The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Stunning Trump revelations raise fears of a dark, violent future

A makeshift gallows with a noose appears outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

As extraordinary revelations pour forth about Donald Trump’s plot to destroy our political order after the 2020 election, an unsettling question arises: What does it mean that for most elected Republicans, none of what we’re learning is remotely disqualifying, either in a party leader or a 2024 presidential nominee?

At the close of Thursday’s Jan. 6 select committee hearing, J. Michael Luttig, a former federal judge widely respected by conservatives, issued a long-term warning. Trump and his allies pose a “clear and present danger to American democracy,” Luttig said, and pledge to “succeed in 2024 where they failed in 2020.”

“The former president and his allies,” Luttig continued, “are executing that blueprint for 2024 in open and plain view of the American public.”

Retired conservative Judge J. Michael Luttig testified on June 16 that President Trump and his allies pose a “clear and present danger” to American democracy. (Video: Reuters)

This might seem like a narrow procedural prediction: If 2024 is super-close, they’ll attempt the same manipulation of our creaky electoral college machinery as last time. They might succeed. They’re putting those pieces in place right now.

That’s all true. But Luttig’s testimony, along with the shocking new revelations, point to something more fundamental at stake. These hearings are about what kind of long-term democratic future lies ahead: They represent an effort to minimize the possibility that we’re sliding headlong into a protracted era of chronic instability and rising political violence.

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If you doubt this, please note: The foreboding expressed by Luttig and others is shared by experts who study democratic breakdown. When Luttig says we’re at a “perilous crossroads,” and says only Republicans can “bring an end” to the threat, he’s not alone.

Two of those experts, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, professors of government and politics, recently argued that we’re heading into a “coming age of instability.” This is not a claim of pending “civil war.” It’s more subtle: a future of smoldering conflict akin to “the Troubles” in Ireland.

“Such a scenario would be marked by frequent constitutional crises, including contested or stolen elections,” they wrote, predicting our elections might devolve into periodic referendums on whether the United States will be “democratic or authoritarian.”

This portends “heightened political violence,” they suggested, including assassinations, bombings and violent confrontations in the streets, “often tolerated and even incited by politicians.”

How GOP leaders respond to the moment will help determine whether that happens, the scholars noted. It bodes badly that GOP leaders rejected a bipartisan Jan. 6 accounting and have “refused to unambiguously reject violence.”

Whether those scholars are right remains to be seen. But the most recent developments are not encouraging.

We’re now learning that Trump and his co-conspirators corruptly pressured many government actors to steal an election he knew he lost. That he knew the scheme was illegal. That he weaponized a mob to chase his vice president through the Capitol, resulting in horrifying political violence, destruction and death.

It’s easy to get seduced by the vivid, damning nature of these revelations. Now that they’re exploding in our faces, surely some sort of accountability awaits the coup plotters. Surely Republican elites will quietly reckon with the truth about Jan. 6 and renounce Trump as fundamentally unacceptable in a party leader, even if they don’t say so loudly.

Look at those headlines. Big changes must be coming, right?

Maybe. But in the background, scores and scores of GOP candidates across the country remain fully committed to the notion that the underlying mission of the coup plotters and Jan. 6 rioters was just. The revelations haven’t slowed their campaigns in the slightest.

The Jan. 6 committee will release a damning report this fall, and maybe we’ll see prosecutions. But here’s another possibility: No one is prosecuted, Republicans take Congress, Jan. 6 headlines fade, and after the noise dies down, many pro-coup Republicans are in positions of control over election machinery — and Trump or a designated successor is a favorite for the 2024 GOP nomination.

How many GOP leaders are calling on those candidates to renounce this permanent posture holding that future election losses will be subject to nullification? How many GOP leaders are condemning what we’re learning about Trump’s coup attempt?

It is precisely this fact, that few GOP leaders see a need to reorient the party away from these tendencies, that alarms experts in democratic breakdown. So I contacted Levitsky, one of the above article’s co-authors, to ask whether a forceful stand by GOP leaders against what we’re now learning might help alter the trajectory he fears.

“It would make all the difference in the world,” Levitsky told me. As he defined the problem, the GOP is highly competitive in national elections while simultaneously being “captured by authoritarian forces.”

If GOP leaders treated the Jan. 6 committee’s findings as revelatory and significant, Levitsky continued, it might steer us toward greater stability. This would prompt “institutional reform,” he said, and send a message to all levels of the party that “this is beyond the pale. We don’t do this in America.”

The alternative: GOP leaders don’t treat this as beyond the pale at all, but instead as containing the makings of a tolerable or even desirable future. This would impose a “great cost,” Levitsky said, because “many Americans will be left with a message of ambiguity.”

I contacted Luttig to ask: How important is it for GOP elites to renounce the pro-coup candidates in their midst, and flatly declare the new Trump revelations disqualifying in a party leader and 2024 nominee?

If they don’t, Luttig told me, he agrees America may be headed for a period of “protracted democratic instability.”

Alternative futures are possible. Democrats might rebound and win decisively in 2024. Or maybe Trump will retire to Mar-a-Lago, Republicans will cleanly win in 2024, and President Ron DeSantis will turn out to be more authoritarian bark than bite.

But one thing seems unavoidable: If GOP leaders were to treat these revelations with the urgency and seriousness they deserve, it would probably render the darker alternative a lot less likely.