A photo of Donald Trump, where only the bottom half of his head is visible, and he is talking.


What If He Wins Again?

For many Americans, envisioning a second Trump term is terrifying. But it’s not wrong to imagine the worst.

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It was on Halloween of 2016 that I had one of the most memorable and eye-opening conversations of my life. It was at a behind-the-scenes meeting for LGBTQ leaders, and the topic of discussion was what we were going to focus on going forward and how we were going to do it. Most of the folks at it were leaders of grassroots movements; I was brought on board as a futurist and opposition analyst who mostly hung out in the back with the senior legal analyst there to temper people’s enthusiasm with legal realities.

As the day went by I realized something: Everything we discussed that day was predicated on Hillary Clinton winning the White House. During a break, I took one of the conference organizers aside. “So what are we going to do if Trump wins?” I asked.

“He’s not gonna win,” he replied confidently.

“Yeah, but suppose he does? There’s a chance. What are we going to do then? We’re in deep trouble, and all this…” I gestured around the room, “…doesn’t happen. What’s the plan?”

“I don’t know. I guess we’ll figure it out when it happens,” he replied.

This answer wasn’t particularly reassuring and was made worse as someone who has studied military history. The late-19th century French military philosophy of debrouillez-vous (“we’ll muddle through somehow”) is generally looked back upon as precisely how not to plan for conflict. And, in fact, Democrats never did come up with an answer on how to deal with Trump and the GOP’s autocratic attempt.

Today, I am uncomfortably reminded of the quotes by George Santayana about remembering history: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it… Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes.” Another quote, probably mis-attributed to Mark Twain, adds a corollary to Santayana’s observation: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

2020 isn’t 2016.

It’s way worse.

But the situation is similar, and we are making the exact same mistakes we made four years ago. Some people assume Democratic nominee Joe Biden will win for two reasons: First, he is even more comfortably ahead in the polls than Clinton was, and the polls have compensated for many of their 2016 flaws. The lead is larger and more stable, voter turnout is high, there are few undecideds, and third-party candidates are drawing half of what they did last time.

The second reason is that no one wants to contemplate what a second Trump term means because it forces them to look into the abyss: the end of American democracy and pedal-to-the-metal acceleration into competitive authoritarianism under a fascist movement.

If Trump wins in 2020, he will likely do it while losing the popular vote by anywhere from six to 10 points. He also probably won’t even be able to claim a “clean” Electoral College win like he did in 2016. He’s going to need help from the Supreme Court to get hundreds of thousands of ballots discarded, uncounted, and invalidated. Alternately, he may rely on states with gerrymandered legislatures such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, and Florida to bail him out. These legislatures could fail to send electors (thus kicking the result to the House, where the Byzantine rules give Trump the edge), or send “faithless” electors to vote against the results of the state’s election.

Regardless of the particulars, if Trump is still sitting behind the Resolute desk on January 21, 2021, it will almost certainly be because he stole the election. Either through the courts or by his surrogates in state legislatures gaming the system to thwart normal election processes to get the result they want. This isn’t improbable: We have every indication that these are plans A and B for the Trump White House. Even they regard winning the election without help from the courts or legislatures as a less plausible path to victory than perfidy.

At that point, we have a corrupt, authoritarian government that is no longer seen as legitimate by the majority of the population, in the middle of a pandemic that will likely end up killing at least half a million people. Many, if not most, will rightly come to realize that meaningful political change at the federal level is effectively impossible, between the courts controlled by Trump loyalists, gerrymandered state legislatures, and a non-proportionally representative Senate. As Masha Gessen notes of the 2020 election today, “If there is an actual engineered failure of the election, then we have already passed the point of no return, the point of autocratic breakthrough.” The scenarios I describe above fit this description.

The U.S. will be at a crossroads if Trump wins, and it can go one of two ways.

The first is the road taken by most countries that fall into competitive authoritarianism: initial protests, followed by a slow descent into “boring and stable” life where meaningless elections are still held, political change is impossible, and almost everyone accepts this is just the way it is and nothing really can be done. The Russian maxim “Today is an average day; worse than yesterday, but better than tomorrow,” captures this descent into hopeless apathy. Or, from the autocrat’s perspective on what happens after rigged or stolen elections: “They will make a fuss for a few days, and then they will calm down and life will go on as usual.”

Since the end of the Cold War, there have been only a handful of nations that have escaped competitive autocracy, and none of them are as far down the road as we will be starting a second Trump term. Only one in five countries that reach where we are can recover. A stolen election by Trump completes both the autocratic attempt and breakthrough, with the next step being to consolidate power. This represents an event horizon for American democracy: Once we get that deep into the gravity well of autocracy, all the energy and matter in the universe isn’t enough to escape.

The alternative is to stop trying to violate the metaphorical laws of physics, and start thinking sideways. Gessen, a Russian expat and member of the LGBTQ community, published their rules for surviving autocracy immediately after the 2016 election. The first three can be summed up as “believe the autocrat, don’t be taken in by small signs of normalcy, and your institutions will not save you.”

We have failed at all three. Democrats were not willing to call Trump an autocrat or his movement fascist, even when he and his cabal told us who they were and what they intended to do. Like the proverbial slowly boiled frog, Americans got used to the lying, graft, incompetence, and destruction of norms to the point where killing over 200,000 Americans only cost him a couple points in the polls. Our institutions were never going to save us, and now they have been so subverted that they doom us, consigning us to perpetual single-party rule instead.

Thus, if you cannot hope to effect change at the federal level, stop pouring money and effort into the federal level. This Kabuki dance of performative democracy, in a country that clearly isn’t one anymore, actively serves the interests of the autocrat and his party by providing a veneer of legitimacy. Much like the laws of thermodynamics, politics in competitive authoritarianism are governed by three rules:

  1. There is a game.
  2. You can’t win.
  3. You can’t break even.

The first three are true for Democrats at the federal level. But, unlike thermodynamics, you can effectively quit the game when it’s been rigged, and the consequence of continuing to play and inevitably losing is your people being brutalized and humiliated. The trick is to make state-level Democratic politicians and the public see this clearly.

Going back to the black hole analogy, nothing can escape a black hole. But, over time they lose mass as particles near the event horizon are ripped apart, and the “positive” particles are imbued with energy to become Hawking radiation, and the negative particles end up on the wrong side of the horizon. Over time, black holes emitting this radiation bleed off their mass in the form of energy and “evaporate”.

The lesson here is that the only way not to get sucked into the black hole forever is to tear yourself apart and allow the negative part to be pulled in. Similarly, the only way not to be sucked down into an autocratic state from which there is no escape is to split and sacrifice the negative parts to the pull which they helped create.

Republicans quit playing the democracy game long ago. It works to their advantage when they’re playing Calvinball, and Democrats are still playing by the old Marquess of Queensberry rules. Democratic governors and legislatures need to recognize that they have the power to pick up their ball and go home at any time.

This isn’t to say secession, but there is a modern history of autonomous zones for marginalized groups that do not recognize the legitimacy of the government that claims sovereignty over them. Usually, the governments they are autonomous from are autocratic and would do horrible things to the people of these regions if they were able. Examples of this include the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq and Taiwan. Even Scotland looks like it is leaving the U.K. over some of the same issues separating red and blue states. Neither the Kurds nor Taiwan formally claim to be separate nations in order to stave off invasion and civil war, but the governments of Iraq and the People’s Republic of China hold no functional power there, either.

This may be the only way for places like California, Oregon, and Washington to prevent the brutal crackdown that’s coming on protesters should Trump win. Or the degradation of civil rights. Or the federal attempts to override state sovereignty. Or the imprisonment of doctors who perform abortions there. Trump has made it clear that he will happily harm or kill people living in blue states, unless their governors bend the knee and kiss the ring. The White House, and by extension the federal government, has little interest in stopping paramilitary groups which plan on kidnapping and murdering Democratic politicians who don’t toe the line for Trump.

Thus, there are really only two options on the table for the U.S. if Trump gets a second term. Either there is a separation of states from a federal government which they have little in common with culturally, religiously, or economically; or accept life in a Trump/GOP autocratic state while continuing to pretend it’s a democracy and that change can happen (when the public can clearly see it can’t).

The hard part is making Democratic politicians and the public understand the options: Do we want to be more like Taiwan, or do we want to be like the competitive authoritarian states of Russia, Hungary, and Turkey? Because once Trump gets a second term, that’s all there is. One or the other. There isn’t a third option. There is no longer an electoral or legal way to prevent the latter—or recover from it.

Democrats, queers, Black and people of color, and everyone else who doesn’t want to live in a corrupt autocracy needs to accept, right now, that there is no real hope of democracy surviving a second Trump term. There will no longer be a way to win as the rules have been rewritten. They need to start thinking, even now, about how to quit an unwinnable game. If we do not quit, millions of people will needlessly spend their lives in fear, oppression, and misery at the hands of a racist, homophobic, xenophobic, Christian nationalist, fascist minority.

Whatever norms are served by continuing to play the game, it is not worth this end.

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