At roughly the same time that Trump was gathering and unleashing his goons to intimidate members of Congress on Jan. 6, he was pressuring Justice Department leaders to provide legal cover for his effort to prevent certification of the election. When they refused, Trump conspired with a lower-level loyalist to take over the department and run it according to the president’s dictates. Under the threat of mass resignations, Trump eventually backed off.
This led to one of the lamest excuses in the long history of lame political excuses. Trump defenders such as Brit Hume want to award Trump kudos for desisting in the end. “Trump decided against it,” Hume tweeted. “It is not to his credit that he even considered it, but his rejection should be part of any story on it.” But this retrenchment, on Trump’s part, was a recognition of positional weakness, not a display of public virtue. The thing that matters most is this: The current front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination would have broken the constitutional order if he could have broken the constitutional order.
Meanwhile, it is clear that this same lawless, reckless man has a perfectly realistic path back to power. The GOP is a garbage scow of the corrupt, the seditious and their enablers, yet the short- and medium-term political currents are in its favor.
This is not simply a problem of the Biden administration’s messaging. It reflects deeper political challenges, recently and vividly described by Ezra Klein and David Shor. In my woefully condensed version of Klein’s column based on his interviews with the data analyst: American voters are increasingly polarized by education (which is really a proxy for complex issues of class and race). Whites with a college education have lurched Democratic. Whites without a college education have lurched Republican.
This presents Democrats with disadvantages. Significantly more voters lack a college education than have one. And voters with a college education tend to be located in urban areas, which centralizes and thus diminishes their influence. Both the electoral college and the constitutional method of Senate representation reward those who control wide open spaces.
What does this mean in practice? It means Democrats need to significantly outperform Republicans in national matchups to obtain even mediocre results in presidential and Senate races. It means that Democrats, to remain competitive, need to win in places they don’t currently win, draw from groups they don’t currently draw and speak in cultural dialects they don’t currently speak.
This analysis has sparked a predictable intramural debate. Some Democratic activists want the party to relentlessly pound its support for popular policies while de-emphasizing its association with divisive issues (such as immigration and climate change). Others discount the possibility that policy messaging can change many minds, putting their faith instead in stoking Democratic enthusiasm.
Klein’s main complaint, however, is that few Democratic lawmakers at the national level — who mostly live among like-minded, college-educated, liberal peers — are paying attention to the urgency of the task. This type of shift in electoral focus would likely involve major ideological and strategic adjustments. But who in the national debate among Democrats over budget priorities has demonstrated the slightest interest in these matters?
This is a national, not just a Democratic, emergency. Trump has strengthened his identification with the seditious forces he unleashed on Jan. 6. He has embraced ever more absurd and malicious conspiracy theories. He has shown even less stability, humanity, responsibility and restraint. And his support among Republicans has grown. Trump and his strongest supporters are in a feedback loop of radicalization.
If Trump returns to the presidency, many of the past constraints on his power would be purposely loosed. Many of the professionals and patriots who opposed him in his final days would have been weeded out long before. There is no reason Trump would not try to solidify personal power over military and federal law enforcement units to employ as a bully’s club in times of civil disorder. There is no reason he would refrain from using federal resources to harass political opponents, undermine freedom of the press and change the outcome of elections. These are previously stated goals.
What attitudes and actions does this require of us? Any reaction must begin with a sober recognition. Catastrophe is in the front room. The weather forecast includes the apocalypse.