We should be very afraid.
There are certainly reasons Trump might decline to run. He’ll be 78 years old in 2024, and running for president is a lot of work. He’s busy with legal troubles and the decline of his business. Another loss would indelibly mark him as the biggest loser in the history of American politics, and he has spent a lifetime trying to convince everyone he’s not a loser.
But if he started with those thoughts in his head, things may have changed. Let’s consider how it now looks from Trump’s perspective:
Republicans are rallying around his potential candidacy, even if they privately think it’s a bad idea. When Trump took hold of the 2016 primaries, his party went through a period of public breast-beating, with many Republicans proclaiming he should not be their leader. Nothing like that will happen next time.
The Hill recently reported that “Senate Republicans, with a few exceptions, are hoping that former President Trump does not announce his intention to run again for president.” But not a single one would go on record saying so. Instead, as CNN reports, elected Republicans “are expressing little to no reservations about the prospect of Trump topping the ticket again.”
Even if Republican voters harbor doubts — a recent Pew Research Center poll found that only 44 percent of them want Trump to run again — just about every GOP politician will either dodge the question or endorse the idea of him running.
That creates its own snowball effect: The more Republicans show they won’t stand in his way, the more others will fear stepping out of line, and the more Trump will be convinced he’ll have the whole party behind him if he runs. Which he will.
He’d have no primary opposition. A dozen Republicans may run for president in 2024 if Trump doesn’t, including senators such as Ted Cruz (Tex.), Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.); governors such as Ron DeSantis (Fla.), Greg Abbott (Tex.) and Kristi L. Noem (S.D.); and former Trump officials Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley. But every one of them knows they wouldn’t stand a chance with him in the race.
President Biden will almost inevitably look beatable. While most presidents win reelection unless they’re undone by something dramatic like a recession, in our polarized age incumbents will usually appear vulnerable. Even though they went on to win fairly easily, Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton all had lackluster approval ratings in the year in which they were trying to be reelected. No matter how well things go for Biden, his ratings will probably never get much higher than 50 percent, if that. And if Democrats lose Congress in the 2022 midterms, Trump will look at him and see weakness.
Trump thinks he can steal the election. This is the most disturbing factor of all, because he could be right. Trump’s efforts to steal the election in 2020 were mostly improvisational and ad hoc. That will not be the case in 2024.
Across the country, Republicans are pushing out professional election administrators and replacing them with Trumpist conspiracy theorists who say the 2020 election was stolen. Trump loyalists who propagate the “big lie” are running for secretary of state so they can control the voting system. “We’re trying to get America First secretaries of state elected throughout the country,” declares a Nevada candidate who says he was recruited by the Trump operation to run for that office.
These are true believers, people who are convinced that if Democrats win an election it’s proof that it was illegitimate and the results must be changed — and they could have the power to make it happen.
Congress could take steps to make it harder for Trump loyalists to steal the election, by passing election reform and a revised Electoral Count Act, which sets the process Trump tried to subvert on Jan. 6. But they’d have to set aside the filibuster to do it, which doesn’t look like it will happen.
Put this all together, and when Trump looks out from Mar-a-Lago, here’s what he’ll see: No Republican of any importance will stand against him. He can ride to the nomination without even trying. Biden will be vulnerable. Even if he loses, his people are ready and willing to help him steal the election. He’ll have his revenge, and everyone will know he’s a winner again.
It’s a combination Trump may find impossible to resist. And this time, it really could mean the end of American democracy.