A year before the 2020 election, about two dozen constitutional scholars and democracy advocates traveled to Washington to work through a range of scenarios where something goes awry on Election Day.
So the group considered a slew of hypothetical catastrophes: “What do we do if a vigilante group takes over a major county tabulation facility and burns it to the ground? What do we do if there is a military coup?” But, as Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser to the elections program at Democracy Fund tells it, the experts were too quick in retrospect to dismiss the outrageous as unlikely to happen in a country like the United States.
“Either we were not creative enough or the norms of civility our nation has seen over centuries were not reliable enough,” said Patrick, a former elections official in Maricopa County, Ariz.
The challenges for American democracy were on stark display almost exactly two months after Election Day, on Jan. 6, when a violent mob of Trump supporters mounted a deadly insurrection on the U.S. Capitol. And the challenges have been clear in the eight months since the riot, as Trump and his allies have intensified false claims of election fraud and the former president has remained the Republican Party’s most popular leader.
Now, as Trump looks and sounds increasingly like he intends to mount a presidential campaign rerun, Democrats and democracy experts are grappling with what such a campaign — and a potential second Trump presidency — would mean for the country.
In recent weeks, Trump has maneuvered to firmly establish himself as the predominant and most powerful figure in Republican politics. He has injected his voice into federal and state campaigns, endorsing several secretary of state candidates who embraced his false fraud claims and worked to overturn the results of the 2020 election. And while still banned from Twitter, he has issued a flurry of angry tweet-like statements through his political action committee.
He has also reemerged at rallies, appearing last Saturday in Perry, Ga., with another rally planned for Oct. 9, at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines. Speaking in Perry, the former president promised to “make America great again” and called for “an earth-shattering win in November 2022,” before looking ahead to the next presidential election.
“We’re not forgetting 2020,” Trump said. “The most corrupt election in the history of our country. Most corrupt election in the history of most countries, to be followed by an even more glorious victory in November of 2024.”
In some ways, the concerns among Democrats, constitutional scholars and democracy advocates about what the return of Trump could mean are simply one side of a coin, with Trump supporters representing the flip side.
A majority of Republicans still support Trump leading their party, according to polls. A CNN poll released in September found that 68 percent of Republicans and those who lean Republican say democracy is under attack, with about 7 in 10 of them believing that President Biden didn’t win the 2020 election. One side’s nightmare scenario — Trump running in 2024 and reclaiming the presidency — represents to the other side simply the democratic system working as it should.
The threats to democracy that Trump critics envision are largely twofold.
One real risk, they say, is that four years after the failed Jan. 6 insurrection, Trump and his supporters emerge in 2024 more sophisticated and successful in their efforts to steal an election.
“For me, the scary part is, in 2020, this was not a particularly sophisticated misinformation or disinformation campaign,” said Matt Masterson, who ran election security at the Department of Homeland Security between 2018 to 2020. Referring to some of the outlandish conspiracy theories of ballot fraud posited in the wake of the 2020 election by Trump’s allies, he added: “We’re talking about bamboo ballots and Italian satellites and dead dictators.”
In the future, Masterson said, these sorts of falsehoods are going to become more advanced and nuanced — exploiting genuine areas of confusion in the electoral system — and thus harder to combat.
Masterson pointed to the recall election in California earlier this month, in which Trump and the leading Republican candidate, who ultimately lost, both baselessly claimed fraud before the election even took place. The very existence of these false allegations of rigged and stolen elections erode trust in the democratic process and are also likely to become the norm going forward, he added, because of a growing “cottage industry of election delegitimization and pre-delegitimization.”
Newly revealed details of a memo written by John Eastman, a prominent conservative lawyer who worked with Trump in the weeks before the Jan. 6 insurrection, show that efforts to subvert the results of the 2020 election were more brazen than previously known. In the memo, first disclosed in “Peril,” the new book by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Eastman described the vice president as “the ultimate arbiter” of election results and argued that Vice President Mike Pence had the authority to simply toss out the electoral college votes of certain states, thereby clearing the way for a Trump victory. “Pence then gavels President Trump as re-elected,” Eastman wrote.
The second possible scenario experts envision is more insidious, they say, a sort of slow-boiling frog of American democracy. In this case, Trump — or an acolyte with similarly anti-democratic sensibilities — runs and wins legitimately in 2024, emerging newly emboldened and focused on retribution. Then, the new president, intent on strengthening his own position and punishing critics, begins remaking the political and electoral system, using legal means to consolidate power and erode democratic institutions.
“We often think that what we should be waiting for is fascists and communists marching in the streets, but nowadays, the ways democracies often die is through legal things at the ballot box — so things that can be both legal and antidemocratic at the same time,” said Daniel Ziblatt, a professor at Harvard University and the co-author of “How Democracies Die,” who is working on a successive volume. “Politicians use the letter of the law to subvert the spirit of the law.”
Perhaps the most relevant modern example, several democracy experts said, is Hungary under the rule of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who returned to power in 2010 after a previous stint as Hungary’s leader about a decade before.
Tucker Carlson — who regularly articulates the intellectual heart of Trumpism — traveled to Hungary in August to broadcast his prime-time Fox News show from there, at one point lauding Hungary as “a small country with a lot of lessons for the rest of us.”
Upon taking power in 2010, Orbán “has steadily chipped away at the linchpins of a liberal democratic system,” said Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, a nonpartisan, pro-democracy organization.
“He stacked the courts, he engaged in gerrymandering, he had friends and allies take over the media,” Abramowitz said, referring to Orbán. “So while he has elections, they start from a very, very stacked deck. While it’s not impossible, it’s going to be very, very difficult for him to be dislodged in the normal democratic system.”
The U.S. Constitution, with its protections of free speech and a free press, as well as its prohibition on anyone winning the presidency more than twice, offers a guiding document for preserving democracy. But Trump, during his four years in office, made clear that he wished he had the powers of a monarch or a strongman, repeatedly flouting the nation’s long-held rules and norms.
And he exposed the limits of the system.
Trump, for instance, installed a number of acting Cabinet secretaries when he could not win Senate confirmation for his picks; made clear he expected the attorney general to act as his own personal lawyer rather than represent the interests of the United States; implied that the Supreme Court justices he nominated should rule in his favor out of personal loyalty; and tried to leverage U.S. foreign policy to influence his own political fortunes — resulting in the first of his two impeachments.
A number of traditionally apolitical and nonpartisan federal agencies, too, became embroiled in politics and controversy during Trump’s tenure, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Tim Snyder, a history and public affairs professor at Yale University, agreed that the modern parallels between the United States and Hungary are striking.
“What we’re looking at is actually the typical way that democracies are undone,” said Snyder, who is working on an updated graphic edition of his book, “On Tyranny.”
Asked to respond to the notion that Trump represented a threat to democracy, Trump’s spokeswoman, Liz Harrington, sought to level the same allegation against the current president. “Biden has thrown away our sovereignty at his open border, issued unconstitutional decrees to private companies, and humiliated the United States in Afghanistan,” she said, reiterating Trump’s false claim that the election was rigged to say that Biden and his party “continue to threaten our very constitutional republic.”
Indeed, Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2021 report gave the United States a score of 83 — alongside countries such as Mongolia and Ghana — marking an 11-point decline from its score of 94 a decade ago, when it appeared alongside established democracies like France and Germany. Freedom House’s scores are on a scale of 0 to 100.
But Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D), whose own state has been on the front lines of post-election fights spurred on by Trump’s baseless claims that the election was stolen, said that Trump’s behavior while in office — from potentially using the presidency to enrich his own family to smashing through other traditional guardrails — raises concerns that a 2024 Trump victory could lead to a newly fortified and shameless president, eager to further upend democratic norms.
“All these other things that are just not the normal ways that we operate as a country, that are parameters that elected officials are held to — he never was,” Hobbs said. “And the fact that there’s been a lack of accountability for any of that and then, in fact, potentially rewarded by being reelected is highly, highly problematic.”
Experts said that perhaps the most precipitous recent threat to American democracy, however, remains Trump’s election claims.
“Democracy depends on the belief of losers in a given election to trust the process, and to marshal support so they can win another day,” said Nate Persily, a professor at Stanford University and co-director of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project. “If we have entered a phase where the process is simply not trusted, that is a dangerous situation to be in, where people do not trust elections as being the way that we replace authority.”
A number of Republicans have used Trump’s false claim as a catalyst for overhauling election and voting laws, even in states where the 2020 election ran smoothly. At least 250 laws being proposed in at least 43 states would limit mail, early in-person and Election Day voting, changes that Democrats say could especially disenfranchise minority voters. There are also some Republican-led efforts pushing to allow state legislatures to overturn election results.
“I do hear from the community and faith leaders the concern that we’re losing the ground we gained through literal blood and tears and death during the civil rights movement and so many struggles, that we’re backtracking,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official in Texas’s largest county.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) said she is ultimately “optimistic” because despite “extreme pressure in 2020,” the efforts of elected officials such as herself to protect democracy and ensure free and fair elections ultimately prevailed. Yet she, too, said that the future “effort to undermine democracy” is likely to “be back in a way that is smarter, stronger, probably more organized, perhaps even more intense and better funded than ever before,” and pointed to the new voting laws as one of the challenges.
Unlike after Watergate, however, no clear or sustained effort exists to broadly protect democratic institutions as the nation hurtles toward the uncertainty of the 2024 presidential election. Ziblatt, the co-author of “How Democracies Die” — a book Biden carried around in 2018, scrawling notes in the margins and dog-earring favorite passages — suggested that some reforms are probably necessary to protect U.S. democracy going forward.
“These are soft guardrails that have constrained politicians in the past, and what the Trump administration has made clear is that we need to harden those guardrails,” Ziblatt said.
But, he added, he worries that some are still too squeamish to come to terms with the potential threat U.S. democracy faces if Trump attempts to regain power.
“If you look at how democracies get in trouble in other places, it’s how executives once in office abuse their office, and I think people just don’t want to think that Trump could get back into the presidency,” Ziblatt said. “There’s a way in which we’re not trying to think of the worst-case scenario, which is Trump gets reelected, but I think what we’ve learned is you have to prepare for the worst-case scenario.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.