Opinion | The Once and Future Threat of Trump

By Ross Douthat

Credit...Devin Oktar Yalkin for The New York Times

Last fall, before the November election, Barton Gellman wrote an essay for The Atlantic sketching out a series of worst-case scenarios for the voting and its aftermath. It was essentially a blueprint for how Donald Trump could either force the country into a constitutional crisis or hold onto power under the most dubious of legal auspices, with the help of pliant Republican officials and potentially backed by military force.

Shortly afterward I wrote a column responding, in part, to Gellman’s essay, making a counterargument that Trump wasn’t capable of pulling off the complex maneuvers that would be required for the darker scenarios to come to pass. Whatever Trump’s authoritarian inclinations or desires, I predicted, “any attempt to cling to power illegitimately will be a theater of the absurd.”

That column was titled “There Will Be No Trump Coup.” Ever since Jan. 6, it’s been held up as an example of fatal naïveté or click-happy contrarianism, whereas Gellman’s article is regularly cited as a case of prophecy fulfilled. In alarmed commentary on Trumpism like Robert Kagan’s epic recent essay in The Washington Post, the assumption is that to have doubted the scale of the Trumpian peril in 2020 renders one incapable of recognizing the even greater peril of today. In a paragraph that links to my fatefully titled column, Kagan laments the fatal lure of Pollyannaism: “The same people who said that Trump wouldn’t try to overturn the last election now say we have nothing to worry about with the next one.”

One odd thing about the underlying argument here is that in certain ways it’s just a matter of emphasis. I don’t think we have “nothing to worry about” from Trump in 2024 and I didn’t argue that he wouldn’t try (emphasis on try) to overturn the election in 2020. I agree with Kagan that the success of Trump’s stolen election narrative may help him win the Republican nomination once again, and I agree with him, as well, that it would be foolish not to worry about some kind of chaos, extending to crisis or paralysis in Capitol Hill, should a Trump-Biden rematch turn out to be close.

But emphasis matters a great deal. The Kagan thesis is that the Trump threat is existential, that Trump’s movement is ever more equivalent to 1930s fascism and that only some sort of popular front between Democrats and Romney Republicans can save the Republic from the worst. My thesis is that Trump is an adventurer of few consistent principles rather than a Hitler, that we’ve seen enough from watching him in power to understand his weaknesses and incapacities, and that his threat to constitutional norms is one of many percolating dangers in the United States today, not a singular danger that should organize all other political choices and suspend all other disagreements.

To draw a parallel from the not-too-distant past, Kagan regards Trump the way he once regarded Saddam Hussein, whose regime he depicted as such a grave and unique threat that it made sense to organize American foreign policy around its removal. Whereas an alternative possibility is that just as Hussein’s threat to the American-led world order was real but ultimately overstated by supporters of the Iraq War, so, too, Trump is a dangerous man, both a species and agent of American degradation, who nevertheless doesn’t fit in Kagan’s absolutist 1930s categories.

History may eventually reveal that Kagan, so wrong about the Iraq war, is now correct about the Trump wars. In that case, in some future of sectional breakdown or near-dictatorship, my own threat-deflating Trump-era punditry will deserve to be judged as harshly as Kagan’s Bush-era threat inflation.

But that judgment is far from settled. Let’s consider those autumn of 2020 essays I started with. In hindsight, Gellman’s essay got Trump’s intentions absolutely right: He was right that Trump would never concede, right that Trump would reach for every lever to keep himself in power, right that Trump would try to litigate against late-counted votes and mail-in ballots, right that Trump would pressure state legislatures to overrule their voters, right that Trump’s final attention would be fixed on the vote count before Congress.

If you compare all those Trumpian intentions with what actually transpired, though, what you see again and again is his inability to get other people and other institutions to cooperate.

In one of Gellman’s imagined scenarios, teams of efficient and well-prepared Republican lawyers fan out across the country, turning challenges to vote counts into “a culminating phase of legal combat.” In reality, a variety of conservative lawyers delivered laughable arguments to skeptical judges and were ultimately swatted down by some of the same jurists — up to and including the Supreme Court — that Trump himself had appointed to the bench.

In another Gellman scenario, Trump sends in “Federal Personnel in battle dress” to shut down voting and seize uncounted ballots. In reality, the military leadership hated Trump and reportedly spent the transition period planning for how to resist orders that he never gave.

Further on in his scenarios, Gellman suggested that if Trump asked “state legislators to set aside the popular vote and exercise their power to choose a slate of electors directly,” this pressure could be extremely difficult for the legislators to resist. In reality, Trump did make the ask, and every state government dismissed it: No statehouse leader proposed setting aside the popular vote, no state legislature put such a measure on the floor, no Republican governor threatened to block certification.

Finally, Gellman warned that if the counting itself was disputed, “the Trump team would take the position” that Vice President Mike Pence “has the unilateral power to announce his own re-election, and a second term for Trump.” We know now that John Eastman, a Trump legal adviser, ultimately made an even wilder argument on the president’s behalf — that Pence could declare the count was disputed even without competing slates of electors from the states and try to hand Trump re-election. But the White House’s close Senate allies reportedly dismissed this as a fantasy, and in the end so did Pence himself.

At almost every level, then, what Gellman’s essay anticipated, Trump tried to do. But at every level he was rebuffed, often embarrassingly, and by the end his plotting consisted of listening to charlatans and cranks proposing last-ditch ideas, including Eastman’s memo, that would have failed just as dramatically as Rudy Giuliani’s lawsuits did.

Which was, basically, what my own “no coup” essay predicted: not that Trump would necessarily meekly accept defeat, but that he lacked any of the powers — over the military, over Silicon Valley (“more likely to censor him than to support him in a constitutional crisis,” I wrote, and so it was), over the Supreme Court, over G.O.P. politicians who supported him in other ways — required to bend or shatter law and custom and keep him in the White House.

Instead, once he went down the road of denying his own defeat, Trump was serially abandoned by almost all the major figures who were supposedly his cat’s paws or lackeys, from Bill Barr to Brett Kavanaugh to Brian Kemp to Senators Lindsey Graham and Mike Lee and Pence. All that he had left, in the end, were Sidney Powell’s fantasy lawsuits, Eastman’s fantasy memo and the mob.

I did, however, underestimate the mob. “America’s streets belong to the anti-Trump left,” I wrote, which was true for much of 2020 but not on Jan. 6, 2021. And that underestimation was part of a larger one: I didn’t quite grasp until after the election how fully Trump’s voter-fraud paranoia had intertwined with deeper conservative anxieties about liberal power, creating a narrative that couldn’t keep Trump in power but could keep him powerful in the G.O.P. — as the exiled king, unjustly deposed, whom the right audit might yet restore to power.

That Trump-in-exile drama is continuing, and it’s entirely reasonable to worry about how it might influence a contested 2024 election. The political payoff for being the Republican who “fights” for Trump in that scenario — meaning the secretary of state who refuses to certify a clear Democratic outcome, or the state politician who pushes for some kind of legislative intervention — may be higher in three years than it was last winter. There could also be new pressures on the creaking machinery of the Electoral Count Act should Republicans control the House of Representatives.

But as I’ve argued before, you have to balance that increased danger against the reality that Trump in 2024 will have none of the presidential powers, legal and practical, that he enjoyed in 2020 but failed to use effectively in any shape or form. And you have to fold those conspicuous failures, including the constant gap between Gellman’s dire scenarios and Trump’s flailing in pursuit of them, into your analysis as well. You can’t assess Trump’s potential to overturn an election from outside the Oval Office unless you acknowledge his inability to effectively employ the powers of that office when he had them.

This is what’s missing in the Kagan style of alarmism. “As has so often been the case in other countries where fascist leaders arise,” he writes of Trump, “their would-be opponents are paralyzed in confusion and amazement at this charismatic authoritarian.” That arguably describes the political world of 2015 and 2016, but the story of Trump’s presidency was the exact opposite: not confused paralysis in opposition to an effective authoritarian, but hysterical opposition of every sort swirling around a chief executive who couldn’t get even his own party to pass a serious infrastructure bill or his own military to bend to his wishes on Afghanistan or the Middle East.

Again and again, from the first shocking days after his election to the early days of the pandemic, Trump was handed opportunities that a true strongman — from a 1930s dictator to contemporary figures like Hugo Chávez and Vladimir Putin — would have seized and used. Again and again he let those opportunities slide. Again and again his most dramatic actions tended to (temporarily) strengthen his opponents — from the firing of James Comey down to the events of Jan. 6 itself. Again and again his most alarmist critics have accurately analyzed his ruthless amorality but then overestimated his capacity to impose his will on subordinates and allies, let alone the country as a whole.

That Trump is resilient nobody disputes. That his flailing incompetence can push him to unusual extremities and create unusual constitutional risks is clear as well. That he could actually beat Joe Biden (or Kamala Harris) fairly in 2024 and become president again is a possibility that cannot be discounted.

But to look at all his failures to consolidate and use power and see each one as just a prelude to a more effective coup next time is to assume a direction and a destiny that isn’t yet in evidence. And it’s to hold tightly to certain familiar 20th-century categories, certain preconceptions about How Republics Fall, rather than to acknowledge the sheer shambolic strangeness, the bizarro virtual-reality atmospherics, with which our own decadence has come upon us — with Trump and through Trump but through many other forces, too.