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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Was Trump’s 2020 Election Coup Attempt a Dress Rehearsal?

I stumbled on a piece at the Never-Trump site The Bulwark, and it stunned me enough to write it up at New York.

You may have heard about the 45th president’s reported rant at a Republican donor conference near his Florida home over the weekend. Trump is apparently still furious at Brian Kemp for impeding his election coup, and Mike Pence for failing to steal a second term for him anyway, and at Mitch McConnell for refusing to back his electoral vote challenge and then criticizing him for inciting a riot.

To Republicans who aren’t deep in the fever swamps of MAGA-land, this is just Trump continuing his narcissistic and destructive post-election behavior. Just as he blew up those crucial Georgia Senate runoffs in January because he couldn’t let go of his own lies about the presidential election, he’s blowing up the party at a time when the GOP needs to stay unified in the fight against Biden.

But what if Trump’s attacks on those who “betrayed” him in 2020 aren’t just narcissistic or backward-looking? What if it’s part of a forward-looking plan to rerun 2020 and get it right this time?

That’s the question Jonathan V. Last of The Bulwark appears to have asked himself, and he’s answered it with a hair-raising hypothesis that is as plausible as the assumption that Trump is just throwing temper tantrums. He presents his theory as the likely product of an implicit Republican 2020 “autopsy” that has turned defeat into a near-victory:

“It is likely Republicans will have majorities in the congressional delegations of at least 26 states for the foreseeable future. They have a >50 percent chance of winning the House in 2022 and a pretty good shot at flipping the Senate.

“So the first two preconditions for winning the presidency while losing the election are very much on the table.

“Which leaves just one project: Mustering the political will to move past both the popular vote and the Electoral College.”

If you begin not with the assumption that Trump’s entire effort to steal the election was absurd, but regard it as an audacious plan that wasn’t executed with the necessary precision, then reverse engineering it to fix the broken parts makes sense:

“[T]he key parts of the Republican autopsy have been (1) building the political will to use raw power next time and (2) removing the Republican officials who were not willing to comply last time.

“That’s why Republican state parties have censured nearly every Republican who did not participate in Trump’s attempted coup.”

And the really heady thing for Trump is knowing how easy it was to convince the GOP rank-and-file base that his lies were the gospel truth:

“The Big Lie is actually the biggest insight to come from the Republican autopsy. Republicans and their enablers discovered that if they make false, evidence-free claims often and loudly enough, then the vast majority of their voters will believe them.

“And then, once Republican voters were onboard, they found that the rest of the party elites would either join them or stay silent. Only a handful of Republicans dared to object. And those figures are in the process of being either defeated or coopted.”

So why not play it again with a prepared and united party that won’t hesitate to seize on bogus “voter fraud” claims and either steal electoral votes before they can be certified by the states, or refuse to certify a Democratic victory and throw the election into Congress?

“[E]ven though the success of such a gambit is a longshot given all of the various failure points, since political power is derived from their voters, many Republicans politicians will be incentivized to embrace the challenge anyway, since they will gain power within the party from the voters who have been primed to demand such a fight.”

But it’s not any more implausible than the election coup hypothesis sounded when some of us began predicting it in the spring of 2020. And in retrospect, it was spot-on except for a few crucial mistakes Team Trump made after Election Night.

From Last’s perspective, in ranting about disloyal Republicans Trump isn’t engaged in hindsight or vengeance, but is following an ambitious schedule for success in 2024 by getting rid of potential troublemakers within his party. And here’s the thing: it’s a strategy that doesn’t necessarily depend on Trump running for president again. It’s available to anyone determined to do whatever it takes to reconquer Washington at a time when Republicans look to be a minority of the electorate for the foreseeable future. Trump has prepared the way with a dress rehearsal.

It’s a chilling thought, and one to revisit if Trump’s Republican enemies go down to primary challenges next year.

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