American democracy barely survived the 2020 election, and little has happened since to fortify our democratic institutions or alleviate the authoritarian inclinations of one of our major parties. The next presidential election will provide a grueling stress test for our political system, and it is increasingly looking like it will not pass that test.
As UCLA Law Professor Rick Hasen puts it, “The United States faces a serious risk that the 2024 presidential election, and other future U.S. elections, will not be conducted fairly, and that the candidates taking office will not reflect the free choices made by eligible voters under previously announced election rules.”
And, just as he did in the run-up to the last presidential election, Donald Trump is seeding the ground of skepticism and doubt about the integrity of the 2024 contest. In 2020, he spent months denouncing the use of mail-in ballots and raising questions about the procedures that would be used to determine the winner of the election.
It’s 2023, and we can see the same strategy unfolding in the wake of the four criminal indictments that have been brought against the former president. Trump has labeled each of them “election interference,” and he has vehemently denied that he has done anything wrong.
“No, I didn’t tamper with the election!” Trump posted on August 14, “Those who rigged & stole the election were the ones doing the tampering, & they are the slime that should be prosecuted. I MADE A PERFECT PHONE CALL OF PROTEST. WHY WASN’T THIS FAKE CASE BROUGHT 2.5 YEARS AGO? ELECTION INTERFERENCE!”
Trump’s campaign also released a statement after he was indicted in Georgia in which it elaborated on the charge that the indictment was politically motivated and designed to tamper with the 2024 election. “These activities by Democrat leaders,” it said, “constitute a grave threat to American democracy and are direct attempts to deprive the American people of their rightful choice to cast their vote for President.”
“Call it election interference,” the statement continued, “or election manipulation—it is a dangerous effort by the ruling class to suppress the choice of the people. It is un-American and wrong.”
This theme also appeared in an email soliciting donations to the Trump campaign. It called the Georgia indictment a “FOURTH ACT of Election Interference on behalf of the Democrats in an attempt to keep the White House under Crooked Joe’s control and JAIL his single greatest opponent of the 2024 election.”
In addition, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other Republicans have amplified the message. “Justice should be blind,” McCarthy observed, “but Biden has weaponized government against his leading political opponent to interfere in the 2024 election.”
This charge is getting through, dividing the country yet again over the question of whether the indictments are indeed election interference.
For example, Axios reported that “Only 16% of Republicans approve of the DOJ indictment over Jan. 6 compared to 85% of Democrats and 47% of Independents.” And while “85% of Democrats believe that what Trump did in Georgia after the 2020 election was illegal,” only 16% of Republicans shared that view.
An ABC News poll brought more bad news for Americans who support democracy and the rule of law. 49% of the respondents thought that the Georgia charges against Trump are politically motivated, while 35% think they are not.
CNN’s Stephen Collinson suggests that the indictments have only solidified the view among Republicans that it is the Democrats who are undermining American democracy. Collinson writes, “There is a deep and sincere belief among many Republicans that the multiple indictments against Trump are proof of his claims that the US government has been weaponized to persecute him by Democrats who fear his return to the White House.”
The belief that the election system is rigged against the former president, Collinson argues, is “deep-seated among many Trump supporters. After all, he’s been curating it for years.”
It looks like Trump is succeeding again in throwing America into an Alice-in-Wonderland world, where a person who is guilty of election interference presents himself as a defender of election integrity and a victim of election interference.
His success does not auger well for democracy after November 2024.
If he loses, Trump will again claim that the election was stolen from him.
Last week we got a preview of what this might mean for the future of American democracy. Conservative commentator and Trump acolyte, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee used his program on the Trinity Broadcasting Network to accuse the Biden administration of trying “to destroy Trump in the courthouse rather than at the ballot box.”
Huckabee said the administration resembled “third-world dictatorships, banana republics and communist regimes.” The people in power in those regimes, he added “use their police agencies to arrest their opponents for made-up crimes in an attempt to discredit them, bankrupt them, imprison them, exile them or all of the above.”
Huckabee told his audience: “If you are not paying attention, you may not realize that Joe Biden is using exactly those tactics to make sure that Donald Trump is not his opponent in 2024.”
And he predicted that if former President Trump is driven from the race or doesn’t win the presidency because of his various legal battles, that 2024 will be the last election in this country “decided by ballots rather than bullets.”
That prediction is also a call to arms, like Trump’s admonition to the Proud Boys before the 2020 election to “stand back and stand by.”
Huckabee is not alone in issuing such a call. Last month, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin alluded to a civil war and urged Trump supporters to “rise up and take our country back.”
In 2022, failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake warned, “If you want to get to President Trump, you are going to have to go through me, and you are going to have to go through 75 million Americans just like me. And I’m going to tell you, most of us are card-carrying members of the NRA.”
She called her warning “a public service announcement.”
From the vantage point of September 2023, more than two decades after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, things look pretty bleak for American democracy.
If Trump loses next year, he will call on his supporters to “take back” their country. He will tell them that he tried to do so at the ballot box but was foiled by the corrupt, dictatorial Biden administration. He will leave it to them to take their cues from Huckabee, Palin, and Lake in deciding what needs to be done.
And if Trump is returned to the White House, democracy’s fate will be no better. As A.B. Stoddard predicts, “If Trump beats Biden next year, there won’t be another free and fair election.”
So, no matter who wins in 2024, it may be the year American democracy dies.