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Can Trump Save Democracy from Itself?

The establishment’s attempt to bar the president from the ballot is only part of an unfolding, existential crisis.

Former President Trump Speaks At His Bedminster Golf Club After Being Arraigned On Federal Charges
President Donald Trump speaks at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, following his arraignment on 37 charges in Miami, June 13, 2023. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The defining political problem of 2024 will be the primacy of the political itself: Will we get to contest our opposing interests at the ballot box? Or will an overweening, hysterical establishment succeed in stifling genuine political contestation in the name of “civility,” “norms,” and (most perversely) “democracy”? Whether they identify with the left, right, or center, Americans who cherish our traditions had better hope the second alternative doesn’t come to pass.

But things are looking bad—worse than bad: dangerous.

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The latest ominous sign came courtesy of Maine’s secretary of state, Shenna Bellows, who last week took it upon herself to remove Donald Trump from the ballot for the 2024 election cycle. Her move follows the ruling of a narrow majority of the Colorado Supreme Court to bump the 45th president from ballots in the Centennial State. Both Bellows and the Colorado jurists cited Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution barring U.S. officers who engage in “insurrection” from getting elected. Yet as even many liberal scholars have pointed out, it isn’t clear whether Trump counts as an “officer” of the United States under the meaning of the section, and so far, not a single court has found him guilty of insurrection.

Which isn’t to say that Trump’s conduct in the wake of the 2020 election was admirable. Far from it. I find myself made queasy by his refusal to concede long after the result had become clear and, especially, by some of his statements with respect to Georgia. I wouldn’t rule out, a priori, that he is innocent of all 91 charges pending against him in jurisdictions across the land. If these allegations had been lodged in a vacuum of context and history, I would be willing to contemplate the possibility that Trump poses a once-in-a-century threat to our institutions and, therefore, must be prevented from winning elected office ever again.

But we do not, in fact, exist in a vacuum of history and context. The fact is, the 91 charges, and the drive to boot Trump from the ballot, represent the culmination of a much longer effort to undo the outcome of the 2016 election by underhanded means—and ultimately to turn populist uprisings like Trump’s into a matter for the criminal justice system, rather than political contestation. Indeed, this effort is just what I have in mind when I say that the very possibility of democratic politics is what’s at stake in 2024.

Most of the project’s elements have long been forgotten. There was, of course, the Steele Dossier with all its lurid (and false) allegations about Moscow peepee tapes, all reported as gospel by an irresponsible anti-Trump press. There was the false claim, first published by McClatchy, that Trump’s onetime lawyer Michael Cohen had visited Prague to receive instructions from his KGB handlers. There was the equally false claim, disseminated by BuzzFeed, that Trump had suborned Cohen to commit perjury before Congress. And then there was the monstrous complex of lies known as Russiagate, which saw establishment figures falsely insist that the Trump campaign had colluded with the Kremlin long after special counsel Robert Mueller had put those claims to rest. There was also the first impeachment trial based on flimsy allegations about a phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president.

In light of all that, the findings of a jury here, or even a Supreme Court there, should be irrelevant to those of us who wish to preserve the primacy of politics. It will be quite simply impossible for half of the American electorate to accept that the prosecutions and ballot-booting are anything but a continuation of the establishment’s lawfare strategy against Trump that was launched after his election in 2016.

It is, of course, perfectly possible that Trump is both a victim of establishment lawfare and a wrongdoer. But the only way to untangle these issues is at the ballot box. The establishment’s preferred strategy risks plunging the nation into a constitutional crisis and worse: a crisis of legitimacy on a scale not seen since the founding. Twenty twenty-four is poised to be an unprecedented annus horribilis in the unfolding history of the American republic. May God help us.