If three examples make a trend story, the Washington Post piece by Robert Kagan late last week, on the “increasingly inevitable” return of Donald Trump, not as merely president but as dictator, is trending in my world. I had three people send it to me over the weekend—people who are Democrats, sure, but not politicos or journalists. They hate Trump but hadn’t really worried that he could be reelected—until they read Kagan’s piece. Now they’re terrified.
Kagan’s premise is sound: If Trump is elected, he will rule as a dictator. Likewise, the alarms sounded by The Atlantic’s recently released special issue, “If Trump Wins,” seem reasonable and prudent to me. “The country survived the first Trump term, though not without sustaining serious damage,” editor Jeffrey Goldberg writes. “A second term, if there is one, will be much worse.”
But that’s if Trump wins. I don’t expect him to win 11 months from now. And I’m starting to worry that some of the alarm might be counterproductive.
You don’t need investigative reporters or well-placed sources to know that Trump plans to end democracy. He’s told us, repeatedly, and as Maya Angelou famously warned, we ought to believe him. In his first campaign speech of the 2024 election, in Waco, Tex., he promised his followers, “I am your retribution.” On Veteran’s Day, he pledged to “root out the Communists, Marxists, fascists, and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country, that lie and steal and cheat on elections.” He has openly said he’d use the Justice Department and other federal agencies to go after his enemies. His plans for immigrants, shoplifters, and first-term officials who’ve turned on him, including former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, involve violence. He tried his best to stay in the White House after losing to Joe Biden in 2020; if he wins again, and wants to stay, he’ll have the might of the state behind him. As Kagan and several of the Atlantic contributors outline, Trump plans to weaponize the Justice Department, replace civil servants with loyalists, and shun the so-called “adults” in his cabinet who objected to his authoritarian agenda during his first term.
Meanwhile, defending him against 91 felony indictments in three states and the District of Columbia, his team of lawyers has marshaled every imaginable argument for why the law doesn’t apply to Trump. Federal Judge Tanya Chutkan, presiding over special counsel Jack Smith’s charges against him relating to the January 6 insurrection, summed it up when she rejected efforts to get the charges dismissed. “Defendant’s four-year service as Commander in Chief did not bestow on him the divine right of kings to evade the criminal accountability that governs his fellow citizens,” she wrote on Friday. Other judges should keep Chutkan’s 48-page ruling handy.
If we’re alarmed reading the evidence that Trump will do away with our democracy, the right response is to step up everything we’re planning to do in the run-up to next November. If you can only give money, give more. Not only to candidates, but to grassroots groups doing the ongoing work of building relationships with voters, especially low-income voters, young voters, and voters of color, like the Movement Voter Project and the Black Voters Matter Fund. If you can write letters or make phone calls, start earlier and do more. Don’t forget about state and local races.
There’s no doubt that the desperate activism that filled the streets after Trump was inaugurated, and after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, has dissipated. A lot of the “alphabet groups,” as one local candidate described the new grassroots voter mobilization projects, known by their acronyms, that emerged in 2017 have come undone. But they’re not all gone: Just last month I spoke to a group of 50 activists with the Westchester County Indivisible group, in Representative Jamaal Bowman’s district, on a pleasant Sunday when local pubs were crowded with folks watching football. I’m sure there were thousands of other activists all around the country, that day and that week, thinking about how to mobilize to defeat Trump and other Republicans, up and down the ballot. Many folks will take a break for the holidays, but they need to get right back at it in January. And I know most will.
Right now the Biden coalition is divided, over Israel and Gaza, over his immigration policies—too tough for immigrant-rights advocates, not tough enough for Republicans and some purple-state Democrats—and the unfinished business of his first term, including securing voting rights. I’m not here to defend Biden on all of those things. I just know one thing: The five-alarm fire that Trump’s reelection represents, once he almost certainly clears the primary field and consolidates GOP elites behind him, is not best fought by igniting a civil war within the Democratic Party—which is what calls for Biden to stand down, or to dump Vice President Kamala Harris, would represent. I’ve written about this multiple times, including here and here and here.
There is no obvious successor to Biden except Harris, and there is no popular, appealing, commonsense alternative to Harris, at all. There isn’t. Full stop. On top of the fact that there’s no obvious rival, making a case to shove Harris aside would open an ugly racial divide. Let’s not spend more than a decade telling Black women they’re the backbone of the Democratic Party and then topple the only one in history who’s had a fighting chance of becoming president.
Last week’s Fox debate between California Governor Gavin Newsom and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis got a lot of attention, with higher ratings than previous GOP debates and Trump town halls. Some people believed it was Newsom reminding Democrats he’s always around if they want an alternative to Biden and Harris, but I didn’t see it that way. I’ve covered Newsom and Harris since they ran, successfully, for San Francisco mayor and district attorney, respectively, in 2003. They are allies, though also rivals. I do not see Newsom, who has many of Harris’s same donors and supporters, coming for her, let alone Biden. At the debate with DeSantis, Newsom said, “Neither of us will be our party’s nominee in 2024.”
I like Gavin Newsom. I mostly think he’s been a good California governor. In his debate with DeSantis, which he “won” by any measure, I could see that he’d make a formidable presidential candidate—if he was running for President of Blue America. Of the entire country? I’m not as sure. He’s handsome, he’s polished, he’s culturally coastal and the indignation he shows when he talks about red state governors like DeSantis persecuting LGBT people and banning books, an indignation I admire and share, might well read as condescension and elitism to red and purple state folks. Neither he, nor two great Democratic governors also mentioned as Biden-Harris alternatives, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, immediately announce themselves to me as a person who can win more states than 81-year-old Joe Biden. Both are untested on the national stage.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad they’re out there—whether for next year or 2028 or 2032. It’s the same reason anti-Trump GOP donors are likely to prop up Nikki Haley even as she trails Trump in every state, including South Carolina, where she was a popular governor. Biden and Trump are not young men, something could happen to them, and both parties need alternatives. Biden has Harris, and at least a half dozen remarkable Democratic governors and senators in the wings as well. Trump has… well, Trump has strangled other Republicans in their political cribs (poor dumb Mike Pence) and he has no real opponent, except (potentially) his legal troubles, his own poor health, and time.
It’s important to look clearly at the devastating consequences of a second Trump term. I almost wrote “unthinkable” consequences, but we can think about them, and we should. We should not paralyze ourselves with alarm, or divide into panicky factions searching for a political savior. “Authoritarians create a climate where they seem unstoppable,” author Ruth Ben-Ghiat told The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, who wrote in a similar vein on Tuesday. “Creating an aura of destiny around the leader galvanizes his supporters by making his movement seem much stronger than it actually is. The manipulation of perception is everything.” Squabbling among Democrats makes the anti-Trump movement look weaker. Enjoy the holidays as we hurtle towards 2024. Then buckle down to work.