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A dream of power, an awakening to destruction
How the events of last January 6 put the existence of the United States in question
As we reach the first anniversary of Trump's failed coup attempt, the former president and his supporters are indulging in a pleasant dream of his return to power in 2025. An electoral victory seems unlikely: he lost last time as an incumbent by seven million votes. But the dream rests more on resentment than on procedures. If Trump is installed rather than elected in January 2025, it seems unlikely that he would lead the country we know now, since the United States would fall apart. That is where the pleasant dream becomes a real tragedy, for everyone, including the dreamers.
This pleasant dream takes shape within a big lie: that Trump won last time. This conviction suppresses the fact that he lost by rather a lot. The claim that the Democrats manipulated procedures overcomes the (still mounting) evidence that Mr. Trump conspired to destroy them. The big lie reverses perpetrator and victim, which makes plans to do evil a second time feel like justified revenge. The big lie enables a purge of the Republican Party and nourishes the safe space known as right-wing media. And it justifies legislation. It allows Republican state legislators who pass laws to subvert the next election to talk about how they only mean to secure it.
The big lie quiets doubts, generates resentments, and solidifies plots. It allows Republicans to cancel the uncomfortable realities about what happened a year ago: an electoral defeat followed by a failed coup. It allows them to mischaracterize the substance of their own actions, which is to put forth a losing candidate once again, but this time with a more solid plan to mount a successful coup after the electoral defeat. It is this promise of future potency that makes the big lie coherent. It will all seem true in 2025, after a losing presidential candidate is installed anyway. Then he can manufacture a new reality. All doubts will dissolve. The past can be corrected. That, anyway, is the dream.
Inside the dream, politics becomes a game, where all the matters is winning. The game is played like this.
1. Culture war and covid spread keep the Democrats confused and the Republican base energized.
2. A Republican victory in the House or Senate or both in 2022 makes electoral reform impossible and begins congressional investigations meant to suggest that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent.
3. During the 2024 presidential election campaign, doubt about voting will favor the most ruthless. Preemptive claims of fraud prepare the ground for actual subversion.
4. In November 2024, the Democratic candidate wins by (let's say) ten million popular votes and eighty-nine electoral votes. Three (let's say) states won by the Democratic candidate are controlled by Republicans, and these authorities begin investigations regarding putative fraud. The time thus consumed prevents electors from being assigned by the deadline, as was the intention. (If running out the clock somehow fails, a few state legislature assign electors that do not represent the popular vote.)
5. If neither candidate wins a majority of electoral votes from this decreased pool, the presidential election is thrown to the House of Representatives. It will vote by state delegations, of which Republicans will have a majority. They opt for the losing candidate.
6. The Supreme Court might be asked to evaluate the situation, but seems unlikely to alter what (let's say) six of its members will regard as a legal outcome. A man who has decisively lost will then be installed as president.
The dream can get Mr. Trump that far, but probably no further. Democracy serves as a peaceful means of succession. Winners owe their victory to their voters. Losers acknowledge defeat. The government and the country thereby persist. A loser who claims to be the winner puts an end to all that. An installed president who owes his victory to a scheme run by a handful of politicians in a few states will provoke certain predictable reactions. The majority who voted against him will be infuriated. And some who voted for the installed president will understand that they have been betrayed. It was not their actual votes that mattered. They were only asked to vote as part of a scheme that makes voting meaningless.
So Mr. Trump just might get to give a victory speech from some safe quarter. But if he installed rather than elected, it seems unlikely that he will be generally regarded as president. Although the procedures of electing an American president are complex, antiquated, and somewhat unfair, the legitimacy of the office rests not on them so much as on the popular sense that someone has actually won. A president who is brazenly borne to power by perverse legalism cannot enjoy the legitimacy of his predecessors. He will not enjoy the element of surprise. The scenario by which he reaches the White House will be quite familiar. Even if it cannot be stopped, it will be scorned. It will be rightly regarded as the sort of tyrannical pettifogging on display in regimes such as Russia and Hungary.
In a situation where he is installed as president after losing an election, Mr. Trump would vainly try to control what will quickly cease to be the United States. His allies who wish to destroy the state will be the only winners. The precise scenario of the collapse of the United States is impossible to predict, but some of the following is likely to happen, and quickly.
Tens of millions of people protest. Paramilitaries on both sides emerge. Violence leads to fake and real stories of deaths, and to revenge. Police and armed forces will know neither whom they should obey nor whom they should arrest. With traditional authority broken, those wearing uniforms and bearing arms will become partisans, take sides, and start shooting one another. Governors will look for exit strategies for their states. Americans will rush to parts of the disintegrating country they find safer, in a process that looks increasingly like ethnic cleansing. The stock market and then the economy will crash. The dollar will cease to be the world currency.
The scheme to install a president looks smart if politics is regarded, dreamily, just as a game. The Republicans can still be prevented from winning this game: by a January 6 commission that gains the attention of a common-sense majority, or by federal electoral reform. What is really to be wished for is greater courage and patriotism among Republicans and those who fund them, grounded in an understanding that this is real life and a real country loved by real people, not a game or a dream. In real life, you cannot take power when your effort to do so undoes the country you wish to run.
Republicans are usually better strategic thinkers than Democrats. Trump has taken that away from them. The big lie has pinned many Republicans down to one person and to extreme tactics centered around him, rationalized by what he claims happened to him. Focused now so narrowly on power, Republicans are missing the larger question: power over what? It is possible to bend the rules too much, to push a people too far, to push your luck one too many times. And when all you think about is gaming the system, you lose track of the policies and attitudes by which your candidate really could win.
Democrats have a lot to think about in the months to come. They need to do two things at the same time: hinder the collapse of democracy by defending voting rights, while explaining that everything is getting better thanks to policy. Both of those things make sense, but they are hard to do at the same time. But it is Republicans, and those who fund them, who really need to have a thoughtful conversation. Are elections just games, where you take your ball and go home when you don't win? Is politics just a dream of power, where everything is permitted? Following such a dream to its end means awakening to the reality that the United States has ceased to be.