Looking back on today from the vantage point of the future, Americans may see January 6 not as a culmination but as a preview. The Biden administration came as a profound relief for millions of Americans and indeed the world, but forces at work deep in the bowels of the American system may prove to be irresistible. Donald Trump is still sitting and scheming in Mar-A-Lago with designs on consolidating authoritarian control of our government. The dawn we thought we had reached may well turn out to have been false.
The United States Senate’s failure to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial already counts as one of the signal failures of that legislative body. In the days after January 6, a palpable disgust toward Donald Trump surged within Republican circles, and it appeared that GOP senators might be willing to defenestrate the old autocrat. That glimmer of conscience last little more than a moment. After the party’s base threatened to revolt, Republican senators returned to the fold of MAGA radicalism. Trump survived his closest brush with political obsolescence.
And now he is beginning a second attempt at seizing power over America. As with seemingly every attack on American democracy we have seen for a decade, the venture began in North Carolina. In Greenville earlier this month, the former president riled up his supporters with a raucous speech, claiming victimization at the hands of voter fraud that didn’t happen and playing to all the resentments that fire the MAGA cause. He has perpetuated his comeback in the days since with a string of ever-more-belligerent press releases that seem to have been written in his own hand. Clearly, he plans to make himself a force again.
Because of his unbreakable grip on the Republican Party, he will launch this foray with a powerful infrastructure on his side. We live in a two-party country. With one of the major party’s fully aligned behind him, Trump has the capacity to reshape politics to his liking–or perhaps return it to the grotesque formation that he molded in the five years between descending the escalator and inciting a riot. This is not a lonely old man venting his grievances.
The comfort one might take in Americans’ contempt for the Orange Autocrat will not hold up to reflection. Though Americans have loathed the man since he began his political career, an electorally empowered white minority still has the ability to make him president. Our political system was designed to privilege rural whites of property, and it is precisely that favored demographic that comprises Trump’s base. He will almost certainly lose the popular vote if he runs again–indeed it is all but impossible to imagine him winning it–but the Electoral College will guarantee him a strong chance at becoming president once again.
Even the Electoral College may not be necessary if red states succeed in their efforts to create an undemocratic political system. From Georgia to Texas, and soon to North Carolina, Republican legislators are changing their states’ political systems to allow partisan GOP operatives to award their states to Trump, irrespective of whether he really wins them. Republicans will likely take the U.S. House in 2022, empowering them to obstruct a Democratic victory in 2024 if they so choose, which seems likely given their fealty to a base that has deserted democratic values.
A second Trump term would spell the end of democracy in America. The old autocrat, once return to his perch in Washington, D.C., would sic the Justice Department on every perceived enemy and incite his party once again to smother democracy in every state they control. He would have the power to mobilize an extremely radical base, “lightly threatening,” in the words of Trumpist Madison Cawthorn, political foes who step out of the boundaries he has set for political behavior. Members of his own party would be at even greater risk than Democrats–and members of his own party stand a good chance of controlling the machinery of government by that date.
The Donald Trump restoration would be America’s judgment day. A centuries-long experiment in building democracy would have unfavorable odds of survival in the face of an assault by the most authoritarian political figure this country has ever seen. He would have extreme power and nothing to lose. His gain would be total domination.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.