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America Is Headed For Disaster
Donald Trump is on course to reconquer the White House. To save the republic, we need a radical change of direction.
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Most of the time, politics is like a jumble of puzzle pieces. On any given day, there are hundreds of news stories, some promising, others ominous. How they fit together is anyone’s guess.
Right now, it feels as though American politics is like a simple puzzle consisting of five pieces. While each piece of the puzzle has been widely discussed, it is easy to miss how they all fit together. But once you put the pieces together, the picture that emerges is very bleak.
The first piece of the puzzle: The words and the actions of Donald Trump demonstrate that he is a serious danger to democracy. The second: If Trump wins another term, he is likely to do a lot more damage than he did in the first. The third: Unless Democrats win a resounding victory in 2024, the country will likely find itself in a deep constitutional crisis. The fourth: Joe Biden, the incumbent president, is old, weak, and deeply unpopular. And the fifth: Kamala Harris, who is very likely to become the Democratic nominee if her boss does not seek reelection, is even less likely to beat Trump.
It is too early for firm predictions. But right now, the single most likely scenario would see an emboldened Trump, or one of his close allies, return to the White House. Unless America changes course, it is headed for disaster.
1) Trump is Anti-Democratic
After years of covering Donald Trump, I thought that the January 6th hearings could not possibly shock me.
I began to argue that Donald Trump was an authoritarian populist who poses a serious danger to American democracy in the fall of 2015. Since then, he has demonstrated his disdain for the most basic rules and norms of liberal democracy in countless ways, from his repeated promises to jail his political opponent to his refusal to accept the outcome of the 2020 election. Anyone who wanted to see Trump for who he is already had all the necessary evidence.
And yet, I must admit that the revelations of the past weeks have shaken me. It has long been evident that Trump is reluctant to distance himself from any of his supporters, no matter how unsavory, and that he desperately sought ways to stay in power, no matter how anti-democratic. But it was not yet clear that he privately cheered the assault on the Capitol or that he tried to lead the mob in the flesh.
Believing that we had learned all there is to know about Trump’s character long ago, I was convinced that he had lost his ability to shock me. I was wrong.
2) A Second Trump Term Would Be More Dangerous Than the First
It might be tempting to take solace in the fact that America withstood Trump’s first term in office. If the American republic has been able to survive his first presidency, it may seem likely that it is also strong enough to survive his second.
Trump’s first presidency does indeed show that this country’s institutions are more resilient than those of many other democracies around the world. And so it is by no means a foregone conclusion that American institutions would be unable to withstand another four years of Trump’s rule. But it is also worth noting that a second MAGA presidency—whether led by Donald Trump himself or by one of his many acolytes and imitators—would likely be more dangerous than the first.
When Trump was first elected in 2016, he lacked the experience, the team, and the vision to wield power effectively. He had never held elected office at any level. He lacked a detailed or sophisticated understanding of how the federal bureaucracy works. He barely had any loyal followers in Washington. Many senior staffers in his administration tried to do what they could to stop the administration from engaging in the most extreme or unsavory actions. Congressional Republicans, including the Speaker of the House, eyed him with great skepticism. And while he already believed himself to be the only legitimate representative of the people, he did not have a conscious plan to undermine checks and balances; in the early years of his presidency, conflicts with independent institutions arose piecemeal whenever someone somewhere told him that he did not have the authority to do something he wanted.
If Trump returns to power in 2024, he will not be constrained in the same ways. He now has four years of experience governing the country. He has come to have a much better understanding of what it takes to translate his wishes into reality. He has built up a deep bench of loyal followers who also have significant experience in the executive branch. This time around, his most senior appointees are unlikely to balk at pursuing an immoral or even unconstitutional course of action. Nearly all Republican members of Congress who were willing to defy Trump have retired or lost their primaries. And consolidating his power is now likely to be the top item of Trump’s agenda from his first day in office.
There is even more reason than in the past to believe that Trump has the will and the skill to subvert American democracy. Scarily, there is also good reason to fear that he might soon have the opportunity—perhaps even if he narrowly loses in 2024.
3) The Integrity of the 2024 Election Is Under Threat
The plot to overturn the outcome of the 2020 election was chaotic and incompetent. While Trump did what he could to undermine its legitimacy, he did not have a concrete or workable plan for how to stop Joe Biden from becoming president. The same will not be true in two years’ time. For, over the past months, powerful segments of the Republican Party have devised a much more sophisticated plan to send Trump back to the White House.
In 2020, the ultimate decision as to whom to send to the Electoral College rested with a key set of officials who had sworn to administer the elections in a nonpartisan manner. Though some of them, like Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in Georgia, were Republicans who had gained their office in a competitive election, its nature gave them an explicit duty to count the vote and investigate any reports of malfeasance without fear or favor. To their great credit, they did.
But over the past years, Republican legislatures in a number of states have considered changing the law to politicize the process. In key battlegrounds like Arizona, legislators and governors may soon have much greater freedom to make their own determination as to who should be regarded as the legitimate victor. This raises the possibility that partisan politicians with no special duty to administer elections neutrally may discount thousands of votes, sending electors for Donald Trump to the Electoral College even if Joe Biden (or another Democrat) wins the most votes in their state.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. Because states have historically enjoyed great leeway to run their own elections as they see fit, it is unclear whether the Supreme Court would be willing to put a stop to blatant abuses of the state certification process. Meanwhile, at the federal level, the law governing how Congress should certify the outcome of the election is archaic and deeply confusing. It would be naive to exclude the possibility that Trump might take control of the White House by subverting the popular vote in a key swing state. And though this is very unlikely, it is even imaginable that powerful officials and army generals might come to different conclusions about who is the legitimate Commander-in-Chief on January 20, 2025, raising the possibility of violent clashes between different factions within the U.S. government.
There are now two serious dangers facing the American republic. The first is that Donald Trump wins the 2024 election fair and square. The second is that he tries to subvert the outcome of the 2024 election, provoking a dangerous constitutional crisis, and possibly even returning to the White House even though a fair application of the rules would see him lose. To avert this outcome, Democrats need to aim for a resounding victory. But with Joe Biden deeply unpopular, and Kamala Harris looking even weaker, that outcome currently looks highly unlikely.
4) Joe Biden is Very Weak
In 2020, Joe Biden pulled the United States back from the brink. When he first declared his candidacy, he generated little enthusiasm in his own party and derision among pundits and campaign strategists. But his pitch was a perfect fit for the moment. He was one of the only serious primary candidates not to endorse fashionable yet deeply unpopular ideas like decriminalizing border crossings. And he was able to broaden the Democratic coalition by emphasizing the importance of decency and framing the election as a fight for the soul of the country. He deserves great credit for helping to ensure that the American people accomplished something worryingly rare: to remove an authoritarian populist from office in democratic elections after only one term.
But eighteen months into Biden’s presidency, it is becoming clear that he is likely to be a very weak candidate in 2024. His current approval ratings are extremely poor. According to FiveThirtyEight’s tracker, 39% of Americans approve of the job he is doing, with 56% disapproving. This means that Biden is currently less popular than the last twelve presidents, including Donald Trump, were at the same stage in their tenure.
Part of the reason for Biden’s weakness lies outside his control. Any president would have been blamed for the lingering impact of a pandemic we had hoped to leave behind us long ago. And any president would have been held accountable for a sharp rise in inflation even though they have, at best, limited tools to bring it under control.
And yet, much of the weakness is self-imposed. The policies of the White House did, as some senior economists warned at the time, help fuel inflation. The precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan left Biden looking weak and callous. And though Biden promised to broker bipartisan compromises, his administration has not even been able to coordinate effectively with Congressional Democrats; time and again, the White House seemed to rely on public pressure to bring reluctant Senators in line, failing either to negotiate with them on a good faith basis or to pursue compromise bills they proposed.
In the first months of his presidency, Biden’s supporters tried to talk him up as a new incarnation of Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the ambition to pass social legislation on the scale of the New Deal was never commensurate with either the wishes of the electorate or Biden’s tenuous sway in Congress. Eighteen months into his tenure, and with a painful midterm election that is likely to deprive him of his control of the House of Representatives on the horizon, Biden has failed to pass most of his signature legislative proposals.
The self-inflicted wounds are even more gashing on cultural issues. Biden was elected as a moderate who passionately opposed the nasty bigotry of Donald Trump without endorsing the most extreme forms of identitarianism within the left. But many voters who saw a Democratic Party led by Joe Biden as the lesser evil in 2020 have grown alarmed at the continued hold of fringe leftist ideologies. Though they are horrified by the racism of the far-right, for example, they dislike that the administration tried to make the receipt of important benefits dependent on a claimant’s skin color.
Finally, there is the fraught question of Biden’s age. A growing number of voters seem to believe that he is too senile to carry out the basic duties of his office. That is an overstatement. But the presidency is a punishing job. And even if Biden is simply a 79-year-old with a perfectly typical level of energy and mental acuity for that age, it is appropriate to question his ability to lead the country out of its current crisis—and to worry about whether he can be an effective standard-bearer for the Democratic Party in extremely important elections that are still over two years away.
5) Harris, Biden’s Most Likely Replacement, Is Even Less Likely to Beat Trump
If Joe Biden decides not to run for reelection in 2024, Kamala Harris will likely become the Democratic nominee.
In American politics, a sitting Vice President is the heir apparent. Al Gore and Joe Biden were both seen as relatively weak candidates who lacked passionate constituencies of their own. And yet, both prevailed against spirited primary challengers because of the inherent stature that comes with the office they held.
This effect is likely to be even stronger in the case of Kamala Harris. Since she is the first black woman to hold the vice presidency, any attempt to topple the presumptive nominee is likely to be portrayed as sexist or racist, vastly raising the reputational risk for most politicians thinking about throwing their own hat into the ring.
This makes it a matter of deep concern that Harris is likely to be an even weaker candidate than the sitting president. Biden is historically unpopular. And yet, Kamala Harris’ net approval rating is similarly bad; in fact, only 36% of the population say that she is doing a good job.
The reasons for that unpopularity are unlikely to fade anytime soon. Harris is an excellent prosecutor who shone when cross-examining witnesses in the Senate Judiciary Committee. At her best, she can also be highly personable, exuding genuine warmth in less formal settings like talk shows.
The problem is that most voters do not know what Harris stands for, and doubt the authenticity of her views. Given the great transformations she has gone through in her comparatively short political career—from moderate Democrat to one of the most progressive Senators in Congress—it’s hard to blame them.
I remember picking up The Truths We Hold, the book which accompanied Harris’ 2020 presidential campaign, in a bookstore. The bulk of the book seemed geared towards convincing the far left of the Democratic Party that the Senator from California was in step with the latest slogans to conquer Twitter. But the first thing I saw as I leafed through its pages was an impolitic notice by the publisher: “Also by Kamala Harris: Smart On Crime: A Career Prosecutor’s Plan to Make Us Safer.”
Harris has been widely mocked for claiming that she listened to Snoop and Tupac in college (even though neither had released music by the time she graduated) and that she smoked pot and supported legalizing marijuana because of her Jamaican origin (prompting her father to retort that “my dear departed grandmothers … as well as my deceased parents must be turning in their grave right now to see their family’s name, reputation and proud Jamaican identity being connected, in any way, jokingly or not, with the fraudulent stereotype of a pot-smoking joy seeker.”) To be sure, every high-profile politician makes a serious gaffe at some point, and these missteps are hardly the stuff of criminal indictments. But gaffes, even mild ones, stick in the minds of voters when they seem to get at something that voters already believe about a candidate—and given the wild fluctuations in Harris’ politics, they can be forgiven for believing that she lacks a clearly articulated core.
That impression was deepened by what was supposed to be one of the most iconic moments of Harris’ primary campaign. In a cynical attempt to undermine Biden, she savagely attacked the frontrunner for failing to support busing in the 1970s. But after a few days, she was forced to concede that she herself did not in the present favor the policy she had faulted Biden for opposing in the past. When she later agreed to serve as Biden’s running mate, she blithely dismissed a question by a talk show host about how she could work with a man whose stance on race she had found to be so deeply abhorrent until so recently.
A 2024 presidential race between Trump and Harris promises to be unprecedented in its nastiness. And though it is far too early to predict its outcome with any certainty, the likelihood that Trump would eventually emerge as its victor is worryingly high.
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In politics, nothing ever turns out quite as predicted. Though each of them is unlikely, there are many scenarios that could help America avert disaster.
Perhaps America’s economy will be booming by the fall of 2024, with inflation finally under control, putting Biden or Harris in a much stronger position to win reelection. Perhaps Trump will be too sick or in too much legal trouble to run in 2024. Perhaps a candidate who emulates Trump’s political style, like Ron DeSantis, manages to best Trump in the primaries, and then turns out to be more respectful of basic democratic institutions. Perhaps a moderate Republican will somehow manage to snag the 2024 presidential nomination. Perhaps an ambitious challenger, like Colorado Governor Jared Polis, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, or Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock, will become the 2024 Democratic nominee, and go on to defeat Trump. Perhaps a celebrity, from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to Mark Cuban, will somehow become the first American since George Washington to win the presidency as an independent. Or perhaps Biden will simply eke out a victory against Trump in a close-run grudge match between two deeply unpopular candidates.
There are many ways in which the country and its institutions could avert the worst possible fate. And yet, the single most likely scenario—what social scientists like to call the “expected value”—is deeply concerning. At this point in time, it is far easier to imagine how Trump could manage to return to the White House and inflict grievous damage on the American republic than it is to imagine any different outcome.
Anyone who cares about the survival of the American republic should therefore start thinking about some plan to avert disaster. Devising a realistic plan is extremely difficult, and different people will have different roles to play. But there are, at the least, a few steps that Democrats who want to put themselves in a better position to take on Trump should take:
Democrats must prioritize federal legislation that clarifies how Congress should certify the outcome of future elections and minimizes partisan meddling in the process.
Democrats must move back into the cultural mainstream. While they should full-throatedly defend the rights of minority groups, the party’s top leaders must strongly distance themselves from the excesses of the identitarian left.
Democrats must demonstrate to the American people that they hear their concerns about inflation and the surge in violent crime. And while the tools that the White House has at its disposal to address either crisis are limited, Biden must use them as best he can, putting himself in a position to claim partial credit if there are genuine improvements by 2024.
Democrats must pass the imperfect legislation for which they have the votes rather than holding out for the more ambitious deals that have proven elusive. If the White House was willing to compromise with moderates on issues like Build Back Better, the administration would have some genuine accomplishments to tout.
Finally, Democrats who have a better chance of beating Donald Trump in 2024 than either Joe Biden or Kamala Harris should seriously explore a primary challenge, and fast. To protect themselves against bad faith attacks, candidates who wish to succeed would probably be well-advised to announce that they are running before Biden makes his own intentions clear.
This plan is only a start. Many people will reasonably disagree about whether each of its steps is more likely to help than to hurt. I hope they will use my suggestions as a springboard for developing their own. But one thing, as the wisdom of the memes teaches us, is certain: When the room is on fire, the worst possible course of action is to keep sitting in your chair and proclaim that “this is fine.”
Yascha Mounk is the Founder of Persuasion.
This article represents the individual views of the author, not those of Persuasion.