Ever since Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, I’ve been among those who believed he would never run for president again. He’d keep the option open for as long as possible to get attention and keep other Republicans genuflecting to him, but he wouldn’t go through with it. It would just be too much trouble at his age (he’ll be 78 in 2024), and the idea of losing yet again would be too frightening.
But the events of the last few months have increased the likelihood that Trump could survey the landscape and decide that he could waltz right back into the White House if he wanted.
Not because he’d get more Americans to vote for him; barring some kind of unforeseen catastrophe, it’s difficult to see that happening. But because his party has so aggressively worked to twist and corrupt the U.S. electoral system, he could clearly lose both the popular and electoral votes and still become president again.
It’s too early to say how likely this is, but here’s how it could go down.
Step one: Trump decides to run, and obliterates the primary field.
While many Republicans are considering a presidential bid, some of whom are savvy operators, there isn’t one who looks remotely like they could defeat Trump in a presidential primary.
“If Donald Trump decides to run in 2024 again, he’s going to be the Republican nominee,” said one of those potential candidates, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. While Chris Christie recently said Trump’s decision won’t factor into his own, others such as Nikki Haley have said they won’t run if Trump does. Even if a few do step up, can anyone seriously envision another candidate duking it out with Trump and vanquishing him?
The truth is that Trump could hold a couple of rallies, toss around some insults at a few debates and secure the nomination — if anyone even bothered to run against him. The idea of a restoration would be so intoxicating to the party’s base that he would barely have to campaign.
Step two: Republican voter suppression measures have an impact.
The wave of new voter-suppression laws at the state level are a mix of the dangerous and the misconceived, and it’s likely that many will have little or no impact on the next election’s results, especially because Democrats will probably be stepping up their organizing efforts precisely to overcome them.
But contained in many of those bills are direct attacks on local elected officials, meant to intimidate them with threats of prosecution and enable GOP-controlled state legislatures to seize power from them. It’s entirely possible that we’ll see power struggles in state after state where local officials trying to administer fair and free elections are usurped by legislatures loyal to Trump who manage to to put a thumb — or a whole hand — on the scale in his favor.
We saw in 2020 in places such as Georgia a belated realization on Republicans’ part that their plans were threatened by officials, including some Republicans, who decided to perform their tasks with integrity. They won’t be caught off-guard again.
Step three: GOP state legislatures step in.
There could be a number of states where the Democratic candidate (Joe Biden, if he seeks reelection, or someone else) wins the majority of the vote, and the Republicans who find that outcome unacceptable simply refuse to approve it. This almost happened in 2020; you might remember how Trump summoned Pennsylvania legislators to the White House to have a conversation about their state’s votes. But in the end, his bidding was not done.
Will state Republican officials stand up to him again? There’s no way to know — and after so many loyalty tests based on believing the “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen, there may be few Republicans left who would try. So, multiple states might vote for Biden, but the Republicans who run one or more of them manage to grant Trump their electoral votes anyway.
Step four: Republicans in the House of Representatives take control.
If there were conflicts in Congress over which slates of electors to count, there are multiple ways you could have a major constitutional breakdown. While there are competing theories about what might happen, if in the end the election were thrown to the House of Representatives, the Constitution says each state delegation would get just one vote.
Republicans control more state delegations than Democrats. And Trump would then become the 47th president of the United States.
How likely is this scenario? I can’t say. It’s possible that state and local officials would be less likely to betray their country and its democratic system to serve Trump than in 2020, when in many ways we were saved by the willingness of election administrators, judges, and even some legislators to refuse his attempts to corrupt them.
But the opposite is also possible. At every stage of this scenario, it would be up to Republicans to prevent the worst from happening; Democrats couldn’t stop it, and not even the voters could, if the GOP is determined enough to steal the election for Trump. We await evidence that they wouldn’t be willing to do it.