Opinion | Why the Fear of Trump May Be Overblown
Almost nine months after the fact, we’re still learning the full range of Donald Trump’s plot to flush the Constitution and extend his presidency long past its expiration date. This week, a new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa revealed that Trump and law professor John Eastman made an 11th-hour effort to convince Mike Pence to unilaterally invalidate the election results, using a two-page-long, easy-bake recipe that Eastman confected. His memo, assessed as low-grade legal garbage by liberals, conservatives, and libertarians, has alerted us to how retrograde Trump politics can get.
Writing this week in the Washington Post, neoconservative scholar Robert Kagan assembled a persuasive case that Trump’s continuing campaign of lies and subterfuge could well succeed in breaking our brittle system in 2024, essentially unbuckling democracy and installing Trump in office regardless of who wins. Yes, it could happen. Trump-directed state legislatures may very well skew election law to cancel a Democratic victory. Our contentious politics may become more violent. Federal authority may fracture and evaporate.
The Kagan nightmare scenario has triggered a large spasm of liberal panic since his essay published, driven partly by understandable worry about the fragility of our democracy, but also an undercurrent of powerlessness—as though Trump could, almost by waving his hand, reassert control of the country.
But there’s another way to look at it. Is this nighmare scenario really a function of Trump’s power and his dominance over his party? Or do the extra-Constitutional methods Trump might adopt as we enter the 2024 election penumbra reflect his essential weakness, and the continued decay of Republican power? Are we looking at a player holding a set of superior cards or as a weak-hand bluff artist threatening to blow up the casino unless he wins the pot?
It’s hard to know, and the political establishment—media included—has done an embarrassingly bad job of gaming it out in the past. As Kagan notes, we deserved Trump because we underestimated him the first time around. But going into 2024, does it make sense to compensate by overestimating him?
If Trump were the Election Day colossus that Kagan and other observers believe he is, wouldn’t the better strategy for 2024 be to run more like he did in 2016—a slightly feral Republican—and less like he did in 2020, as a crackbrained rager? He could just gather all those campaign donations pouring in and launch a solid ground game to win back states he won in 2016 but lost in 2020, and leave the Constitution and the election laws be. But so far, he’s not.
The only person or party that attempts a coup d’etat is the one that cannot win by other means. Gearing up for a coup—which we can concede that Kagan gets right about Trump—is not a sign of political strength but one of political weakness. By signaling an attempt to regain power by any means necessary, Trump essentially confesses that Trumpism is not and is not likely to become a majoritarian movement.
Evidence of Trumpian weakness abounds. Neither Trump nor his supporters exhibit much interest in debating the facts behind the issues, be it Covid-19, the climate, vote returns, or the time he stated erroneously that he has “total” authority over how states run their pandemic responses. The scores of bogus legal claims he and his team made in contesting election results have collapsed without much effort to defend them. Trump loves to argue by assertion, like every three-year-old, because in many cases his bold assertion is the only asset his argument contains.
Nor does the slavish obedience to Trump that so many of his supporters pay to him indicate a leader’s power. A strong political leader and movement reserve room for debate and consensus-building, grooming and developing new talent to expand the party. Trump prefers a monarchical arrangement in which he dictates from the top down—and which produces instability when no mechanism exists for the king to ultimately hand off power to his princes or princesses.
Revising voting laws, having elected state officials commandeer the election process, dispatching activists to harass vote tenders, and the other Trump strategies Kagan predicts in his piece are all very frightful. But they, too, convey the Republican conviction that Republicans can’t win elections unless a fat thumb is placed on the scale. It’s the strategy you’d see from people who know they’re losers and will never be able to summon a majority vote again, so they need to change the rules to institutionalize minority power. The Keystone Cops quality of the Eastman plan, which posits one impossible political pirouette after another, is a pastiche of fantastic thinking by a minority never encountered in American politics before.
If Trump were to pull off a coup in 2024—and I’m not saying it would be impossible—it bears asking how the non-Trumpers, who have been in the majority in the past two elections, would respond to the grab. “Liberal democracy requires acceptance of adverse electoral results, a willingness to countenance the temporary rule of those with whom we disagree,” as Kagan writes in his essay. But a coup does not require acceptance. A government installed by a coup enjoys not even a fraction of the legitimacy a government-by-election does, even if the election has a faint asterisk next to it, like the 2000 race did. It would only inspire a counter-coup by the majority, and maybe a counter-counter coup, and a counter-counter-counter coup. Trump is crazy enough to invite this fight, and narcissistic enough not to care what it does to the country. But is he shrewd enough to win it?
Trump and his Republicans fear their own disintegration. That sense of threat gives them power over the voter base, but it has also made them politically desperate. Their lack of scruples doesn’t make them omnipotent: it makes them vulnerable to serious and determined opponents. The wildness of Trump’s last-ditch maneuver, whatever it turns out to be, will require much from us, but above all it will oblige us to keep our cool and just vote. You don’t beat a crazy card player by going crazier.
Prince Donald Jr. or Princess Ivanka? Pick one via email to [email protected]. My email alerts prefer Buster Keaton to Charlie Chaplin. My Twitter feed digs Harold Lloyd. My RSS feed fancies The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
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