Trump’s coup attempt of 2020-21, like other failed coup attempts, is a warning for those who care about the rule of law and a lesson for those who do not. His pre-fascism revealed a possibility for American politics. For a coup to work in 2024, the breakers will require something that Trump never quite had: an angry minority, organized for nationwide violence, ready to add intimidation to an election. Four years of amplifying a big lie just might get them this. To claim that the other side stole an election is to promise to steal one yourself. It is also to claim that the other side deserves to be punished.
Informed observers inside and outside government agree that right-wing white supremacism is the greatest terrorist threat to the United States. Gun sales in 2020 hit an astonishing high. History shows that political violence follows when prominent leaders of major political parties openly embrace paranoia.
Our big lie is typically American, wrapped in our odd electoral system, depending upon our particular traditions of racism. Yet our big lie is also structurally fascist, with its extreme mendacity, its conspiratorial thinking, its reversal of perpetrators and victims and its implication that the world is divided into us and them. To keep it going for four years courts terrorism and assassination.
When that violence comes, the breakers will have to react. If they embrace it, they become the fascist faction. The Republican Party will be divided, at least for a time. One can of course imagine a dismal reunification: A breaker candidate loses a narrow presidential election in November 2024 and cries fraud, the Republicans win both houses of Congress and rioters in the street, educated by four years of the big lie, demand what they see as justice. Would the gamers stand on principle if those were the circumstances of Jan. 6, 2025?
To be sure, this moment is also a chance. It is possible that a divided Republican Party might better serve American democracy; that the gamers, separated from the breakers, might start to think of policy as a way to win elections. It is very likely that the Biden-Harris administration will have an easier first few months than expected; perhaps obstructionism will give way, at least among a few Republicans and for a short time, to a moment of self-questioning. Politicians who want Trumpism to end have a simple way forward: Tell the truth about the election.
America will not survive the big lie just because a liar is separated from power. It will need a thoughtful repluralization of media and a commitment to facts as a public good. The racism structured into every aspect of the coup attempt is a call to heed our own history. Serious attention to the past helps us to see risks but also suggests future possibility. We cannot be a democratic republic if we tell lies about race, big or small. Democracy is not about minimizing the vote nor ignoring it, neither a matter of gaming nor of breaking a system, but of accepting the equality of others, heeding their voices and counting their votes.
Timothy Snyder is the Levin professor of history at Yale University and the author of histories of political atrocity including “Bloodlands” and “Black Earth.” His most recent book is “Our Malady,” a memoir of his own near-fatal illness reflecting on the relationship between health and freedom. Ashley Gilbertson is an Australian photojournalist with the VII Photo Agency living in New York. Gilbertson has covered migration and conflict internationally for over 20 years.