The Least Likely Candidate to Win (Trump) Is the Most Likely to End Democracy, But Any Republican Could Do It
by Neil H. Buchanan
"When the facts change, I change my mind - what do you do, sir?" Even though John Maynard Keynes might not have uttered that sentence, it is a memorable and pithy way to say that we should be open to updating our beliefs if new evidence or arguments arise. Fair enough. And having quoted myself (accurately) dozens of times arguing that the United States is a "dead democracy walking," last week's midterm results offer an important opportunity to look anew at this country's political mess.
After reassessing the situation, I sadly conclude that we are still almost certainly f*cked, but whereas I previously said that I merely hoped that a way out might emerge, I am now revising my assessment to say that there might finally be realistic, non-wishful reasons to believe that the country and the world could be spared an American descent into fascism. Again, the worst outcome still seems very likely, but certainly less so than it did eight days ago.
Let us count the ways that things have changed and not changed.
In a new Verdict column today, "How Dead is Dead? Democracy is in Slightly Less Danger Today Than It Was a Week Ago," I begin by quoting Miracle Max's famous line from "The Princess Bride" distinguishing between "mostly dead" and "all dead," saying in essence that my assessment of the US's certain future deadness might have been of the mostly dead variety.
I then devote most of the column to running through the five strategies that could potentially allow Republicans to install their 2024 presidential nominee as the unelected president, after which they can finish the task of turning the country into a one-party autocracy. For readers who choose not to click through to Verdict (Shame on you!), here is a thumbnail version of my description of the old and new realities:
(1) Key swing state governments pass laws, through the normal legislative process, effectively writing their own voters out of the presidential election.
(2) Key swing states' Republican-led legislatures rely on the insane "Independent State Legislature" (ISL) theory to override the will of their own voters, bypassing any governors who refuse to play ball (either because they are Democrats or are Georgia's Brian Kemp and Arizona's Doug Ducey circa 2020).
(3) The Vice President invokes the non-existent power on January 6 to refuse to count "invalid" electoral votes, or the VP otherwise cooperates with the kind of nutty play that Mike Pence refused to join in 2021.
(4) Even without the VP's cooperation, both houses of Congress (by simple majority votes) refuse on January 6, 2025, to allow sufficient electoral slates to be counted, tipping the election to the Republican nominee.
That is only four strategies, so what about the fifth?
(5) Violent insurrection.
Because (5) is available everywhere and always, there is nothing more to say about that. However, we can say definitively that (1) and (3) are now out because, respectively, Democrats won the governors' races in every key state but Georgia, and Kamala Harris is still VP. That is a big deal.
Interestingly, (2) is still available but (depending on what happens in three uncalled races for seats in Pennsylvania's lower house), there will be either three or two states (Arizona and Wisconsin) in which this option could be live (which requires that both legislative houses be run by Republicans). It also depends on the Supremes either recognizing the ISL or refusing to intervene in the 2024 election. Meanwhile, (4) is possible because it is all but certain that Republicans will hold the House in 2024 (thanks to gerrymandering, again) and will take the Senate in time to ignore Harris and vote en masse to put their guy (almost certainly a guy) in the White House.
So (1) and (3) are gone, (2) is still possible, and (4) is going to be possible. Plus (5), violence.
Although I do (both in today's Verdict column and above in this column) thus update my assessment, I should say that these five strategies for ending democracy arguably are best analogized to holes in the side of a space capsule. That is, it probably does not matter how many there are, because even one is enough to kill the astronauts inside.
Even so, because the three remaining strategies are shockingly transgressive, I raise the question on Verdict whether Republicans will be willing to "go there." In (2), I suppose that the legislatures in Arizona and Wisconsin could go rogue, but the more likely scenario would be that the Republican nominee convinces those legislators to invoke the ISL and then convinces the entire party to go along.
Similarly for (4), it would be a very big deal if what would amount to nearly every Republican Representative and Senator were to vote on January 6 to end democracy; but even though roughly two-thirds of House Republicans and fewer than one-fifth of Senate Republicans voted that way in 2021, that can be explained by their knowing that it was not going to happen in any case, with the House being majority-Democrat at the time. Would Mitch McConnell be an institutionalist and a statesman when the presidency is there for the taking? Ask Justice Merrick Garland.
Plus, violence. The title of this column is: "The Least Likely Candidate to Win (Trump) Is the Most Likely to End Democracy, But Any Republican Could Do It." I say this because it is possible to imagine that every not-Trump candidate is incapable of convincing enough people to set the stage for (2), (4), or (5). Or, less likely, one or more of them might be disinclined to steal the White House for himself. On that score, the editors of The New York Times wrote today that Trump is unfit for office, but they then offered this attempt at nonpartisanship:
While this board does not support many of their policy positions, some leading figures in the party — including former Vice President Mike Pence, Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, among others — have demonstrated a commitment to the rule of law and an ability to govern.
Excuse me? What?! Cheney is obviously deserving of their positive description, and I have doubts but no opinion about Pence, Scott, or Sununu, but certainly the other two have shown that they have a will to power and an ability to rationalize power grabs. (See, for example, my governor's actions over the last two years, from firing elected Democratic DA's to using the power of the state to punish a large corporation for pure speech to overruling local rule on masking and vaccinations.)
So other than Cheney -- and maybe Pence, but he is weaselly enough that one can never be sure -- I have no confidence that not-Trump nominees would be unwilling to transgress. The question then moves from "willing" to "able," that is, whether they can pull it off in the way that Trump could. I mention in my Verdict column that it might not matter who is the nominee, because the Republicans' white-hot passion might be aimed against Democrats rather than in favor of any particular person. In any case, we know that Trump would try these strategies, and if he is the nominee, it will mean that the Republicans have again decided not to divorce themselves from him and will be on board with whatever he demands. Thus, violence.
Trump would also be the least likely to win fair and square, which is why I say that he would be the most likely to end democracy. Even so, a not-Trump winner might merely be a short-term reprieve. If any other Republican is nominated and actually wins, that does not mean that he would not finish off two-party democracy after taking office. In this scenario, he and his party won and obviously would not have to go for (2), (4), or (5) to take the Oval Office, but once there, and with majorities in Congress, why not finish the job?
In the end, then, perhaps the holes in the space capsule are small enough that they can be repaired before they kill us. If Republicans abandon their Trump idolatry, they might find themselves with a nominee who is unable or unwilling to take the White House illegitimately. Note that I said "might." They also have a chance of simply winning a real election, especially given that voter suppression is getting worse in places like Georgia -- and, oh by the way, the Electoral College's anti-majoritarian features will still be in place.
Conclusions? First, the reduced number of strategies does not foreclose the possibility that Republicans will lose the presidency yet again in 2024 but do what Trump was unable to do in 2020. Second, the three remaining strategies seem tied together in the sense that it is difficult to imagine a world in 2024-25 that is unstable enough for Republicans to try one but not the other two strategies. Third, even if democracy does not end in 2025 because of a constitutional crisis that puts a Republican in the White House, a legitimately elected Republican is not guaranteed to keep the system in place. In fact, there is every reason to believe the opposite.