It was written by Robert Kagan, an establishment policy expert, long associated with Republican administrations. Now divorced from the GOP, he has become an outspoken never-Trumper.
The piece is both a dead-on analysis of our current moment in history and a dire warning for the very near future. While I don’t subscribe to all its assumptions, I find its basic premise disturbingly plausible, maybe even likely.
The essay envisions a dystopian nightmare enveloping the 2024 presidential election, the culmination of a constitutional crisis that is clearly already in motion. As things stand now, Kagan says, the groundwork is almost in place for Trump to steal that election.
Kagan insists that Trump will indeed be the candidate, that he will challenge the results if they don’t fall his way, and that this time he has enough clout in key state legislatures to make it stick.
This raises a set of circumstances never envisioned by the Framers, Kagan says, with both parties claiming victory, with each side accusing the other of constitutional fraud, and with a compromised judiciary twisted in knots sorting it all out. Tempers flare all over the country, violence erupts in any number of state capitals, and Joe Biden has to decide whether and how to restore order. Not a pretty picture.
The constitution offers no guidance for such a situation. Its checks and balances can neither check nor balance the machinations of a rogue political party in thrall to a would-be despot.
It’s hard to argue with Kagan’s reasoning, especially now, with the nation’s electoral process under open assault by a Republican party that doesn’t seem to understand the fire it’s playing with.
But as he describes the various forces at work to bring about this ugly scenario, some skepticism finds its way in.
Consider his assumptions about violence from the people who make up Trump’s base, starting with this factoid about the Jan 6 insurrection:
Although private militia groups and white supremacists played a part in the attack, 90 percent of those arrested or charged had no ties to such groups. The majority were middle-class and middle-aged; 40 percent were business owners or white-collar workers. They came mostly from purple, not red, counties.
He seems to take from this that under the right circumstances — which Trump will happily provide — even such ordinary folk can be driven to violence.
And maybe they can, but I don’t see it. I think Kagan overestimates both the ability and the will of such folk to take up arms. It’s not an easy thing to say yes to, and while some in that Jan 6 crowd were no doubt inclined to violence, most were not.
Nor do I buy that those 400-or-so arrestees are a representative sample of citizens available for armed insurrection. I’m guessing most of them didn’t know what they were getting into that day — and would rather not get into it again. Their cause, which is only vaguely defined, is based less on any perceived grievance and more on mindless fealty to a con man. This is not the stuff of revolutions.
As for the militia groups, I’ve said before that they are not ready for prime time. They may aspire to terrorism, but they’re too soft. Their tradecraft is sloppy, their thinking is muddled, and they’re riddled with informants and undercover cops. Terrorism traditionally thrives on deprivation, impoverishment, and an attitude of nothing to lose. That’s not these guys. Ruthless dedication isn’t in their skill set. They’re happy to shoot assault rifles and blow things up, but not if it means missing dinner.
So I think the violence thing is overrated. Less so is Kagan’s take on the Republican party and the threat it poses:
From the uneasy and sometimes contentious partnership during Trump’s four years in office, the party’s main if not sole purpose today is as the willing enabler of Trump’s efforts to game the electoral system to ensure his return to power.
While this is indeed true, the situation is, I think, more fluid than he credits, and could change, even drastically, over the next year. Because as little as I trust any Republican in public office, I do trust them all to pursue their own selfish interests in selfish ways. And in that sense, Trump is still a loose cannon that —surely they must realize — could blow up in their faces any minute.
They’re not thinking it through. Revolutions rarely turn out well, and they tend to eat their own. Once the constitution is effectively negated and replaced by Trump, nobody is safe. Not senators, not congressmen, not Democrats, Republicans, or Supreme Court justices. Loyalty to Trump will be everything, and even that will guarantee nothing.
So I think the willingness of those more “traditional” Republicans to go down that road is tepid at best. Even as they’re sucked deeper and deeper into the muck of seditious conduct, I still don’t sense that they’re ready to jettison the whole system. Which doesn’t excuse the cowardice and overt cynicism of their behavior:
The party gave birth to and nurtured this movement; it bears full responsibility for establishing the conditions in which Trump could capture the loyalty of 90 percent of Republican voters …Yet Trump’s triumph also had elements of a hostile takeover. The movement’s passion was for Trump, not the party.
And it’s that passion for Trump that is, I think, the weakest part of Kagan’s scenario. Not that I doubt the passion is real, just that it’s focused on a guy who will never measure up to the pedestal his followers put him on. As the animating force for the downfall of democracy, Trump has never been convincing.
His followers may never notice how he’s fleecing them with his “fund-raising” grifts, or how he’s selling them a fantasy — that any month now he’ll be gloriously reinstated as their fuhrer, but only if they keep donating. Still, you have to wonder when even the most gullible of these suckers will start asking what they’re getting for their money.
And Trump needs that money badly. Over the next year, the myriad indictments, lawsuits, and sordid revelations focused on him will emerge from various grand juries and take over his life. While this may not diminish his standing among his followers, his efforts to stay out of prison will take up most of his energy and huge amounts of his money.
More than that, I suspect his health problems are more serious than we’ve been led to believe. Trump will be 79 in 2024. His cognitive abilities have been suspect for some time. The treatments he is known to have received for Covid were heavy artillery, administered only to people in severe respiratory distress. At Trump’s age, experiences like that tend to have long-term consequences.
None of which comes as much comfort. While Kagan’s hypotheses may not prove out, that doesn’t diminish their salience. A lifelong Republican, he has seen — and no doubt participated in — the long descent of his party into the toxic lunacy we see today. He is well positioned to understand the forces at work.
So while I’m not sure the picture is quite as dire as the one he’s painting, I am absolutely sure his alarmism is warranted.