The United States was unprepared for the scope of President Donald Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 presidential election. By Election Day, Trump had spent months calling the election “rigged,” and historians and democracy experts warned of the damage that these false claims could make. But when the president stepped to a lectern in the White House late on Election Night and insisted he’d won, many Americans were taken aback. Much worse was still to come: Trump calling Georgia’s secretary of state, asking him to find 11,000 votes; attempting to weaponize the Justice Department; and instigating the failed January 6 insurrection.
Americans are ready now. If anything, they’re overprepared. Many members of the uneasy coalition of Democrats and former Republicans who oppose Trump are frantically focused on the danger of Trump and his GOP allies trying to steal the 2022 and especially 2024 elections. This is not without justification; many of Trump’s henchmen, meanwhile, are frantically focused on stealing it. But these watchdogs risk missing the graver danger: Trump could win this fair and square.
Trump winning in 2016 was a serious wound to the American experiment. His clinging to power in 2020 poured salt in that wound. Trump losing in 2024 and trying to steal the election would be even more catastrophic. But a straightforward victory—a very real possibility—could be a mortal injury.
A Trump candidacy in 2024 is almost certain, and a nomination is probable. He has already done everything except declare his candidacy officially, flirting (unusually demurely for him) with an announcement in public statements. Some skeptics still think it’s a feint, but why wouldn’t he run if he can win? In 2016, Trump won only a plurality of GOP-primary voters, and faced nearly unanimous opposition within the Republican establishment. If anything, he’ll head into 2024 with the party far more unified around him, even though polling suggests more ambivalence among GOP voters.
A large group of Republicans are eyeing the 2024 race, but several have said they won’t run if Trump runs. Others, like Chris Christie, say they won’t defer to Trump, but Christie proved to be not even a speed bump for Trump in 2016. There’s no reason to think that has changed. On Saturday, Trump held a rally in Iowa featuring Senator Charles Grassley, an old-school Republican in both temperament and chronology—a symbol of Trump’s takeover of the party. Many Senate Republicans privately hope that Trump doesn’t run, but the more telling fact is that they won’t say so publicly. Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who sharply castigated Trump after January 6, has since said he would “absolutely” back Trump if he’s the Republican nominee.
Could he win? Of course he could. It is unlikely—though not impossible!—that the current air of chaos and free fall around the Biden administration will continue for the next three years. (To see another example of a four-year train wreck, you’ve got to go all the way back to … the last president.) Biden also retains certain structural advantages. Incumbents have a built-in edge, and although the future course of the pandemic is unpredictable, the economy seems likely to improve, if slowly.
But the president’s approval rating has slipped definitively underwater, and the intensely polarized environment makes it hard for him to claw back favor once lost. Most worryingly for Democrats, Biden has lost favor with independent voters. Incumbency doesn’t seem to be quite the boost it once was; both Trump and Barack Obama saw their vote share slip as they ran for second terms. Besides, given the tight margins in several states, Trump wouldn’t need to gain much on Biden to beat him in a rematch.
This adds up to a decent shot at Trump winning in 2024—at least an Electoral College win, as in 2016, and perhaps even the popular-vote win that has twice eluded him. I wrote on the eve of the 2020 election that a second Trump term would be more dangerous than the first, but a second Trump term beginning in 2024 would go beyond that.
Some of the smartest arguments for not panicking about the future Trump threat have come from Ross Douthat, a conservative Trump critic, who argues that although Trump may indeed be an aspiring dictator, that matters little if he can’t execute. “Again and again his most alarmist critics have accurately analyzed his ruthless amorality but then overestimated his capacity to impose his will on subordinates and allies, let alone the country as a whole,” Douthat wrote recently.
But Douthat underestimates the changed institutional landscape that would greet Trump upon reentering office on January 20, 2025. Trump would likely have unified Republican control of the House and Senate. He would have a conservative majority on the Supreme Court—and the real possibility of naming Justice Stephen Breyer’s replacement. Trump did have a Republican Congress for the first two years of his term, but he didn’t know how to use it, and both chambers were led by Republicans who were deeply skeptical of Trump and his goals. Then-Speaker Paul Ryan didn’t do much to stop Trump, but he slowed him down, as did McConnell.
Now Ryan is gone, and McConnell has demonstrated his flexibility. The internal Republican resistance to Trump has been winnowed away, leaving little more than Mitt Romney in the Senate and a handful of representatives in the House. Trump is in the midst of a quest to purge them, too, targeting Republicans who voted to impeach him. He’s already forced Ohio’s Anthony Gonzalez to drop his reelection bid, and he’s doing his best to take down Liz Cheney of Wyoming.
More pliable legislative and judicial branches would help Trump, but he would also have better control of the executive branch. He assembled his first administration from misfit toys and castoffs, staffers who would never have gotten such jobs in another presidency because they were too inexperienced, too incompetent, too abrasive, or too extreme. On his return, he’d do better. Those staffers are now seasoned and more able, and fewer veteran Republicans would remove themselves from consideration next time.
The government lost many able, conscientious civil servants during Trump’s presidency, but others calculated that they could weather four years. These people both kept the government functioning when political appointees couldn’t, and also pushed to ensure rule of law where Trump tried to erode it. (For their pains, they were labeled the “deep state.”) Many of these people would probably quit if Trump came back to power.
Those who fret about the fate of American democracy aren’t wrong to do so. They just may be focusing too much on the scenario in which Trump illegally seizes power, and not enough on the possibility of a duly elected second term. If Trump were to win fairly in 2024, he could and probably would subvert the rule of law and the democratic rule just as much as if he lost and tried to steal the election, but he’d do so from a place of greater legitimacy. The elected despot is a common type around the globe.
The rise and fall of the Trump presidency allowed some people to reassure themselves that although many things in American society are broken, a fundamental lodestar remains in place. In this story, Trump was unable to win the popular vote; he won only on a technicality of the Electoral College, and once voters saw him in action, they recoiled and tossed him out. Perhaps the 2024 election will reinforce that, or perhaps Trump won’t run, but it’s hard to have a lot of confidence in either of those scenarios. A Trump victory in 2024 would upend that story.
Many politicians are fond of an apocryphal remark by Winston Churchill: “Americans will always do the right thing, only after they have tried everything else.”
The possibility remains that they might try everything else and then opt for the wrong thing after all.