots. We can't know if this will be our fate. What we can know is that the potential is there, lurking in the shadows of our civic life and haunting the national elections that await us.

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