America’s Second-Worst Scenario

So far, cumulative acts of civic virtue have saved the republic. But the constitutional order is still in danger.

A crack opens in the ground in front of a voting station.
Shutterstock / The Atlantic

Updated at 7:18 p.m. ET on January 17, 2021.

The next time an insurgent mob arrives to sack the Capitol, if one happens to try between now and Inauguration Day, mere strength of numbers will not overwhelm the defenses. In the 10 days since the January 6 assault on Congress, the Secret Service has overseen the establishment of an instant “green zone,” fortified by eight-foot steel barriers and patrolled by some 20,000 National Guardsmen. Those are real bullets in the magazines of their Army-issued M-4 assault rifles, not at all the standard gear for maintaining civic order.

A healthy democracy does not need a division-size force to safeguard the incoming president in its capital. Generals and admirals in a thriving republic do not have to enjoin the troops against “violence, sedition and insurrection” or reaffirm that “there’s no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of a U.S. election.” A nation secure in the peaceful transfer of power does not require 10 former defense secretaries to remind their successor that he is “bound by oath, law and precedent to facilitate the entry into office of the incoming administration.”

This is a moment of historic fragility in America. We are a long way yet from a second civil war, but there is no precedent for our fractured consensus about who holds legitimate power.

A joint intelligence bulletin distributed in government channels this week reported that armed domestic extremists—an unholy alliance of militia forces, white nationalists, “boogaloo” warriors, and QAnon delusionists, among others—“may exploit the aftermath of the Capitol breach by conducting attacks to destabilize and force a climactic conflict in the United States.”

But even this is not the principal threat we face. Nobody is going to take control of the U.S. government by force. The extremists are capable of bloodshed, but they cannot stop Joe Biden from taking office. Their resurgence is, however, a symptom of genuine danger to our constitutional order.

Here is the nub of our predicament. Donald Trump attempted democracide, and he had help. The victim survived but suffered grievous wounds. American democracy now faces a long convalescence in an environment of ongoing attacks. Trump has not exhausted his malignant powers, and co-conspirators remain at large.

I do not mean to be taken figuratively. The president of the United States lost an election and really did try with all his might to keep the winner from replacing him. He did his level best to overthrow our system of government, and tens of millions of Americans marched behind him. But a coup d’état in America had seemed so unlikely a thing, and it was so buffoonishly attempted, that the political establishment had trouble taking it seriously. That was a big mistake.

It is still too soon to assess this moment in historic perspective, but we seem to be living through something like a next-to-worst-case scenario. Trump failed in the end—if we have reached the end—to maintain an illegal grip on power. But his attempted coup made too much headway for comfort, and his supporters are far from finished with their assault on majority rule.

Even so, there is good news to be found in the manner of Trump’s defeat. The system held. Enough officials did the right thing, when it counted, to fend off the overthrow of our government. And in this we can see a path forward.

In late September, six weeks before Election Day, The Atlantic published my cover story, “The Election That Could Break America.” In it, I made two categorical predictions. One was that Trump would not concede under any circumstance. He would insist, against all evidence, that he had prevailed. The other was a corollary:

Trump’s invincible commitment to this stance will be the most important fact about the coming Interregnum. It will deform the proceedings from beginning to end. We have not experienced anything like it before.

And so it was. Even under maximum pressure, after the Capitol insurrection, his bow to reality (“I will not be going to the Inauguration”) was wrapped in rejection: The transfer of power, his refusal implied, would not be legitimate.

Many politicians and pundits initially saw Trump’s refusal to concede as pathetic, delusional, and mostly harmless. “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time?” a senior Republican official asked The Washington Post in early November, two days after the election was called for Biden. “No one seriously thinks the results will change.”

The official guidance from Biden’s camp was to keep calm and carry on. The election was over; Democrats would not dignify Trump’s attempt to contrive a debate. They took for granted, or anyway said they did, that the results would be certified and formalized by the usual constitutional means.

Trump, meanwhile, claimed over and over, in ornate fabrications, that a great victory had been stolen from him. “It did not happen,” Trump said three days before Christmas. “He did not win. We won by a landslide … Democrats perpetrated this monstrous fraud.”

Some of the nightmares I feared did not come to pass. No right-wing mobs descended on Democratic neighborhoods to interfere with voting on Election Day. No ballots were seized, and not many were delayed, by the Postal Service. Then–Attorney General William Barr not only refused to lend the Justice Department’s backing to Trump’s fabricated claims but declared publicly that he saw no evidence of fraud that could have changed the result.

In the first few days after November 3, I began to relax my guard. Fox News had called Arizona for Biden on Election Night, well ahead of its competitors—a clear sign that the network’s symbiotic relationship with Trump had its limits. When Trump came out to speak in the early-morning hours of November 4, he looked disconsolate. “We were getting ready to win this election,” he said, before bucking himself up. “Frankly, we did win this election.” His voice carried no conviction. Maybe, I thought, he will content himself with making excuses for his loss.

But many surprises were still in store. When Fox named Biden the president-elect on November 7, the announcement felt like a milestone. On this one crucial subject—the outcome of the election—MAGA viewers would have to live in the same world as everyone else.

That impression proved wildly premature. Even as Fox’s prime-time lineup—Carlson, Hannity, Ingraham—picked up the fraud story line, Trump supporters fled the network in favor of Newsmax and One America News Network and QAnon forums, where Trump was forever the victor robbed of his win. The far-right information ecosystem turned out to be even more divorced from reality than it had already appeared.

Trump’s legal campaign was more incompetent than expected—but at the same time more effective in its impact outside the courtroom. Judges dismissed Trump’s illogical lawsuits in 63 out of 64 cases. (The one exception was of no consequence.) But the manufacture of ersatz evidence by Trump’s legal team—hundreds of pages of affidavits, doctored video clips, and wild speculation about international conspiracies—built momentum among even mainstream Republican voters for the belief that something had gone badly wrong with the election.

The Republican Party, meanwhile, was shifting its posture. GOP politicians had begun by saying only that Trump was entitled to his day in court. As Trump’s wild lies began to echo around right-wing disinformation centers, the party’s leaders began to repeat them. Eighteen Republican state attorneys general joined a lawsuit asking the Supreme Court to invalidate the votes cast in four blue states. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans in Congress joined the suit as well.

The elected Republicans had to know they were lying. But Trump voters, astonished that he had lost, were exposed to a stream of intricate stories about dead people casting ballots, a Venezuelan plot to control voting machines, late-night deliveries of suitcases stuffed with fake Biden ballots. The manufactured evidence got nowhere in court, but it dominated the right-wing discourse.

Trump and his party brainwashed tens of millions of people with a proposition that could only lead to violence. What choice is there but rebellion against a pretender to the throne? Sedition, for Trump’s true believers, became the patriotic choice.

To the extent that Trump’s legal flailing had any strategy, it was to raise so much doubt about the vote in any given state that a court would rule the state had “failed to make a choice.” That finding, according to federal law, would open the door to the direct appointment of presidential electors.

This maneuver was at the heart of the only true threat of a successful coup. Every scenario in which Trump might steal the election required Republican legislatures in at least three states to throw away the results and appoint presidential electors for Trump. That would not have been the end of the fight, because Congress and perhaps the Supreme Court would still have had to bless the disputed electors. But Trump had no chance at all unless the legislators went along.

In order to embolden the legislators, Trump worked desperately to delegitimize state election results. His legal team tried to find a judge who would strike down the vote, and it mounted parallel efforts to prevent state officials from certifying the election as valid.

That was where Aaron Van Langevelde came in.

The man in rimless glasses and a paisley tie clutched a pen as if in self-defense. Van Langevelde, a boyish-looking 40-year-old, held a part-time position in a quiet cul-de-sac of Michigan’s election bureaucracy. By great misfortune he had attracted the attention of Donald Trump, who was three weeks into a desperate struggle to erase his defeat at the ballot box. Trump wanted him, lawlessly, to block the certification of Michigan’s presidential vote.

The monstrous pressure that descended upon Van Langevelde is not easy to convey. He was one of two Republicans on the four-person board of state canvassers. Trump needed them both to sabotage the certification, and one had already signed on. State and national party leaders were broadcasting lies about fraud. The president and a parade of prominent Republicans had sent the message that Van Langevelde must follow along. He ducked their calls. He went off the grid. Observers in Lansing expected him to resign.

He did not. On the afternoon of November 23, Van Langevelde showed up, pen in hand, for a public hearing. All 83 county authorities reported valid election results. Van Langevelde leaned forward to toggle on his mike, pulling down his face mask to speak. “The board’s duty today is very clear,” he said calmly. “We have a duty to certify this election based on the returns.”

Why did Van Langevelde hold the line when so many fellow Republicans bent to Trump’s authoritarian will? Whatever the inspiration—he has granted no interviews and did not respond to messages I left on his cellphone—Van Langevelde’s deciding vote had repercussions beyond Michigan. In Washington, D.C., just a few hours later, Emily Murphy, the head of the General Services Administration, finally “ascertained” that Joe Biden was “the apparent successful candidate,” unblocking presidential-transition resources that she had withheld for weeks. “Certifications of election results,” she wrote, had helped persuade her.

Through such cumulative acts of civic virtue, the levees of American democracy held. The republic survived a sustained attempt on its life because judges and civil servants and just enough politicians did what they had to do.

If Trump had suborned just that one man, Van Langevelde, the Michigan certification would have failed and the Republican legislature would have had an excuse to meddle. Van Langevelde was not a prominent party member—his day job was deputy counsel to the state House Republican Caucus—but he was thought to be a reliable one. All he really had to do was abstain, and the board would have been unable to certify the results.

“I’ve had a pretty good chance to look at the law the last few days, as you can imagine,” Van Langevelde said dryly in the hearing that day. “I’ve found nothing that gives us the authority to review complaints of fraud.”

The same drama played out still more publicly in Georgia, where Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, another Republican, defended the state’s election integrity against a ferocious assault by Trump. The president mocked him publicly and threatened him in a telephone call while demanding that Raffensperger “recalculate” the election outcome. Unaccountably, Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp—notorious for no-holds-barred voter suppression when he held Raffensperger’s job—backed up his secretary of state, even when Trump threatened to support an opponent in Kemp’s reelection race next year.

“If Brian Kemp had agreed to be completely lawless, he could have called in the state legislature and they could have tried to appoint a different slate of electors,” Richard Hasen, an election-law expert at UC Irvine, told me. “He could have refused to sign the certificate of the electors. I’ve never thought of Kemp as a voting-rights hero … but he was a hero here, stood up to tremendous pressure given the hold that Trump has over the Republican Party right now.”

So why did they do it? Why did Kemp and Raffensperger and Van Langevelde accept Biden’s victory—while nearly two-thirds of the U.S. House Republican caucus voted to overthrow the election? Why did Arizona’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, sign the “certificate of ascertainment” of Biden’s win in his state—while more than a dozen Arizona lawmakers joined legal efforts to throw away results in other states?* Why did state legislators in Pennsylvania not attempt to appoint Trump electors—while signing a letter asking Congress to reject the Biden electors?

“I think it did depend on the personalities,” Kevin Kruse, a Princeton historian, told me. “I think you replace those officials, those judges, with ones who are more willing to follow the party line and you get a different set of outcomes … If enough people do that, if enough dominoes fall, the whole thing falls apart.”

Edward Foley, an Ohio State law professor, likewise told me that old-fashioned “personal virtue” saved the republic. Of Van Langevelde, he said: “There was intense pressure on him, and he looked like a pretty young guy. He really held firm, and the only thing to account for that is character.”

I see a more optimistic explanation, less contingent on the happenstance of personality. During Trump’s attempted coup, political actors did the right thing at the moments when the power of decision was directly in their hands. The Republicans who stayed true to the law, who chose to follow their duty, were the ones who had actual power to move events. Putting your name on a brief or a letter is a kind of performance—“a cheap act of virtue signaling, or vice signaling, depending on your perspective,” as Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford law professor, put it to me. Voting can be symbolic, too, when a resolution has no chance of passage. But when it came to concrete, meaningful steps—when state officials could actually have reversed an outcome by decertifying a vote or appointing Trump electors—there were enough Republicans who would not cross that line.

Even Vice President Mike Pence, at the moment of final decision, declined Trump’s demand that he claim the unilateral power—nowhere granted him by law—to strike down state election results. This prompted shouts of “Hang Pence!” from the insurgents who poured into the Capitol that afternoon. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell chose that same moment—the formal acceptance of the Electoral College vote—to make his first definitive break with the president. Heedless opportunists such as Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, along with the majority of Republicans in the House, could vote to overthrow the election knowing that they had no chance to prevail. McConnell and Pence had meaningful power to sabotage the results, and they stayed their hand.

“There was more dedication to democracy, more commitment to democratic institutions, than I had expected,” Kathryn Olmsted, a historian of conspiracy politics at UC Davis, told me. “Because it wasn’t just a game of pretend anymore.”

Baldly stealing the election for Trump could have been costly to men like Raffensperger and Kemp. The backlash in the general public would have been immense. A plurality of their voters, after all, had cast ballots for Biden. Even so, Persily said, “I also want to praise their integrity. I think they realized they had a higher obligation here to the democracy. We shouldn’t pretend that they didn’t pay a significant price. Their political futures in Georgia are really in doubt as a result of this.”

“They weren’t ready to give up on the American experiment,” Hasen said.

This hypothesis has limits. Conscience restrained the powerful this time, but power also corrupts. If the election had been closer, or if a judge had given legal cover, or if one of the legislatures—Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia—had gone first, the temptations and pressures on others would have been harder to resist. More than once, but for circumstance, Trump’s efforts might have found traction and momentum might have broken his way.

The shock of the Capitol mayhem, which left five people dead, has momentarily changed the balance of power in Washington. Trump has begun to pay a price for inciting insurrection. Ten Republicans joined with the Democrats to impeach him for a second time. Trump lost two things very dear to him: the PGA golf championship he planned to host next year at his club in New Jersey, and his almighty Twitter account. He was locked out of his accounts, as well, on Facebook and YouTube.

Three banks, two real-estate brokers, and a law firm have withdrawn from any further business with Trump. He has lost valuable contracts to operate two New York City ice rinks and the carousel in Central Park.

Cruz and Hawley have lost key backers after leading the election denialists in the Senate. Numerous businesses and political-action committees have suspended contributions to any Republican who voted to overturn the Electoral College.

In Georgia this week, two Republican state senators lost their committee chairmanships after joining in Trump’s attempt to overturn the state’s election results. Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan, an ally of Raffensperger, stripped them of their seniority.

These are useful starting points. Our democracy can begin to heal itself if it rewards and honors people who did the right thing and punishes those who wrought the worst damage upon it. Republicans who want to make amends for election denial can speak the truth now and speak it loudly. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy put a down payment on that on Wednesday afternoon, merely by admitting that Biden won. He has a long way to go.

History is not finished with Trump, Cruz, or Hawley. If we value our democracy, they will face justice now. The reckoning has only begun.

* An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Arizona's attorney general had joined an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to discard the election results in four states.