Are We Destined for a Trump Coup in 2024?
Some alarm is understandable. The progressive sense of certain doom is not.,
I wrote my weekend column about three ways that Donald Trump might be prevented from plunging the country into crisis in 2024, should he reproduce both his 2020 defeat and his quest to overturn the outcome: first, through the dramatic electoral overhauls favored by progressives; second, through a Bidenist politics of normalcy that prevents the G.O.P. from capturing the House or Senate; or third, through the actions of Republican officials who keep their heads down and don’t break with Trump but, as in 2020, refuse to go along if he turns another loss into an attempted putsch.
Because the big electoral overhauls aren’t happening, I noted, the progressive attitude risks becoming a counsel of despair. But that note didn’t adequately convey just how despairing a lot of progressives have become, treating the hypothetical where Trump (or, for that matter, some other Republican nominee) actually succeeds in overturning an election defeat not just as a possibility but as a likely outcome in 2024, the destination to which we’re probably headed absent some unexpected change.
“This is where it’s going,” the press critic Jay Rosen of New York University tweeted recently, about a scenario in which state legislatures, the House and the Senate would simply hand the presidency to the G.O.P. nominee, “and there is presently nothing on the horizon that would stop it.” In response to my column, the Nation columnist and Substacker Jeet Heer suggested that none of the three approaches to forestalling a crisis seem plausible. “In sum, we can all see the disaster that is coming,” he wrote. “But there is no clear way to stop it.”
This pessimism is, in a way, an extension of the arguments that went on throughout the Trump presidency, about how great a threat to democracy his authoritarian posturing really posed. As a voice on the less-alarmist side, I don’t think I was wrong about the practical limits on Trump’s power seeking: For all his postelection madness, he never came close to getting the institutional support, from the courts or Republican governors or, for that matter, Mitch McConnell, that he would have needed to even begin a process that could have overturned the result. Jan. 6 was a travesty and tragedy, but its deadly futility illustrated Trumpian weakness more than illiberal strength.
With that said, though, it’s easy for me to see why the alarmists felt vindicated — given the violence itself, the absurd lengths to which Trump’s fantasies extended and the scale and seriousness of ordinary-Republican belief in his narrative of fraud. And since Trump really is likely to be the Republican nominee in the next election, it’s worth taking alarmist scenarios seriously, in case next time turns out worse.
But taking them seriously doesn’t mean treating them as some kind of certain doom. Right now, alarmed progressives see preparations for a Republican coup in 2024 everywhere they look: in the jettisoning of Liz Cheney from House leadership, in the refusal of Senate Republicans to go along with the Jan. 6 probe, in provisions tucked into the voting regulations being passed in states like Georgia and Texas that they fear set up postelection power grabs, in exercises like the election audit in Arizona that both reflect and feed paranoia on the right.
What I see, by contrast, is much more in continuity with the pre-Jan. 6 dynamic in Republican politics. The Republican leadership is still doing what it did throughout Trump’s presidency, trying to talk about anything other than his sins, excesses and potential crimes. That desire to change the subject is why Cheney lost her job and why the Jan. 6 commission lost its vote; it’s also why Trump survived his impeachment in 2019 and countless lesser scandals throughout his four years. But in 2020, the Republican desire to change the subject did not translate into a willingness to foment a constitutional crisis to steal an election from Joe Biden. So why assume that this willingness will suddenly materialize in 2024?
Well, because things are different now, some progressives say, because Republicans have tacitly committed themselves to the illegitimacy of Biden’s presidency and the party’s base is primed to demand in 2024 what Brad Raffensperger and state legislative leaders and courts declined to deliver in 2020.
Well, maybe. But I would note that for now the party’s base isn’t even demanding the scale of capital-R Resistance that Democrats offered to Trump in 2017 — the judicial injunctions and confirmation wars, the atmosphere of constant panic. Far from an illegitimate infamy, conservatives seem to regard the Biden presidency mostly as a snooze, preferring to focus their anxiety on Silicon Valley or academia instead. Which is why congressional Republicans have mostly felt comfortable treating Biden’s cabinet nominations normally, engaging in extended negotiations over infrastructure spending, working across the aisle on a big science-funding bill and generally restoring not a golden age of bipartisanship but at least the status quo of the late Obama era.
Meanwhile, at the state level, the Republican-backed bills that purport to fight voter fraud are obviously partially sops to conservative paranoia — but as such, they’re designed to head off cries of fraud, claims of ballots shipped in from China or conjured up in Italy. That sort of heading-off strategy may fail, of course, but for now, exercises like the Arizona audit have mostly divided grass-roots conservatives against one another rather than set up some sort of Tea Party wave that would sweep out all the quisling legislators who failed to #StopTheSteal in 2020.
That kind of wave is what anyone worried about a crisis in 2024 should be looking out for today. Undoubtedly a lot of Republican primary candidates will run on Trump-was-robbed themes in the next election cycle; undoubtedly a few more Marjorie Taylor Greene-ish and Matt Gaetzian figures will rise in 2022. But the key question is whether Trump and his allies will be able to consistently punish, not just a lightning rod like Raffensperger or the scattering of House Republicans who voted for impeachment, but the much larger number of G.O.P. officials who doomed the #StopTheSteal campaign through mere inaction — starting with Republican statehouse leaders in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Arizona and moving outward through the ranks from there.
The same dynamic applies to Republicans in Washington. In February, seven Republican senators voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial; just a few weeks ago, 35 House Republicans defied him and voted for the Jan. 6 inquiry. Even in a future where the G.O.P. takes back the House and the Senate in 2022, any attempt to overturn a clear Biden victory in 2024 would require most of the Republicans who cast these anti-Trump votes to swing completely to Team Let’s Have a Constitutional Crisis, with someone like Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski casting the decisive vote. Which is imaginable only if some transformative political wave hits the Republican Party in the meantime — and barely so even then.
Then keep in mind, too, that in the event of a Biden-Trump rematch in 2024, Biden, not Trump, will enjoy the presidency’s powers; Kamala Harris, not Mike Pence, will preside over the electoral count; and Trump will be four years older, unlikely to run a fourth time, and therefore somewhat less intimidating in defeat. In that landscape, it’s at least as easy to imagine him going more limply into the good night as it is to imagine top-to-bottom G.O.P. enthusiasm for the Great Coup of ’24.
Which, again, does not make the worriers unreasonable; it just makes their we’re all doomed attitude seem extremely premature.
And potentially counterproductive, I would add, for a Democratic Party whose immediate problem is a much more ordinary one: Its ideas and leaders in the last election cycle weren’t as popular as its activists imagined, and it’s therefore vulnerable not just to some future Trumpian chicanery but also to a relatively normal sort of repudiation, in which the democratic process works relatively smoothly — and rewards Republicans instead.