I should know, I tried to imagine it.
Every few days, there’s another article pointing out the likelihood that a Democratic win in the 2024 US election will be overturned, and suggesting various ways it might be prevented, none of which seem very likely to work. The best hope would seem to be a crushing Democratic victory in the 2022 midterms, which doesn’t look likely right now
What I haven’t seen is anyone discussing what the US would be like after a successful Trumpist (or other Republican) coup. The closest approaches I’ve seen are “looking backwards” pieces, written from an imagined distant future when democracy or something like it have been restored.
I decided to attempt the task myself and found it very hard going. The resulting piece is over the fold. I tried a few outlets for it, and no one was interested in publishing it. So, I’m putting it out here, with all its faults.
Suggested improvements are welcome, as is serious criticism. Snarks and trolls will be deleted and permanently banned .
The anniversary of the insurrection of Jan 6, 2021, and the realisation that it was almost successful has brought increasing number of Americans to the realisation that the end of democracy in the US is, if not inevitable, at least highly likely. The New York Times, the leading representative of mainstream liberalism, has said as much. But it’s easier to understand this point intellectually than to imagine what life will be like after democracy.
It is now clear that Republicans are both willing and able to overturn electoral results that don’t go their way. Officials who protected the electoral process in 2020 have been removed and replaced by partisans who assert that the election was stolen. The handful of elected representatives who have unequivocally condemned Trump’s assaults on democracy are being forced out, or have chosen to resign. It therefore seems highly likely that the Republican candidate will be declared victorious in 2024, whatever the voters might say. Given that assurance, it is even more probable that this candidate will be Donald Trump.
One possibility, which seemed very real until 2021, was that a large group of decent Republicans would recoil from attempts to overthrow democracy, and defect either to a third party or to support for Democrats. If even a quarter of Republicans had moved in this way, Trump and Trumpism would be finished. In reality, though, the number of elected Republicans who have made such moves, at either national or state level, can comfortably be counted on two hands.
The same is true of Republican voters. A substantial majority endorse the baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen, and can be expected to endorse any measures, up to and including a second insurrection, to ensure victory in 2024. Of the minority who accept the obvious non-existence of cheating, some small group may shift sides. But even assuming a resurgence in the popularity of Biden’s presidency, there is little that enough will shift to produce the overwhelming Democratic victory that would be needed to forestall a successful attempt to overturn the results.
In these circumstances, it seems virtually certain that a Democratic victory in the 2024 presidential election, will be overturned. In the event of a legitimate Republican victory (under existing electoral college rules, and allowing for legal voter suppression), the chances of a fair election in 2028 will be reduced even further.
This isn’t a novel conclusion. Nearly every serious student of failing democracies regards the US as being in grave danger. Resistance relies mainly on an argument from incredulity: the end of American democracy is unthinkable and therefore impossible. To break down this incredulity, it might be helpful to think about what a post-democratic America would be like.
Initially, at least, the changes would not be obvious, and would undoubtedly be dismissed by many. A rigged election outcome would not automatically do away with electoral politics. Modern autocracies like Putin’s Russia maintain the façade of elections and multi-party competition, even though the winner is generally known in advance. And there have been enough surprise results in such countries that the Democrats will be likely to persist with business as usual in the hope of eventual success. But there is no reason to think such efforts will be more successful in the US than in other backsliding democracies.
An example closer to home is experience of the US South, where the attempt to create a genuine democracy in the Reconstruction era was decisively defeated by the ‘Redeemers’ who instituted the Jim Crow system: one party rule, cemented by a combination of voter suppression, vote rigging and violent intimidation, both by police and by rightwing thugs, with significant overlap between the two. https://www.opb.org/article/2021/10/15/dozens-of-oregon-law-enforcement-officers-joined-far-right-oath-keepers-militia/
In considering possible resistance to the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The Trump restoration is in large measure, the latest stage of the backlash against Civil Rights that began with Nixon’s Southern Strategy, and most recently represented by the attack on ‘critical race theory’.
It makes sense, therefore, to assume that these struggles will dominate the political scene in the future, most obviously through the Black Lives Matter movement. Against this will be range the anti-BLM repression movement epitomised, in its legal form by slogans like Blue Lives Matter, and in the form of extra-legal violence, epitomised by Kyle Rittenhouse, and even more by the adulation he has received from the mainstream right.
The big difference between the coming struggle and that of the Civil Rights era is the role of the national government. Civil rights activists sought the involvement of the national government and the Supreme court to override racism at the state and local level, epitomized by the campaigns in cities like Montgomery and Selma
In the coming years, those roles will be reversed. The residents of cities and metro areas more generally will be overwhelmingly opposed to the national and state governments, which will rely on the support of exurban and rural voters
The Supreme Court will almost certainly act to back Republicans at every level. In these circumstances the odds will be stacked against the defenders of democracy. But the defenders of Jim Crow, facing similar pressures, put up a determined resistance for decades in support of a cause even they knew was morally indefensible. There’s no reason the same resistance can’t be sustained in the cause of democracy.
Class conflict is also likely to take place under conditions stacked in favor of capital. Among the few policy achievements of the Trump Administration was a massive tax cut, weighted towards corporations and high income earners. Conversely, worker militancy has been increasing ever since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis brought an end to the illusory prosperity of the early 21st century. Successful campaigns for a $15 minimum wage are among the outcomes
Despite this, the success of Trumpism owes a great deal to the Republican capture of the ‘white working class’, typically defined in US political parlance as those without a college education. White men without a college degree voted overwhelmingly for Trump.
The equation of ‘no college’ with ‘working class’ is problematic. The ‘no college’ group includes many farmers and small business owners, and is skewed towards older age cohorts, for whom college education was less common. And it includes lots of retirees, who have no direct interest in the outcomes of labor struggles, whatever their pre-retirement class position.
There are important countervailing trends. In electoral terms, the relationship between income and political alignment hasn’t changed. High income households are predominantly Republican (and also more likely to vote). Union households still vote predominantly for Democrats, though the long decline in union density has made this group much smaller than it was. And once we shift the focus from whites to the entire population, it’s clear that the majority of voters of working age supported the Democrats.
Despite all of these qualifications it seems likely that most whites who work for wages voted for the Republicans in 2020 and that most will be unlikely to join unions or support political campaigns in support of labor rights.
A crucial question here is the stance taken place by big business. There are obvious reasons for business to back a Republican seizure of power, and call on the state to suppress worker resistance. On the other hand, global corporations rely on a professional workforce that is ethnically diverse and mostly college educated as well as being more likely to be unionised. Furthermore business has to reckon with the fact that a Trumpist government will be inherently unstable and prone to collapse from within. Enlightened self-interest would prescribe sustained support for democracy. But the short-term benefits of collaboration with the Republicans are likely to prove more persuasive.
At a day-to-day level the struggle will mostly be over the culture wars that are at the heart of Trumpism and Republican politics more generally. Here we can expect to see the politics of resentment become even more poisonous. The key driver of Republican resentment has been the fact that, even where they hold political and economic power, the Republican base (old, white, Christian, rural or suburban, and less educated, but often well-off economically) has found itself culturally marginalised. From their perspective, the history of the decades since the Reagan Presidency has been one of continuous defeat.
The change is most obvious in relation to religious belief. When the current older cohort of white Americans was growing up, they were surrounded by people like themselves. It could safely be assumed that nearly everyone was, or least professed to be a Christian. Not only that, but the great majority of Christians were Protestants. And, in large parts of the country most Protestants were evangelical. Non-believers were non-existent, or at least invisible.
As recently as 2007, 78 per cent of the US population was Christian, compared to only 16 per cent ‘Nones’ who described themselves as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’. White Christians, at around 55 per cent, constituted a clear majority. Barely a decade later … White Christians account for only 43 per cent of the population, compared to nearly 30 per cents Nones. On current trends, Nones will outnumber White Christians by the end of the 2020s.
The shift away from religious belief is most evident among those with college education or more, rising to near unanimity among the eminent natural scientists who are members of bodies like the National Academy of Sciences. Resentment against these ‘elites’ reflects a perception that they look down on ‘real Americans’, that is, white Christians without college education
That won’t change, even with unchallenged Republican dominance of national and state politics. Rather, the reverse is more likely. In the early stages of the Trump era, there was, among mainstream liberals, an earnest desire to understand why so many American with little to gain from rightwing economic policies would support someone like Trump. It was, in large measure, this desire that propelled JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy to the top of the bestseller list.
Vance’s own moral collapse, in the words of Tom Nichols, from ‘truth-teller in his own community, contemptible and cringe-inducing clown’ https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/07/moral-collapse-jd-vance/619428/ is a symbol both for the actual moral decline of the Republican base and for the shift from sympathy to contempt in the view of that base held by the supporters of democracy. It’s reflected in heavy-handed, but effective, satires like Don’t Look Up.
It is important to recognise that cultural dominance can be misleading. Although the youth culture of the 1960s was overwhelmingly radical, it wasn’t representative of the age cohort as a whole. The older Baby Boomers who make up the ‘Vietnam generation’ have voted roughly in line with the US electorate as a whole over their lives, sometimes slightly favoring Democrats and at other times Republicans.
In the current context, it’s important to distinguish the impact of demography from that of age per se. Young rural whites without a college education are still strongly Republican, but they are a much smaller population of younger age groups. Conversely, larger proportions of young people are non-white, urban and college-educated than in previous generations. But these qualifications are ultimately unimportant, given the steepness of the age gradient in voting.
So, the post-democratic USA will be one which the great majority of educated urban dwellers, and the majority of employed workers, will be alienated from a government of crony capitalists like Trump, kept in power by ignorant and bigoted voters, stereotypically old and rural.
This is a recipe for disaster. It is hard to predict precisely what form this disaster will take. Still, it is time to think about the possibilities rather than waiting for the catastrophe to happen.
fn1. There’s also the possibility that the Republicans win legitimately (that is, under the existing Electoral College and voting rules). But the same problem would then arise in 2028 under even less favorable conditions for democracy.
fn2. Please, no discussion of whether a coup will happen or how it might be prevented. I want to focus on the aftermath.
fn3. This includes jibes to the effect that US democracy has always been a sham. Tell it to the ghost of Ernst Thalmann.