“As Trump hints at 2024 comeback, democracy advocates fear a ‘worst-case scenario’ for the country”


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.

The country’s political system was being tested by a campaign like no other in modern history, with an incumbent president, Donald Trump, who showed little regard for the democratic traditions and constitutional norms that had guided his predecessors — and who repeatedly claimed that the only way he could lose was through rampant fraud.

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….

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.”…

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.”

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