As 2022 begins, the risk American democracy faces is not just that Donald Trump supporters will repeat the events of January 6, 2021—attempting to overturn a free and fair election to illegitimately install Trump as president. It is that Trump will win outright, and use his second term in office to further erode popular sovereignty.
During the four years of the Trump presidency, his opponents could draw comfort from the fact that a majority of Americans had rejected him. Trump had lost the popular vote, his party never won the support of the majority of the electorate, and he had prevailed because his political coalition was ideally distributed for the Electoral College. His four years in office coincided with Republicans losing both chambers of Congress and ultimately the White House.
One of the great challenges of the Biden administration was that, in order to seal Trumpism’s fate, it would have to make good on a pledge of widespread prosperity that Trump had promised but never delivered, preferring instead to deliver a windfall to America’s wealthiest while benefiting from a recovery that began to crest as he was taking office. A Joe Biden presidency would have to show that liberal democracy functions better than the Trumpian alternative.
“The former president and his supporters have decided the only way for them to win is to suppress your vote and subvert our elections. It’s wrong. It’s undemocratic. And frankly it’s un-American,” Biden said this morning during his speech commemorating the anniversary of the riot. But that is not the only way for Trump to return to power, and Biden’s troubles may pave the road for that return. As my colleague David Graham has written, “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.”
A promising start with the American Rescue Plan has collapsed into legislative gridlock, in which moderate members of the Democratic caucus are blocking some of the most popular elements of Biden’s agenda. Inflation has eaten away at economic recovery, diminishing the significance of wage gains and an employment boom. The pandemic rages on as new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus spread, and the death toll continues to rise, aided by vaccine opposition fueled by partisan identity and misinformation.
These factors have drawn Biden’s approval to depths that will be difficult to recover from, and are likely to result in the Democrats losing both chambers of Congress in the coming midterms, should they persist. They will also work to Trump’s advantage should he run again, and history suggests that voters are likely to prioritize the well-being of themselves and their families over more distant and abstract concerns about authoritarianism. Democrats have also failed to make the necessary structural changes that would strengthen democracy in the long term—preventing election subversion, alleviating Senate malapportionment by admitting new states, or strengthening the hand of organized labor—thereby giving the GOP few incentives to change course. Contrary to Republican hysteria about “woke capital,” corporate America’s progressive veneer is nothing more than a marketing scheme, and its generous donations to the GOP show corporate interests—deregulation, lower taxes, a disempowered and underpaid workforce—are fully compatible with democratic backsliding and Trump’s authoritarian ambitions.
The economic collapse that followed the Panic of 1873 helped doom the South’s brief experiment with interracial democracy during Reconstruction, and saw the Democrats take back the House for the first time since the Civil War ended. The depression had tremendous political consequences beyond just the direct results, accelerating the Republican retreat from the cause of Black rights. Victory can discredit some ideologies while legitimizing others, shifting the political landscape and altering the incentives of parties to pursue one cause or abandon another.
After the 1884 election, Frederick Douglass expressed disbelief that Democrats had been returned to the White House, having been so strongly associated with the Confederacy’s attempt to destroy the Union over slavery less than two decades earlier, noting that the conventional wisdom was that “many years must elapse before it could again be trusted with the reins of the National Government.” Nevertheless, Douglass wrote, “events show that little dependence can be wisely placed upon the political stability of the masses. Popularity today is, with them, no guaranty of popularity tomorrow. ”
A second Trump victory, enhanced by popular legitimacy, would be far more dangerous than the first. Trump’s entourage would have the benefit of experience and hindsight, and greater ideological commitment from the Republican Party at large. It would be led by an extreme vanguard that would interpret a popular victory as legitimation of their belief in a racially and religiously exclusive conception of American citizenship, disdain for the fundamental rights of minorities, and desire to eliminate democratic political competition. It would face fewer obstacles from a weak and divided Democratic Party, and less skepticism from a press whose coverage is shaped by a desire to speak with a voice that occupies what their owners and managers believe to be the political middle. The dangers of federal power resting in the hands of people who are convinced that they are justified in using violence to assume it should be obvious.
This reality can be observed in the right’s reaction to the attempted putsch on January 6 and its eventual embrace of the rioters’ goals, if not explicitly their methods. A year after furious Trump supporters ransacked the Capitol, they have become martyrs, their purpose has been mythologized, and their cause has become celebrated. In Congress, the Republican leadership has purged legislators with the temerity to investigate a violent attempted overthrow of an American election and seek to hold those responsible to account. Across the nation, Trump supporters have sought to place themselves in key positions in state election machinery, in the hope that if Trump runs and loses again, they will be able to reverse his loss.
These Trump supporters have justified their actions by insisting on the Trump-inspired fiction that Trump’s defeat was due to fraud. But this fraud is defined not as the presence of election interference, but as the ability of the rival party to contest and win elections in the first place.
None of this is to diminish the risks of election subversion or the flaws in the American system, among them the ability of a party with minority support to win power utilizing the counter-majoritarian levers of that system. The Electoral College thwarts popular will to no civic advantage. The Supreme Court remains hostile to any methods that would strengthen democracy and indifferent to those that undermine it. The ability of legislators to gerrymander themselves into office regardless of public opposition makes a mockery of the concept of popular sovereignty. The increasing radicalism of the Trumpian right, and its refusal to recognize the legitimacy of any political coalition that does not share its identity or politics, is itself an outgrowth of these circumstances.
But the most immediate threat to American democracy may not be the willingness of Trumpist toadies to manipulate election administration, but the White House’s failure to curtail the pandemic and ensure the broad-based prosperity that the former vice president vowed to provide. If the nation continues on this course, Trump may return to office not only with popular legitimacy, but with what he and his cronies will interpret as a mandate to pursue an authoritarian agenda Americans were only barely spared the last time around.