Post-Trump Republicans as the Post-Stalin Politburo: Autocracy Without the Cult of Personality

by Neil H. Buchanan
Today is the day on which I published the Verdict column that I feared I might never be able to write, acknowledging that my longstanding prediction that Donald Trump would never leave the White House turned out to be wrong.  Gloriously, wonderfully wrong.  Nothing that I have written over the last four-plus years was at all implausible, and on many days a horrible outcome seemed all but a lock.  History took a different turn, however, and that is good for the future of humanity.

Predicting that Trump and the Republicans would steal the 2020 election and then install what would effectively be a dictatorship (while maintaining the false trappings of democracy) was not my only mistaken prediction, of course.  I also wrote, for example, that Trump would both try to pardon himself and resign a day early to get Mike Pence to pardon him as an insurance policy.
Because of the last, deadly gasp of Trumpism's ugliest manifestations on January 6, however, Trump apparently decided that it would be worse for him to try to pardon himself, and he did not trust Pence to pardon him, either.  No one could have predicted that turn of events, however, so that was a matter of Trump overplaying his losing hand and finally facing some of the consequences of doing so.

Readers of today's Verdict column will find, however, that I am anything but optimistic about the nearly-immediate future of American constitutionalism.  Although I have long tied my predictions of the end of true democracy and the rule of law to the toxic presence of Trump, I argue in that new column that Trump has inadvertently pointed the way for Republicans to complete an anti-democratic coup in the very near future.

The question is, what would such a violation of our most basic political commitments look like?  Does it require Trump or someone like him to lead the way into the darkness?

Some people have been fretting about the rise of a Trump 2.0, with the concern that someone without Trump's crippling narcissism and with at least a modicum of intelligence and gloss (not of the orange skin make-up kind) could complete what Trump came perilously close to pulling off.  The obvious candidate for this is Senator Josh Hawley, who can fake sincerity in a way that Trump cannot, and who can almost sound intelligent and reasonable while making idiotic statements.
Aside: Having spent a lot of time inside the kind of name-brand institutions with reputations that lead to people calling Hawley and Ted Cruz "brilliant," I can only say that having such credentials is not at all proof of intelligence.  Neither Hawley nor Cruz, who have otherwise figured out how to play the careerist game, has shown any sign of being capable of genuinely intelligent thought.  And that is not at all unusual.  For example, one of Trump's craziest economic advisors, Peter Navarro, holds a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard.  Ivy-type degrees are neither necessary nor sufficient evidence of smarts.
But even though Hawley and Cruz are merely credentialed mediocrities, they could still pose the threat that some observers have warned us about.  Hawley is much more likely than Cruz, simply because Cruz is apparently personally loathsome and almost universally hated.  Even though I do not discount entirely the genuine concern that either one might become the next-gen Trump that people fear, however, I strongly doubt it.

The immediate reason for doubt is, like the reason that Trump did not pardon himself and resign, tied to the January 6 insurrection.  The idea, which seemed at least plausible on the morning of the 6th, that Hawley or Cruz might be able to get Trump's cultists to back them (if Trump himself were to choose not to run for President in 2024), seems now to be all but destroyed.  Trumpists are already splintering, and in any event, Trump's unique appeal seemed nontransferable to anyone else even before the White supremacist sacking of the Capitol.

We are only in the very early stages of all of this, so everything could obviously change back over the next few years.  Even so, whereas it was reasonable on January 5 to think that Trump would loom large over the country and continue to dominate his adopted party, he now seems unlikely even to be able to punish the Republicans who voted to impeach him (and those who will vote to convict him in the Senate), much less to haunt the larger number who did not vote to block Biden's electors after the riot was quelled.  Again, he might somehow reemerge, but he is clearly diminished.

If Hawley, Cruz, or others at any point thought (almost certainly delusionally) that they could take over the Trump cult, there now does not seem to be much left to lead.  That is not to say, of course, that the vast majority of Republicans who believed that the election was fraudulent have changed their minds, but it does say that their lockstep, unwavering belief in the lies of their leader depended on something that Hawley and Cruz will not be able to replicate.  Apparently, for example, the Proud Boys have turned against Trump for being too weak to complete the coup.  The danger of ongoing terroristic violence remains, but the idea that some specific Republican -- even including less obvious possibilities like Tucker Carlson, or Ivanka or Don Jr. -- can recreate the Trump killer-clown-car effect on American politics seems like a long shot.

Why, then, am I pessimistic about the future?  In my Verdict column, I predict that Republicans will be able to lock down (through means that I explain in detail in the column and so will not rehash here) enough states to make it impossible for any Democrat to win the Electoral College again.  If Republicans are especially adept, they might even be able to set it up so that their candidate wins the (heavily suppressed) popular vote, creating the illusion of legitimacy.

The elements necessary for all of this to happen are already baked into our system, starting with the very existence of the Electoral College but obviously not ending there.  The Republican-dominated federal judiciary gladly allows gerrymandering to continue apace, and the Supremes might even declare independent redistricting commissions to be unconstitutional.  The Voting Rights Act was gutted more than seven years ago, and even in 2020, the Court allowed states like Texas to do crazy things like limit the number of drop boxes for mail-in votes.  And when the occasional Democrat wins a governorship, the outgoing governor and his gerrymandered legislative majorities strip the incoming executive of power.  All with nary a peep from the Third Branch.

As I explain in my Verdict column, the only reason that the nonviolent part of Trump's 2020-21 coup d'etat failed is that there were a minimal number of Republicans in positions of authority who said: "We didn't do a good enough job changing the laws in our favor, and I'm going to have the decency to follow the laws as currently written."  But what those same people are now doing will change the laws so that they can subvert democracy without having to violate the letter of the law.  It is similar to business tax avoidance, where many smaller companies actually cheat (by not reporting cash income, overstating deductions, and so on) while large corporations have done such a good job buying votes in Congress that they do not have to bother violating laws that were written to benefit them.
And what has counted as "normal politics" for Republicans for the last generation will return, as ugly and dishonest as ever.  Will they filibuster everything possible in the Senate?  Yes.  Will they continue to call every Democrat a radical socialist?  Yes.  Will they race-bait Kamala Harris and every other Democrat of color?  Yes.  Will they make mountains out of molehills in the politics of outrage?  Yes.  Will they continue to claim that Democrats want to shut down police forces and send BLM protesters into the living rooms of Real Americans?  Yes.  None of that requires a Trump to make it happen, because that is what current Republicans have been doing for decades.

So what does it matter that Mitch McConnell is angry with Trump right now?  Neither he nor Liz Cheney ever had any objection to rigging the rules to allow Republicans to dominate politics while staying (roughly) within the letter of the corrupted rules that they have written.  McConnell will say anything -- as he always has, including his long-ago laughable claim that low voter turnout is proof that people are satisfied with the system -- to get back into power and keep it.

In the end, that is just as scary as a reboot of a Trump-like cult of personality.  As I suggested in the title of this column, the future of America could see the Republican Party evolve into a power vortex without any particularly dominant figure, instead led by a series of undistinguished survivors of intra-Politburo struggles who benefit from the deep corruption of the political system.
And for those who take comfort in the fact that the Soviet Union ultimately collapsed, we need only recall that the post-Mao (or at least post-Deng) Chinese communist party has also been led by a series of forgettable tyrants, with the real political power coming from having set up the system as a no-lose game for themselves.  Unlike the Soviet Union, that despotic regime seems to be going strong.

To be absolutely clear, I am not saying that there is no difference between a successful Trump coup and what the Republicans are continuing to do to our democracy.  I am saying, however, that the end result could be the same, with the United States soon becoming effectively a one-party, minority-ruled country.  And not only does it not require a new cult leader to make it happen, it might actually be easier to pull off without the chaos of Donald Trump.
In today's Verdict column, I refer to "Trump-less Trumpian autocracy."  My point here is that such Trumpian autocracy could take one of (at least) two forms, one with a new Trump and another with no Trumpish figure at all.  Although the former possibility is always to be feared, the latter path is a continuation of the Republicans' long-term creeping assault on the rule of law.  Democrats and everyone who hates despotism must find a way to turn that back, starting immediately.