Trump 2024 could be American democracy's zero hour

Get ready for a full-blown legitimacy crisis

Donald Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Making predictions about the political future is a fool's game. Pundits do it a lot because it's fun and easy, and because there are effectively no professional consequences for getting things wrong.

But thinking about how events might unfold need not be entirely frivolous — provided that pundits are honest and up-front about the assumptions and conditionals underlying predictions. If X happens, then Y will take place; and if Y happens, then A, B, or C could transpire — with A being benign, B being worrisome, and C being catastrophic. This kind of analysis can be fruitful in clarifying the various paths and range of possibilities that lie before us, even when things don't play out exactly as the pundit foresaw.

In that spirit, I'd like to venture a conditional prediction: If Donald Trump runs for president again in 2024, the United States could find itself in a politically perilous situation by mid-November that year.

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If Joe Biden (or, in the event that he doesn't run, Kamala Harris or another Democrat) wins decisively, by wide margins in multiple states, we will probably be fine. Meanwhile, if Trump prevails comfortably, American democracy will go on well enough, despite the turbulence of a second Trump administration.

But if the outcome of the vote in November 2024 is close enough that Trump can launch another "stop the steal" operation in numerous swing states, things are going to get ugly fast. In that case, American democracy itself could be facing its zero hour.

Let's begin at the beginning: Is Trump going to run again? No one can know for sure, but it's looking likely. For one thing, because he's nursing grudges and he wants revenge. For another, because he's under legal threat from various investigations, and if he were to win, he would likely be immunized from punishment until he left office. Then there is his insatiable craving for attention. He received inhuman amounts of it while living in the White House, which means he's been enduring painful withdrawal ever since. In this respect, the continued social media ban on Trump could be increasing the likelihood that he'll run again, since he's incapable of hogging the spotlight in any other way.

But won't Trump have to compete against other Republicans for the GOP nomination? Not really. In addition to him holding commanding leads over potential rivals in every survey of Republican voters, there is the unreality of all such polls. It might be interesting to see that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis polls best against Trump in a large field. But would DeSantis actually run against Trump in the primaries? Make a compelling case about why voters should prefer him over Trump? I find that hard to imagine, since it would be guaranteed to provoke a furious salvo of attacks from Trump in defense of himself, which would diminish any rival in the eyes of most Republican voters. It's a no-win scenario. (Which is why the only Republicans who might seek to challenge Trump are those, like Utah Sen. Mitt Romney or Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who have no chance at all of winning the nomination and would be running kamikaze campaigns designed to take Trump down a peg in the general election.)

So Trump is quite likely to run — and quite likely to win the Republican nomination if he does. What happens then?

One possibility is that the Democrat wins the general election decisively — so decisively that most of the Republicans in Congress and in red state legislatures currently indulging in absurd conspiracies about the stolen election of 2020 and the insurrectionary violence of Jan. 6 are unwilling to go along with an effort to overturn the results. This would mean Biden, Harris, or whichever Democrat ends up running would have to win swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia by a couple of percentage points. (The national popular-vote margin will be irrelevant.) In such a situation, the procedures of democratic transition would probably unfold without major incident, no matter how much of a stink Trump tried to make.

Then there's the (unlikely) possibility of Trump solidly defeating his general election opponent. This is improbable because Trump has never won more than 46.9 percent of the vote, and his refusal to accept the results of the last election and incitement of his supporters on Jan. 6 alienated some Republicans and a good number of independents. Trump may be able to win the GOP primaries in a walk, but bettering his 2020 showing in the general election of 2024 will be quite difficult. That is, unless some other event or series of them intervene to severely discredit the Democrats. Like what? Think runaway inflation or other evidence of a sharp economic downturn, continued growth in violent crime, and/or the outbreak of war with China over an attempted invasion of Taiwan.

Any of those eventualities, or others we can't currently imagine, could propel Trump to a clear victory. Progressives and some liberals would throw a fit and remain furious for the next four years, but the institutions of American democracy would continue to function, even as they ended up tested in new ways by another four years of Trumpian corruption, ineptitude, and rhetorical attacks on half the country.

The real danger would arise in a situation where Trump lost by a narrow margin, setting up a redo of the post-2020 election effort to "stop the steal" — especially if the GOP has taken control of both houses of Congress (as seems likely) in the intervening 2022 midterm election. One possibility is that the Democrat prevails by winning a small number of states that are controlled by Republican legislatures and those elected officials reject the results, pronouncing Trump the winner instead. This would then be followed by a Republican-controlled Congress certifying those results on Jan. 6, 2024. That's the scenario that many Democrats already worry quite a lot about.

But another series of events could be more likely.

Imagine that things are much less clear-cut than an outright steal by the Republicans. Imagine, instead, that Trump goads some legislatures to try for a steal, but others balk, prompting armed protests at state capitals. Conservative media outlets also fracture, with some opposing Trump's moves but others cheering them on as the only thing standing in the way of the progressive imposition of a "theocratic oligarchy."

Many Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, think Trump is full of it, but they've gone so far in endorsing his lies about election fraud going back to 2020, and in whipping up hysteria about the existential threat posed by the left, that they feel boxed in. The growing protests in Washington and around the country, organized by the militia movement, scare them. But so do the protests encouraged by the left in cities across the nation. Trump would be insisting that any outcome that doesn't deliver the White House to him should be considered illegitimate, while Democrats claim the same thing about any outcome that doesn't keep the White House in their hands.

In such a situation, we could end up with more than one slate of electors, with none of them adding up to 270. More than a constitutional crisis, this would be a legitimacy crisis that would raise the very serious prospect of full-blown democratic procedural breakdown, with no person or institution possessing the requisite authority and trust to swoop in and settle the burgeoning dispute.

How likely is it that this exact series of events unfolds in precisely this way? Not very. Contingencies we can't imagine today will undoubtedly intervene and quite possibly send events down a path we can't yet anticipate. Or else one of the less dangerous options sketched above will transpire.

But the very fact that Trump running again for the presidency could set in motion a series of events that brings American democracy to the brink is something that everyone should be pondering and preparing for as we approach our country's next civic reckoning.

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