As someone who wrote intensively about Donald Trump’s attempted election coup in 2020, I’ve been on the alert for a recurrence in 2024. And as I noted at New York, we’re not at all out of the woods yet.
Lest anyone forget: The front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination is a man who has never accepted his 2020 defeat. More importantly, Donald Trump has convinced a sizable majority of GOP voters to accept his unsubstantiated claims that the presidency was “stolen” from him in 2020. It follows, then, that if Trump loses again in November 2024, he is very likely to deny defeat once again. But his options for challenging the legitimacy of the next presidential race are increasingly limited.
Looking back at the attempted election coup that culminated in the violence of January 6, it’s obvious that Trump’s long-range strategy was to allege widespread Democratic voter fraud based on disputing the legitimacy of voting by mail and in-person early voting, while seizing on and publicizing every available rumor of chicanery by Democratic election officials. This gambit arguably started way back in the wake of Trump’s 2016 victory, when he insisted on claiming he had won the national popular vote that he actually lost to Hillary Clinton by 2.8 million votes. It reached a crescendo on Election Night 2020 when Trump claimed victory based on partial returns before mail ballots could be counted.
While Trump has never abandoned his effort to delegitimize non–Election Day voting, he (along with other leading Republicans) is now urging GOP voters to fully take advantage of the voting rules as they exist across the country. And that’s largely what they did in the 2022 midterms; clearly, the partisan “taint” of early voting has worn off. That means there will likely be no basis in 2024 for a “red mirage” phenomenon, in which the Republican candidate will take a momentary lead based on a disproportionate share of the votes that happen to be counted first. If the election is close, Trump would have to wait just like the rest of the country for all the votes to roll in. And unless he reverses course once again, his “stolen election” claims will need a different rationale than the illegitimacy of early voting. What will replace it? That’s unclear.
The three tactics Team Trump pursued in 2020 in an effort to negate Joe Biden’s win probably won’t be available in 2024. Those were (1) the effort to supplant state-certified presidential electors in key states via the unilateral action of Republican-controlled state legislatures, based on an exotic constitutional theory called the “independent state legislatures doctrine;” (2) appeals to Republican election officials in key states to put a thumb on the scales to reverse the outcome (e.g., the infamous Trump phone call to Georgia secretary of State Brad Raffensperger), and (3) the culminating bid on January 6 to stop or reverse Biden’s final certification in Congress, which was the object of the attack on the U.S. Capitol by a Trump-inspired mob.
As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent recently pointed out, all three of these avenues for flipping an election have been at least partially blocked since January 6:
“The Supreme Court’s decision in Moore v. Harper on Tuesday is a major reprieve for American democracy. By rejecting the radical idea that state legislatures have quasi-unlimited power to determine how elections are run, the court made it harder for lawmakers to engage in the shenanigans that Donald Trump encouraged to overturn his 2020 reelection loss …
“Along with the ruling, virtually all election-denying candidates for governor and secretary of state in key swing states lost in the 2022 midterms. [And] Congress reformed the law that governs how presidential electors are counted.”
Aside from the Supreme Court’s rejection of the “independent state legislatures” doctrine, Republicans lost control of legislatures in Michigan and (at least temporarily) Pennsylvania. And beyond the reforms of the Electoral Count Act of 1887 that make it much harder to challenge presidential-election results in Congress, the vice-president who will preside over the tabulation of electoral votes in January of 2025 is Kamala Harris.
So the loopholes Trump tried to exploit in 2020 to give his insurrection some legitimacy just won’t be available in 2024. Sure, the sort of state-by-state guerrilla litigation based on rumors and conspiracy theories that made laughingstocks of Trump’s legal team in 2020 will theoretically still be available. But it’s no more likely to succeed than it did before.
Is Greg Sargent correct, then, in arguing that “our democratic system is fortifying itself on multiple levels, unexpectedly reducing the odds of a rerun of Trump’s efforts in 2024”? Let’s hope so. But it’s also possible that in the absence of legal fig leaves for insurrectionary measures, Team Trump will resort to an overtly revolutionary approach, including summoning a mob to the Capitol, this time not to interfere with Congress’s proceedings but to suppress them altogether.
Without question, a host of institutions, including the Biden administration, the federal courts, responsible Republicans (such as they are), and the U.S. military leadership would stand in the way of a outright insurrectionary bid to reverse a presidential election result and impose an authoritarian regime. It probably won’t happen. But it shouldn’t be ruled out as a strategic option for this lawless man and his devoted following. Trump has, after all, openly and repeatedly described the existing U.S. government as an inherently evil and corrupt “swamp” whose inhabitants in both major parties are hell-bent on the destruction of the country and its values. It’s a bedrock principle among MAGA enthusiasts that they enjoy a right of violent revolution (the entire basis, they claim, for the Second Amendment) against “tyranny” as they define it. And Trump represents a lot of people living in a sort of cultural — and even religious — panic motivated by the demographic and geopolitical decline of the “great” America they imagine.
It’s good that Trump has been hemmed in institutionally since January 6 and may be forced to accept an adverse 2024 result even if he won’t admit he lost. The best way to ensure that happens is for voters to rebuke him by a margin that is simply unmistakable, convincing his GOP co-conspirators once and for all that he and his movement represent a losing proposition. But at the same time, we should take the 45th president’s regular revolutionary mutterings seriously if not literally.