Kagan / The Trump dictatorship: How to stop it

In an essay  I wrote last week, , I painted a grim picture of the prospects for dictatorship in the United States. Some readers were unhappy that I did not offer a solution. What follows is an attempt at one, and if it seems like a long shot, it is. Our options today are harder and fewer because we have passed up so many better and easier alternatives in the past. Nor was it for lack of knowing what needed to be done. It would not have taken a miracle for Republicans to unite around a single non-Trump candidate in 2016 or for 10 more Republican senators to vote to convict Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial.


The problem has never been knowing what to do. It has been doing it. In the past, stopping Trump has required people taking risks and making sacrifices that they did not want to make, whether out of selfishness, fear or ambition. Today, the challenges are even greater, but there is little evidence that the people we need to rise to the occasion are any more likely to do so than they have been for the past eight years.


Here are several things people could do to save the country but almost certainly won’t do, because they selfishly refuse to put their own ambitions at risk to save our democracy.


The first step is to consolidate all the anti-Trump forces in the Republican Party behind a single candidate, right now. It is obvious that candidate should be Nikki Haley and not because she’s pro-Ukraine but because she is clearly the most capable politician among the remaining candidates and the performer with the best chance, however slim, of challenging Trump. All the money and the endorsements should shift to her as quickly as possible. Yes, Ron DeSantis is likely too selfish and ambitious to drop out of the race, but if everyone else does and the remaining money and support all flow to Haley, he will quickly become irrelevant.


It won’t be enough, however, to rally the forces behind Haley. Even if she were to get every vote that’s now spread among the other non-Trump candidates (and she won’t), it would not come close to being enough to challenge Trump. Until now, she has been gathering support at the expense of other non-Trump candidates. To make a serious run for the nomination, she will also have to cut into the more than 50 percent of the party that now seems solidly behind Trump.


What is her theory for doing that? Does she think she will attract these voters with her policies or her winning political personality? Trump supporters fall into roughly three categories. The great majority are completely committed to what former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman has called the “cult” of Trump. They are out of reach for Haley. Another smaller group has no problem with Trump, so long as he can beat President Biden and the Democrats next year. This faction is undoubtedly reassured by polls that say that Trump can win, so the possibility that Haley can also beat Biden is irrelevant to them. They prefer Trump, and there is no reason for them to rethink their position so long as Trump remains clearly electable. Finally, there is a small percentage of Republicans who say they will support Trump unless he is convicted; recent polls suggest these people make up roughly six percent of GOP voters in some of the key swing states.


Haley, therefore, has no chance of getting more than a small fraction of current Trump supporters to add to her collection of Trump-skeptical Republicans. She might make a respectable showing as the No. 2 candidate, thus setting her up to be Trump’s vice-presidential nominee, if he will have her, in which case her entire campaign will have been largely for show. Indeed, it will have served chiefly as a conveyor belt for Trump skeptics to get onboard the Trump train in the end. If that is what she’s up to, then the joke will be on the Koch network, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and others who have lately looked to her as a last hope for stopping Trump.


If she is serious about trying to stop Trump, however, there is only one way to cut into his mammoth majority, and that is by raising doubts about Trump’s electability. The way to do that is to warn those Republicans still capable of listening that a Trump presidency really does pose a risk to our freedom and democracy and the Constitution. That is what will be required to win over the small percentage of Republicans who are still willing to drop Trump if he is convicted. And if Haley can begin to reel in those voters, she can begin to raise doubts in the minds of those who are supporting Trump because they think he can defeat Biden and the Democrats in November. In short, the way to beat Trump is to make him seem unelectable, and the way to make him seem unelectable is to show that he is unacceptable.


Trump’s dictatorial tendencies and open disdain for the Constitution can become his greatest vulnerabilities — they might be his only vulnerabilities — if sufficiently highlighted for the American voter, and he and his advisers likely know it. Trump’s bizarre assertion that he would be a dictator only on “Day One” of his presidency to “close the border” was, believe it or not, an attempt to deflect the charge. (But what if it takes two days?) Democrats have gotten mileage in downballot races by painting their Republican opponents as lawbreaking, MAGA radicals. Trump is aware that he needs to hold on to some normal, non-cultist Republicans — that is why he has taken a more moderate position on abortion than much of the rest of the party. Trump is nothing if not a shrewd politician (the people who persist in claiming he’s an idiot should have a talk with themselves), and he knows he cannot win the general election on cult votes alone.


So, are Haley and other Republicans trying to exploit these vulnerabilities? No. Quite the contrary, they are helping Trump by continually affirming his acceptability as president. Every time Haley and other Republicans say they will support Trump if he is the nominee, they are telling Republican voters, including their own supporters, that Trump is acceptable. When New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu says, “I just want Republicans to win; that’s all I care about,” he might as well just get it over with — and endorse Trump. To say that Biden is so dangerous to the country that even Trump would be better is to endorse the world as Trump and his MAGA cultists portray it. Not only does this undercut the rationale for Haley’s candidacy, but it also makes it extremely difficult to peel away current Trump supporters. If Trump is acceptable, then he is electable. And if he is electable, then why should any current Trump supporter shift to Haley? Haley’s posture is not only incoherent; it is fatal to her prospects.


The problem is about to get much worse, moreover, because Trump himself is going to get much worse. He has clearly decided that his best response to charges of being a potential dictator is to double down. Instead of trying to calm people’s concerns by disavowing the accusations against him, he has issued more threats of investigations and persecutions should he become president. And he has taken another page out of the dictator’s playbook: claiming that he is the savior of democracy while the Biden administration is the real dictatorship. Republicans are already girding themselves for what they know is going to be an endless stream of frightening statements for them to comment on in the days and weeks to come.


This, of course, is also Trump’s legal strategy: to argue that the Biden administration is a dictatorial regime using the justice system to persecute its primary political opponent. In time-honored fashion, Trump is going for the biggest lie. His goal is to delegitimize the trials and convince Republican voters that he is the victim of corruption and abuse of the judicial system. He has just begun making that case, but he is going to bang it like a bass drum for the next year.


Can he succeed in establishing this as the narrative? You bet he can, and for the reasons outlined in the previous essay: As he becomes the presumptive nominee, the vast Republican campaign apparatus will be at his disposal, putting out his line on an hourly basis. If he says that the Biden administration is a dictatorship engaged in political persecution, then that is going to be the Republican line. Are leading Republicans going to say they support Trump but not his legal case? That they are for Trump — but not his defense? At best, they will be silent, as they are now; at worst, they will support his legal case.

As Trump remakes himself into a victim of persecution, will Haley and other Republicans still insist that they will support Trump if he is the nominee? In doing so, they will be tacitly agreeing, and certainly not refuting, the claim that Biden is a dictator and Trump is being persecuted. By the time the trials get underway, that will be the standard Republican talking point. Today, it is just the most devoted Trumpers, but before long, we will see even respectable Republicans “raising questions” about the prosecutions, to the point where the entire court proceeding will be delegitimized in the eyes of the ordinary Republican voter.


What effect will that have on that small percentage of Trump supporters who now say they would drop their support if he were convicted? Those who cling to the hope that the trials will bring Trump down need to understand that the number of Republicans willing to abandon Trump because of a conviction, already small today, is going to be much smaller come spring. As the Trump narrative gains traction and becomes the baseline Republican position, Haley will become a footnote as Republicans of all stripes rally to the martyrdom of Trump.


That is, unless people start pushing back against Trump’s narrative right now — and by “people,” I mean Republicans.


Think about that precious small percentage of Republicans who now say they would not support Trump if convicted. They are actually saying a lot more than that. These are Republicans who still regard the justice system as important and legitimate, who consider special counsel Jack Smith’s charges worthy of a jury trial and legitimate, and who for the moment think a guilty verdict, were it to come, would be legitimate. Can we count on them maintaining those views over the coming weeks and months if all they hear from Republican leaders and conservative media is that the trials are illegitimate acts of persecution? Do the people hoping to be saved by the courts think that these voters will conclude on their own that the trials are legitimate when their entire party is saying they’re not?


What they need to hear right now (and for the rest of the campaign) is that they are right, that the Biden administration is not a dictatorship, that the trials are not an abuse of power, and that if Trump is convicted, justice will have been done. And they do not need to hear this from Democrats and Post columnists. They need to hear it from their fellow Republicans, from Republicans they admire. At some point, some leading Republicans are going to have to display the courage to defend the justice system even though that will put them in direct conflict with Trump and his supporters.



We probably can’t expect Haley to take the lead in making the case for Trump’s unacceptability, even though she should. But other Republicans certainly can. It is no secret what people such as Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) think about Trump. Romney’s biography is filled with whispered comments by leading Republicans privately indicating their fear and loathing of Trump. But today, those Republicans remain in their coward’s crouch, hoping to survive as they have the past eight years — by keeping their heads down, by waving off Trump’s threats and dictatorial behavior. Romney, who once had the courage to vote to convict Trump for trying to overthrow the government in 2021, now tells us “at some point you stop getting worried about what he says.” At this moment, Trump and his supporters are engaged in an attempt to obliterate history right before our eyes, to say that down is up and up is down, and that instead of destroying democracy Trump is saving democracy from the Biden tyranny, and that this is what the trials are about. And this is Romney’s response? The people who want to put their faith in the good judgment of Republican voters are counting on those voters to come to the right conclusion themselves while even their most respected Republican leaders are too frightened to defend the justice system against Trump. That is a lot of faith indeed.


But imagine a different scenario. Imagine that Republicans who know Trump poses a threat of dictatorship suddenly discovered their courage and began speaking out, and not just one or two but dozens of them — current and former elected officials, former high-ranking officials from the Trump and past Republican administrations. Imagine if the wing of the Republican Party that still believes in defending the Constitution identified itself that way, as “Constitutional Republicans” implacably opposed to the man who blatantly attempted to subvert the Constitution and has indicated his willingness to do so again as president.


Then the Republican primary campaign would become a struggle between those defending the Constitution and those endorsing its possible dismantlement at the hands of a dictator. That small percentage of Republicans who now say they would drop Trump if convicted would remain in play, and those now sticking with Trump because he can beat Biden might have reason to start questioning that assumption. It would not take a lot of speeches, or well-placed interviews, or appearances on Sunday shows, by the right people to change the conversation. But that, it seems to me, is the only chance Haley has of giving Trump a run for his money in the primaries.


Even if she loses, as she probably would, her campaign could nevertheless establish a useful and interesting dynamic for the general election. The formula for defeating Trump in November is simple enough: Unite the Democrats, and split the Republicans. That is why all the third-party candidacies now under consideration are disastrous. A middle-of-the-road, bipartisan third-party candidacy of the kind being promoted by No Labels is sure to hand Trump the election by siphoning more votes from Biden than from Trump. To defeat Trump, a third-party candidate must attract almost exclusively Republican voters. Who would be in a better position to do that than the person who already has a substantial Republican following, such as Haley? If No Labels really wants to help the country, it will hold its third-party slot open for Haley. And if Haley really wants to save the country from Trump, , and if she cannot defeat Trump in the primaries, she will run as a third-party candidate with the intention of drawing away Republican votes from Trump. Should Republican voters devoted to defending the Constitution vote for Biden over Trump in the general election? Yes, they should. But it would be smart to give them a more palatable alternative.


Many people responded to my last essay by insisting that a majority of Americans oppose Trump, and they are right. But the way our system works today, that popular majority is prevented from coalescing. Many blame the electoral college or the two-party prejudice built into our system, and they might well be right. But, folks, are we going to fix these problems before November? The question is how best to bring this majority together in a coalition of Democrats and Constitutional Republicans to prevent a dictatorship this coming year. Afterward, we can look at reforming the system. First, the system has to survive.


Could this coalition come into being? Yes. But it will require extraordinary action by a number of important individuals. People will have to take risks and make sacrifices, but is it asking too much? The risk of standing up today will not be nearly as great as it might be after January 2025. Does McConnell really want to go down in history as the silent midwife to a dictatorship in America? Can Romney not see that it is his destiny to lead the way at this critical moment in America’s history. Did Paul Ryan sell his soul for a Fox board seat? All these people went into public service for a reason. Wasn’t it to rise to an occasion such as this? Former Wyoming congresswoman Liz Cheney shouldn’t have to fight this alone. For people such as Condoleezza Rice and James Baker and Henry Paulson Jr., what was the point of acquiring all this experience and respectability, if not to use it at this moment of national peril? Why are Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.) defending Trump when they must know he is a threat to American democracy and the Constitution? Where is Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, the man who courageously pushed back against Trump’s effort to steal the 2020 election? Where are all those officials who learned firsthand what a danger Trump was and who have occasionally said it out loud, people such as former attorney general William Barr and former White House chief of staff Gen. John Kelly? Where is former vice president Mike Pence, who single-handedly saved our system of government almost three years ago? Was that his last act? And for that matter, where is former president George W. Bush, who is well known to be appalled by Trump? A word from him would go a long way to emboldening others. What a service he could perform for his country.


What are they saving it for? If it’s for a future in the Republican Party, forget it. The Republican Party is finished as a coherent legitimate political party. Either it is about to become the party of the Trump dictatorship or it is going to break up into Constitutional and anti-Constitutional wings. The two-party arrangement the nation has known since the Civil War ended when the Trump cult captured the GOP. We are heading into a new era of politics in America. We could do worse than go into it with a coalition of Democrats and Constitutional Republicans. The fact is, even if Trump is defeated in November, the nation will still be in crisis as Trump leads his supporters in rebellion against that outcome. Democrats and Constitutional Republicans will need to stick together then, too.


Can a Trump dictatorship still be prevented? Yes. It does not require a miracle, only courage. But will the people do what they need to do? Human frailty being what it is, and ambitious and selfish politicians being what they are, it is probably fanciful to imagine that the right combination of people will turn up and show a wisdom and courage they have not shown for the past eight years. Even now, we are being treated to what Abraham Lincoln called the “lullaby” arguments, the ones that urge you to go back to sleep and stop worrying. Such as: The voters will see reason. The polls are unreliable. The court system will work. Trump won’t do what he is threatening to do. Even as we get closer and closer to the possibility of a dictatorship in America, we accept the same assurances we have been accepting for the past eight years. Do we think that this time we will get a different outcome? There is a word for that.


Some readers of my last essay asked fairly: What can an ordinary citizen do? The answer is, what they always do when they really care about something, when they regard it as a matter of life and death. They become activists. They get organized. They hold peaceful and legal rallies and marches. They sign petitions. They deluge their representatives, Republican or Democrat, with calls and mail, asking them to speak up and defend the Constitution. They call out their political leaders, state and local, and give them courage to stand up as well. Americans used to do these sorts of things. Have they forgotten how? At the risk of sounding Capra-esque, if every American who fears a Trump dictatorship acted on those fears, voiced them, convinced others, influenced their elected officials, then yes, that could make a difference. Another ship is passing that can still save us. Will we swim toward it this time, or will we let it pass, as we have all the others? I am deeply pessimistic, but I could not more fervently wish to be proved wrong.

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