2024: Stopping Trump, Renewing Democracy
Next year is about more than defeating a wannabe dictator—it’s also an opportunity for a grand reaffirmation of democracy.
THE 2024 ELECTION WILL EFFECTIVELY BE an up or down vote on American democracy. Donald Trump tried to overthrow the Constitution in 2020, failed, and spent the next three years lying about elections, getting indicted for his coup attempt (among other things), plotting to remove the barriers that stopped him, and vowing to turn the federal government into a tool of personal revenge. A majority of Republicans are apparently into it, and a plurality of Americans aren’t opposed. Unless Trump unexpectedly dies, he will be the Republican nominee, and he will either be defeated next Election Day or re-elected to the White House to break the system.
The stakes could not be higher, and major media outlets have finally started acting that way. Dropping the usual sanitizing euphemisms and forced “both sides” framing, the New York Times and Axios straightforwardly reported the likelihood that returning Trump to the White House would end American democracy. The Atlantic devoted an entire issue to that risk, including Team Trump’s plans to corrupt the federal bureaucracy. The biggest splash came from a Washington Post essay by Robert Kagan under the headline “A Trump dictatorship is increasingly inevitable.”
As A.B. Stoddard noted yesterday, this surge of candid coverage—provoked by Trump and his team saying “too much too soon” about their intentions—is a positive development, providing voters with “valuable information” about the choice they face. And for the media, it’s good preparation for how they ought to cover Trump in the challenging year ahead, emphasizing (as NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen puts it) “not the odds, but the stakes.” Focus more on what voters will be deciding, not on who is up or down at the moment. It’s an election, not a sports event.
Yet emphasizing the stakes means more than just acknowledging the dangers of Trump’s potential re-election. Yes, Trump will get the Republican nomination and the party will line up behind him, giving him a live chance at the presidency. And yes, it’s reasonable to worry that if he becomes president again, he’ll take the United States from democracy to dictatorship. We’ve already seen him try, and unlike the last-minute personnel shuffles and frenetic coup-plotting in the last months of Trump’s term, his team and right-wing think tanks have planned how to get enough of their people into key positions to make it work. That’s extremely serious.
But it’s not a certainty. Trump is not now president, and he can’t abuse executive power to give himself electoral advantages, pressure state officials to change voting results, or facilitate a riot at the Capitol. He’s leading in some polls, but that means he’s competitive, not that he’s destined to win.
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At this stage, polls have little predictive value. They’re not worthless, since they help answer questions like “Could Trump win?” and “Which voters should anti-Trump campaigns prioritize?” There’s no use in trying to “unskew” them, assuming they’re somehow systemically biased in Trump’s favor. But hypothetical matchup polls this far out do a bad job predicting general election results because many respondents are not in the mindset they will be then.
A lot will happen between now and November 2024. For example, Israel-Palestine wasn’t in the news before October 7. An event no one now anticipates could profoundly reshape the race. No one knows for sure what it’ll look like next March, let alone next November.
The millions of Americans who pay little attention to political news until shortly before the election are often those who make the difference, swinging between parties, or between voting and staying home.
Of the millions paying attention now, some answer polls strategically, trying to make a politician they dislike look bad or to pressure current leaders. Others answer to express their opinion on policies—or anything, really—knowing the poll has no stakes.
This far from the general election, many voters are in a primary-election mindset, dreaming of alternatives to the two old men heading for a rematch. But when the nominees are set and the campaigns ramp up, binary-choice logic will kick in. The respondents who answer polls with “don’t know” will make a choice. Some who say they’d never vote for a particular candidate will end up voting for that candidate, reluctantly or otherwise. Negative partisanship will motivate millions to stop the candidate they dislike, rather than support one they like.
And while there might not be a pro-Biden majority in America, there is an anti-MAGA one. Since Trump and the Republicans squeaked out a win in 2016, Democrats have done well in every national election. Most recently, the 2022 midterms and various state-level votes show an abortion rights majority energized by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision.
Biden is the nominee who beat Trump once largely because he won among voters who said they disliked both candidates, whereas Hillary Clinton lost them in 2016. And while Biden’s approval rating is low, some recent polls show him ahead of Trump—though even these results should be taken with a grain of salt. A lot will happen, including hundreds of millions of dollars worth of campaign ads. Let’s see what the economy looks like in nine months.
All today’s polls can really tell us is that the presidential election will be close, like five of the last six. Trump could win, so no one should be complacent. But he could also lose. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent argues, fatalism about another Trump presidency isn’t just excessive worry—it can be counterproductive, playing into a would-be strongman’s desired image of inevitability.
WHICH BRINGS US TO THE OTHER SIDE of the stakes for in 2024 that should be emphasized: While the election and its aftermath will be a major challenge for American democracy, they also present us with an opportunity for renewal. A chance to demonstrate the success of U.S. institutions. In particular, to show that America’s political system has a capacity for self-correction that non-democracies lack.
One opportunity is in the courts.
Kagan argues that
Trump will not be contained by the courts or the rule of law. On the contrary, he is going to use the trials to display his power. . . . He is a bit like King Kong testing the chains on his arms, sensing that he can break free whenever he chooses.
Yes—but only if he becomes president again. From the White House, Trump can kill federal investigations of himself and his associates, and sic prosecutors on critics and political opponents, by putting enough loyalists in the Department of Justice. As for state and possibly federal courts, he’ll ignore their rulings and challenge judges to try to enforce them.
Without exaggeration, that would mark the end of checks and balances, and of the rule of law.
But if Trump loses, his criminal cases will continue, unimpeded by questions about prosecuting a presidential candidate. He’ll probably be convicted on some charges because he’s facing so many and obviously did at least some of them. It could take a while, but after motions and appeals, he’ll face punishment.
An eventual Trump conviction and sentencing would strengthen public confidence in the justice system, democracy, and America as ‘a nation of laws, not of men’ where ‘no one is above the law.’
Some Trump supporters might claim that the reverse is true: that the legal system holding Trump accountable for his crimes would undermine rather than boost public confidence. But is that true? Many Americans think the two-tiered justice system is the one that lets rich people, especially rich white men, off the hook, not one that refuses to put Trump above the law.
Currently, the justice system has Trump on trial. Yes, he’s making absurd arguments and working to delay past the election, testing judicial limits, lying about the proceedings outside of court, and riling up his supporters. But he’s following the courts’ calendar and requirements.
In 2024, America will have the surreal experience of a presidential election in which one nominee is spending more time on trial than on the trail. Trump will try to use it in his favor—grabbing attention, showing contempt for the system, claiming he is being victimized. But the notion that the criminal cases will break for him politically, rather than harm his prospects, is far from certain.
CYNICS SAY THAT ELECTIONS DON’T MATTER and that voting can’t stop authoritarianism, but recent history demonstrates the opposite.
Trump didn’t want to leave office, and he broke laws and norms to stay, but he lost re-election, and on the legally required day, he left. Something similar happened in Brazil in 2022 with Jair Bolsonaro.
Of course voting can beat authoritarianism—at least at this stage, before an aspiring authoritarian gets enough power. In democratic backsliding, the aspiring autocrat’s first re-election is key—that’s when he gains a mandate even after unsubtly planning to abuse power and erode rule of law from within.
Trump can get there. As Kagan notes, he’s broken through just about every institutional barrier.
But not the biggest one. The ultimate constitutional check is the people.
It won’t be easy to rally the diverse, contentious majority of pro-democracy Americans enough to overcome Republicans’ advantages in the Electoral College. But it’s doable. And if we pull it off, it’ll contain the seeds of democratic renewal.
After another Trump loss, there will still be major challenges at home and abroad, and consequential fights over policy, but within more normal parameters. Another loss—no matter how much Trump denies it—will give Republicans another chance to stop being a cult of personality, and give the cynical, power-hungry parts of the party more incentive to try. The justice system will establish a clear deterrent for future presidents who’d think of trying to illegally cling to power. And the world will see America choose to continue the world’s longest democratic experiment, instead of joining the autocrats.
That opportunity is reason enough for pro-democracy Americans to approach the 2024 election with enthusiasm, not only dread.