The Coup Next Time

Trump's election subversions are incompetent but they keep coming. There's no convincing plan to stop the most likely 2024 scenario.

New reporting from Katie Benner of The New York Times augments our understanding of the many attempts by Trump and his cronies to undermine the 2020 election both before and after voting day. Benner reports that in the weeks prior to the 2020 election, Mark Meadows, then White House chief of staff, put pressure the Justice Department to investigate groundless claims including “a fantastical theory that people in Italy had used military technology and satellites to remotely tamper with voting machines in the United States and switch votes for Mr. Trump to votes for Joseph R. Biden Jr. “ These zany requests were resisted by Justice Department staffers but, according to Benner, “show the increasingly urgent efforts by Mr. Trump and his allies during his last days in office to find some way to undermine, or even nullify, the election results while he still had control of the government.”

Trump is a sinister buffoon and his attempts at subverting democracy are farcical but also threateningly persistent. His failure to pull off a coup was due to no lack of trying. Rather, he was foiled by the reluctance of the permanent bureaucracy (which includes both career bureaucrats and military leadership) to carry out absurd and sometimes illegal demands, along with the a similar crucial reluctance among state level Republican elected officials to enact crack-pot schemes. But as Trump continues to push the lie that the election was stolen from him, Republicans who stood up to him are being marginalized inside the party.

This continued Trumpification of the GOP opens the way for the most likely path for a repeat of 2020 that ends with a successful coup. The truly dangerous possibility of an election where as in 2020 the Democrats win an electoral college victory and the popular vote but the Republicans have control of the House, the Senate, and state legislatures in crucial swing states. In such a scenario, the GOP could do what Trump demanded in 2020 but was denied: an override of the vote.

Writing in The Atlantic, Ronald Brownstein reports that the Biden White House is worried about this scenario:

The White House does see a risk in the possibility that Republicans—whether local election officials, GOP-controlled state legislatures, or a potential Republican majority in the U.S. House or Senate—will refuse to certify clear Democratic wins in the 2022 and 2024 elections. The senior Democrat told me, “Given how things have developed since January 6, if the situation is not brought under some control and this isn’t countered effectively, then I think there is a significant risk” that “Republican officials, unlike the ones we saw standing up to pressure in 2020, are going to decline to certify Democratic victories.” If Republicans hold the House, Senate, or both after the 2024 election, that could allow Congress to try to install a GOP president even if clear evidence exists that the Democrat won.

The senior White House official told me Biden aides believe that the best way to overcome Republicans’ undermining of upcoming elections is to maintain Democratic control of the House and Senate. And the best way to achieve that is for Biden to pass the agenda he ran on, which includes working to mitigate political conflict and compromising with Republicans where possible. “We have to go win elections in 2022, so we keep control of the House and Senate, which is the single most critical thing to protecting us for 2024,” the official said.

This is truly a potential coup to worry about because it’s difficult to see how it can be prevented.

The Democrat’s control of the House could be shored by voting rights reform, but the bills to do that are currently stalled thanks to the recalcitrance of Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (and, perhaps more broadly, the unwillingness of other Senate Democrats, who are keeping a lower profile than Manchin and Sinema, to coalesce behind filibuster reform).

Under current circumstances, Biden’s best shot might be to narrowly focus on economic recovery: a robust return to full-employment could blunt GOP gains in 2022 and give Biden a strong enough victory in 2024 that outright election theft will be too difficult to pull off.

In his New York Times column, Ross Douthat outlines three possible paths to contain Trump. The first is the maximalist approach of enacting sweeping reform (including abolishing the filibuster to secure voting rights reform). The second is the moderate approach of governing in a cautious fashion and hope that voters will reward Democrats in 2022 and 2024: “If you don’t want Republicans to conduct election shenanigans in 2024, then your goal should be to hold the House and Senate in 2022, and you’re more likely to do that if your party is perceived as open to bipartisanship; laser-focused on the economy; and opposed by obstructionist extremists.” Finally, there is the third “deliberately inactive” approach: “the unheroic inactivity of most Republicans hoping to defang Trumpism, who have convinced themselves that the way to avoid a worse replay of the 2020 endgame is not to fight him openly at all.”

None of the three measures seems plausible. The maximalist approach could work but it is being roadblocked by moderate Democrats. The moderate approach, even if it leads to a Biden re-election, does nothing to slow down GOP radicalization. Joe Biden’s current push for bipartisan outreach is no more likely to tame the GOP’s extremism than Barack Obama’s similar effort in his first term. The deliberately inactive approach doesn’t even seem like a tactic, just an apologia for surrender.

In sum, we can all see the disaster that is coming. Joe Biden and his White House can see it perhaps better than anyone. But there is no clear way to stop it.

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