Updated at 12:05 p.m. ET on January 5, 2022.
Donald Trump could subvert the next election—and his second coup attempt has already begun, Barton Gellman warns in our latest cover story.
Ahead of the anniversary of the insurrection at the Capitol, Gellman joined Atlantic staff writer Anne Applebaum and executive editor Adrienne LaFrance for a live virtual conversation about the threats to American democracy.
“Once you have a true believer that the election was stolen last time, you have given yourself permission to steal the next one,” Gellman says. The events of January 6, 2021, were evidence of a movement prepared to use violence to get, and maintain, power. But how did it come to this? And what can be done to safeguard democracy? Read the full conversation below, which has been lightly edited for clarity:
Adrienne LaFrance: Bart, you wrote our latest cover story. The cover line is “January 6 Was Practice,” and it’s a remarkable story—a remarkably alarming story. I wanted to hear a little bit about what you went in expecting to find and what surprised you the most along the way over the course of your reporting.
Barton Gellman: I went in looking for more of the story behind January 6, what led up to it and what it led to, sort of situated along a continuum. And what I found was, the story has basically three main strands. One is that January 6 was the culmination, but really only one small part of a long and systematic campaign to overturn the election—that it had a specific role in that, which was to buy time, and that it came fairly close to succeeding in that sense. The second strand is that January 6 is probably the debut of a mass political movement that, for the first time in a hundred years in this country, is prepared to use violence as a tool, that there are tens of millions of Americans right now who are passionate, conspiratorial-minded, and believe that the use of violence is justified to restore Donald Trump to the White House. And the third is that there is an ongoing conspiracy, really an ongoing operation, in which Republican operatives are looking through all the places which were obstacles to Donald Trump’s attempt to overthrow the last election and are going through and uprooting those obstacles. So it is paving the way for another coup attempt in 2024.
LaFrance: I want to go back in a moment to this question about the threshold for violence in this country, but first—you mentioned 2024. Are you feeling more worried about 2022 and 2024 than you were about 2020?
Gellman: I’m kind of the bad-news correspondent, so I was very worried about Trump’s capacity to create chaos and undermine the peaceful transfer of power in the 2020 election, and I wrote in advance about how he might do that. Right now, I think he intends to do the same thing again in 2024. I think his prospects of succeeding are a little bit better. I think conditions are more favorable to his efforts to undermine the election, because he’s had practice; he’s faced no serious consequences. And, as I said, there are thousands of political operatives and lawyers around the country who are doing their best to pave the way for it next time and figuring out where his effort went wrong and trying to fix that.
LaFrance: Anne, same question for you. How worried are you today?
Anne Applebaum: I am continually surprised by what’s happening inside the Republican Party, even though I have myself written about it and analyzed it and tried to explain it. I’ve written about the phenomenon of complicity, why people go along with things they know to be wrong, which is not unique to the United States or to world history; in fact, it’s very common. And I’m still surprised by the extent to which the Republican Party is seeking to whitewash the history of January 6 so that the perpetrators are heroes and the victims are villains. I am surprised by the extent to which they are building on this mythology.
This is something that has lots of precedent. The election was stolen, and therefore we deserve to break the rules in order to win the next one. And by the way, I do think it could be 2022 as well as 2024. You can look at the 1930s. The myth of something stolen from us that gives us the right to cheat is something we’ve seen in autocratic regimes in the past. Bart’s story is really important because it lays out the path which is being followed: the use of these low-level electoral positions in the states, the way in which the Republican Party is trying to put proponents of the Big Lie into positions where they’ll be able to manipulate election results, the work that’s being done inside state legislatures to convince them to change election results. What worries me more is the mood of the party, the mood of the country, and the degree to which the past has been whitewashed—the present is being seen through a filter that’s dishonest. And the number of people who are going along with that false vision of history is the piece of this story that’s most dangerous. These aren’t people who think they’re breaking the law or bending the electoral rules—although they are. Somehow, they’ve been convinced that they’re the true patriots and that they’re acting in the interests of America. And that’s, I think, the most frightening piece of it, because changing that is actually harder than changing the institutions.
LaFrance: I’ve been thinking about this a lot with regard to the details that have only begun to emerge in terms of members of Congress and their role in either planning or participating in January 6. Without a proper reckoning on complicity, we won’t have real accountability.
What should accountability look like? What should we as citizens be demanding of government and leaders in terms of reckoning with January 6 and all of those who played a role?
Applebaum: The January 6 commission needs to not just tell the story. A combination of the January 6 commission and the attorney general needs to begin to charge people—and not just the people who showed up on the grounds of the Capitol on January 6, but also the planners, the members of Congress who were part of the plot. We need a legal resolution of this, and we need it quickly. We need it before the next election, and not 10 years from now. There is some hesitancy, and I understand it—on the part of many Democrats and others who don’t like the idea that we now live in a country where one party puts the other party in jail, or seeks to. That does have echoes of failing democracies. On the other hand, we are beginning to be a failing democracy, and I think, unless there’s accountability—and, by the way, that includes accountability for Trump on multiple grounds—for breaking the law and for being part of this conspiracy, then I think we are going to see it repeated.
LaFrance: Bart, I’m curious for your observations on the congressional piece of this. I know Representative Paul Gosar was someone who comes up in your latest story, and there are a number of others who seem to be the poster members of Congress for not taking this seriously and, in some cases, for deliberately misleading the public about what happened. As you were going through your reporting for this piece, which figures struck you as most dangerous?
Gellman: You could divide the leaders of today’s Republican Party into two or three groups. I suppose it’s possible that there are a small number of true believers in the notion that the presidential election was stolen and that Joe Biden is illegitimate—that, even under truth serum, they would allege that the whole vote was rigged. A vastly larger number subjected to the same truth serum would acknowledge that Biden won, but many of them opportunistically are continuing to propound the mythology on this subject. And they’re using that because it whips up this passionate base and they’re competing to sort of out-Trump Trump on this. I would think that close to a majority—certainly a very large number of Republicans—know perfectly well that the election was a normal and appropriate election, and they’re afraid of the Trump base. They’re afraid of Trump, they’re afraid of the base—sometimes literally afraid for their safety—if they were to stand up and say, Trump’s a charlatan; Trump is not telling the truth. If they were to do what Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger have done, at minimum, they would be drummed out of the mainstream of the party the way those two politicians have been. But many of them are actually frightened about violence.
LaFrance: Anne, when you look at the conditions present in the U.S. now, what strikes you most in terms of looking elsewhere in place and time where democracy has eroded or failed? A moment ago, you alluded to the 1930s. Given that, and given the conditions here now, what do you think we as a country and its citizens should be paying more attention to?
Applebaum: The United States is very much part of an international trend. I’m speaking to you from Poland, and for the last couple of couple of days, I’ve been on television programs here talking about Polish democracy, and it’s a little bit like in the U.S.; everybody wants to find the source of the problem in Polish history or in some mistakes made by particular politicians or so on. And I keep telling them, What you don’t realize is that almost exactly the same thing is happening in the United States. And of course, the same is true, vice versa, that these kinds of conspiratorial movements that seek to undermine democracy, that are based on imaginary theories about elite betrayals, sometimes about elections, that this is now common in almost every democracy. The question usually is just what proportion of the population believes it. So I don’t know—in Germany it’s 20 percent; in Poland it’s 50 percent; in the United States, I don’t know. It is part of an international trend.
And so although, of course, there are local, domestic American reasons for what’s happening, also look at the transformation of social life, economic life, and in particular, the information space by the internet, the way in which that has facilitated the creation of polarization and deep divisions and the ease with which lies can be told and repeated and reinforced, which was not as easy before, in the old-fashioned media that some of us grew up with, you know, 10 or 20 years ago. You have to look at the global situation and the way in which people have become afraid of the complications of the world, the fear of the outside, this looming combination of immigration-slash-foreign competition-slash-confusing politics from other countries. The United States is very much subject to those kinds of fears, just like other countries are.
The third thing I would point to is the role and function of international kleptocracy, the way in which some of our business elites have been enriched by their dealings with autocratic powers and the way in which they have come to emulate and admire those powers. Exhibit A here is Trump, whose career was very much boosted by—maybe even mostly created by—his dealings with Russia, with Kazakhstan, with the post-Soviet world, and he clearly came to emulate that world and admire it. You can see him bringing tactics from the autocratic world into the United States. You can see, in that sense, the influence of autocracy inside America, because it’s the appeal of those tactics, whether it’s disinformation, whether it’s dark money, whether it’s surveillance tools—all of that is coming. Some of that is coming from abroad. Of course, some of it is also homegrown. But, as I said, the United States is part of an international trend. It’s not different. Some of us are disappointed to learn that it’s not different. We hoped it would be different, but sadly it’s not.
LaFrance: On the subject of social media, the social web, and this chaotic informational environment we’re in, poses huge problems. But there’s also this really interesting tension with aspects of the social web that one would think and hope would be good for democracy—for instance, people being able to post anonymously and protect their identities, maybe in places where the government would crack down on them for speaking out otherwise, or even just the power to self-publish. I mean, it’s miraculous and should be great and should help boost democracy. But then we’re seeing the sort of flip side of that and the spread of disinformation and misinformation and media manipulation and all the rest. Do we need to reinvent the internet, or is it just some mild tweaks?
Applebaum: I think the problem with the internet is that the rules of conversation—by the way, there are always rules of conversation, in every context, whether they’re unspoken rules, like in a television studio, or whether they’re explicit rules, like in a parliament. A conversation is always structured—who gets to speak for how long, and so on. The problem is that in the modern internet, the rules set by the social-media platforms—which include YouTube, Google, as well as Facebook; Facebook is easiest to pick on, but in fact, it’s true of all of them—the rules are created to benefit the companies, and the companies benefit from as many customers as possible staying online as long as possible. And as it turns out, the material that keeps people online is anger, aggression, emotion, and stories and posts and articles that divide people. And until we have a way to change those rules, by which I do not mean censorship; I mean either through creating alternative forms of social media where the rules are different, where they resemble more of the rules of a town hall or the rules of a civilized conversation, or we find some way to moderate and regulate algorithms so that they promote civilized conversation instead of aggression—and that is possible, since they do the opposite now, then they could do something quite different—until we find a way to do that, I think we’re going to go on having this problem. I don’t think it’s the only explanation for the current circumstances, but it’s a really important piece of it. Even people who aren’t online are shaped by online conversation in ways that they don’t know, just because journalists are shaped by it, politicians are shaped by it, other voters are shaped by it. It’s one of the fundamental things shaping the nature of our public debate, and it really is frightening what is being promoted and what spreads the most quickly online.
LaFrance: Bart, I’m curious for your take on this in particular, given your concern about the possibility of violence and the fact that we know that online violence very easily bleeds into offline violence.
Gellman: First of all, I would endorse everything Anne just said. The problems with social media are that as soon as you show any interest in one side, you are swiftly placed into a bubble in which you hear only that side. So there’s nothing that would extend the context for you or show you a different point of view. You are immediately within a world that does nothing but reinforce what you already thought. And second of all, in order to keep people’s focus in exactly the way that Anne was describing, you’re moved toward an ever more extreme version inside that bubble. And so you click on something, and the next thing you’re offered is 10 percent more radical and 10 percent more radical after that. And soon you find yourself in a vile and conspiratorial world. It’s always been true that there were disappointed partisans of one side in a presidential race who thought the thing had been fixed, it was unfair, we were robbed. Social media has amplified that considerably. But the one other factor that’s essential to explain what’s happened in these past few years, what’s essential to explain how it could possibly be that two-thirds of all Republicans in the United States believe the election was stolen, is that they were told that by the leaders of their party—by Trump above all, but by the whole Republican elite. They were either told that or there was conspicuous silence. No one, no one, no one doubted it. No one said, “Hey, wait a minute, fair’s fair. We lost this time. We’ll go on to the next one.” When you are given permission by elites to believe something, it has a way of ratifying that belief. And we’re in a terrible situation now, in which a supermajority of one of our two major parties believes a complete fiction about the world and is prepared to act on that.
LaFrance: You’re calling to mind something else that came through really strongly in your recent piece, Bart—this idea that the cause of democracy itself has become a partisan issue, which is tremendously concerning.
Gellman: There are a couple of things to say here. One is you have to understand that the portrait of the world that’s being painted by mainstream Republicans is so extreme that it leads to radicalization. So if you have Republicans telling their constituents that the election was stolen, that the interloper in the White House is a tyrant, that he’s a communist, that he’s literally trying to destroy the country—which is common language in use by members of Congress and of the House and the Senate and governors and candidates—then you’re giving yourself permission to take pretty strong measures in response.
A series of polls at the University of Chicago found that there is a substantial chunk of people in this country who believe both of two propositions. One, that Biden is illegitimate, and two, that violence is justified to restore Trump to power. We have not had tens of millions of people in this country believe that for something like 100 years. What happened on January 6 was an example of political violence. Historically, in recent decades, political violence has been conducted by young men in their 20s and 30s, unemployed, poorly educated. That is not at all the picture of the violent perpetrators on January 6. They are middle-aged. Their mean age is 42. They’re well educated. They’re white-collar. They’re well employed. And we haven’t had that kind of middle-class violence in this country since the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan, in the 1920s.
LaFrance: And what does it take to reverse or at least hopefully soften this sense that there’s justification for violence among this cohort?
Gellman: Well, I mean, you would have to have a party leadership that was prepared to accept the results of an election. You would have to have the messengers who speak most passionately to this group and its beliefs telling them that they’d get their turn next time. We’re very far from that place in American politics. I don’t see what could bring us there.
LaFrance: I have approximately a million more questions for you both, but I will go to some audience questions. We have many variations of the same question, but I’ll start with this one for you, Anne, which is “What should concerned citizens do besides read Anne Applebaum’s essays and be filled with helpless existential dread?”
Applebaum: I get that question a lot. It’s not really my intention to make everybody feel helpless. It was funny; after Bart’s piece, the one before the election, in which he predicted some of what happened on January the 6, I wrote a piece in The Atlantic about what you can do if you’re worried about the election. And really the advice from that piece holds, which is, in our current time, it’s not enough to just vote. And it’s not enough to just read the news, although, you know, I’m sure everybody on this call does that. Join something; join your local branch of the Democratic Party; join the Republican Party, and try and work on that from within. Sign up to give money to, to follow, to be part of the conversations from groups like Protect Democracy. There are several other groups that have formed to carry out lawsuits, to inform people, to keep trying to push legislation. Join those groups, pay attention to them, donate to them. Run for office yourself. There was a very good New York Times article, which described how fanatical believers in the Big Lie in the Republican Party are now contesting elections, often at very low levels—jobs, you know, to be local treasurer, to be local electoral counter. Some of these jobs have responsibility for elections and for counting results. What we need more than anything else is some grassroots response to what is clearly a grassroots movement on the other side.
I would also say, talk to people that you know; so talk to your family members and co-workers who are believers in the Big Lie, and try to get through to them. It’s not always impossible. I’ve had some luck sometimes talking to people who disagree with me, by trying to present things in a different way or by appealing to some authority, sometimes even by quoting Liz Cheney or one of the other Republicans who still live in the reality-based world. But think of yourself as an actor who can do something. Don’t give in to denialism, and don’t give in to despair. Think what it is you can do in your local community. How can you donate? How can you volunteer? How can you be part of some group that is trying to push back? And that’s what I would begin with at the most basic level. I mean, of course, there’s other, different advice. But at the most basic level, I think, this is the time to think of yourself not just as a worker and not just as a consumer, not just as a member of your family, but also as a citizen. And I think there are things that citizens can do.
LaFrance: Bart, one of the points you make in your piece is that President Biden isn’t doing enough and should be doing more to counter anti-democratic threats to the country. I’m curious if you can talk a bit about that, in addition to anything you want to add to what Anne just said?
Gellman: I think President Biden is doing substantially nothing to address the democratic emergency that I believe we’re living through right now. I think that he is surrounded by people who believe that the most important thing he could do to support democracy is to show that democracy can deliver. And so he is doing big, bold policy ideas on infrastructure and social spending. He’s working to take steps to address climate change. He’s got to address COVID. Presidents always have lots on their plates, but none of those address the fact that there is a steady march toward taking control of the election apparatus on the part of Republicans of bad faith, who believe or pretend to believe that the last election was stolen and that they have a right to put their thumb on the scale when it comes to counting the next election. I can’t tell the president what to do, because he knows better than I do what it looks like when a president says, as he has said at one major speech, that we’re facing the greatest threat to democracy since the Civil War. You need action commensurate with that, and he needs to put his weight behind several congressional bills that would take steps in the right direction, toward voting rights and free-vote counting.
But I want to reinforce something Anne said, which is what people can do individually. I think Americans who support democracy and who want our system to continue the way it has been under constitutional rules need to wake up to the problem and show some passion about it. We’re in a peculiar situation right now, in which Trump supporters believe by large margins that our democracy is under threat, and they believe that falsely, for false reasons, and fewer than one-third of Democrats are worried about the subject right now. There’s this weird disparity. And what Anne said about running for something: One of the biggest threats is that Republicans in thousands of small jurisdictions at the township level, even, are running for election supervisor on the platform that the last election was stolen, and they may be true believers in that. And once you have a true believer that the election was stolen last time, as I said before, you have given yourself permission to steal the next one.
LaFrance: One of the things I wonder about is the extent to which people don’t worry about this, because they allow themselves to stay stuck in the abstract of what it all means. What does life look like after a stolen election, an actually stolen election in America? Paint a picture for us of what that would mean for people. What freedoms are we taking for granted?
Gellman: The most basic freedom we have in this country, the foundation for all other freedoms, is that the people are sovereign and that the people get to choose their leaders. And if someone steals that from them, it’s a catastrophe. You have someone wielding power over the most powerful government in the world, illegitimately and without the consent of the governed. Anyone willing to steal an election like that is going to be willing to bring to bear other tools of repression that you see around the world, and this is what Anne can speak to much more clearly than I can. But I think you would have to worry about freedom of political expression and dissent. You’d have to worry about corruption of government agencies toward keeping that government in power. You’d have to worry about the breakdown of guardrails. I mean, Trump liked to joke, in his not-joking way, during his first term about how he was going to have a third and a fourth term, and the inhibitions against that would be at risk if you had a stolen election.
LaFrance: Our colleague George Packer has written recently, in our latest issue, about the failure of imagination among Americans who aren’t worried enough. Anne, same question for you about the worst case scenario, as you can envision it: What should Americans actually allow themselves to imagine about what’s possible if we don’t reverse course here?
Applebaum: So there are a couple of frightening scenarios, but yes, one of them is that we have in effect a stolen election where Trump becomes president not because he won the right number of votes in the Electoral College, but because the Electoral College was manipulated by people who were put there to manipulate it. My worries are actually on both sides of the political spectrum because if we have an illegitimate president, then we may have the specter of violence from both sides of the political spectrum. I can imagine parts of—I don’t even want to call it the left, but parts of the center, being outraged by the new president and by what’s just happened. I can imagine violent protests of the kind we haven’t seen in many years. I can then imagine Trump pulling one of the tricks he pulled in Portland last summer and bringing in some form of uniformed police, or indeed the military, to put down those protests. I mean, I can imagine, you know, a kind of violence and a kind of dissatisfaction with government, again, that I can’t think of a precedent for except the Civil War.
But in addition to everything that Bart says, an illegitimate president—and by the way, Trump would know he was illegitimate—would have no reason to respect anything, neither the separation of powers nor the political independence of the military, which is a long, kind of mostly unwritten tradition in American politics. In the first Trump administration, and hopefully the only Trump administration, we saw Trump using the White House as a way to make money for himself and for his children and for his company. It looks like a lot of American foreign policy, the more we now understand about how Trump was running it, was actually designed to help him personally, either politically or financially. And I can see many more parts of the government turned in that direction. So foreign policy, elements of domestic policy, whatever tax policy, I can see all of that being turned directly and openly, this time, toward the support of Trump, his family, his supporters, and that part of the Republican Party that are Trumpists. So we could see a really profound level of corruption in the United States, and I’m afraid it could happen very fast. I mean, it could happen within weeks or months of a disputed and probably violent inauguration. Preventing that from happening really should be every citizen’s first priority.
LaFrance: Why have we not seen the emergence of an anti-corruption movement here, the way we have in some areas in Europe, for example?
Applebaum: I wrote about this recently. The only really effective anti-corruption movement that’s really made a difference in opening up people’s eyes is actually in Russia. The main Russian opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, who’s now in prison, built his whole movement, which does include millions of people, on a series of videos and a kind of campaign about revealing the extent of corruption and the extent of kleptocracy in Russia. And he did it very cleverly; he’s also quite charismatic, so his personality helped, as well as the subject matter. Why it hasn’t emerged in the United States and particularly in the United Kingdom—London is one of the world centers for kleptocracy and money laundering as well—is a little puzzling to me, and I suspect it’s because so much of the story still feels hidden. The fact is that shell companies use the laws in places like South Dakota and Nevada and Delaware, as well as the City of London, to hide money or to channel money through banks and other financial institutions, and then to use the money in ways that are either to avoid tax or sometimes as dark money to buy political influence. These stories are often very complicated and hard to understand for ordinary people. What’s a shell company? What are these financial tools that are so complicated? They’re hard for journalists to track, because they involve, sometimes, dozens of transactions that take place around the world almost simultaneously.
That’s part of the explanation. But really, just too few American politicians have seized on this as a central piece of the story. I mean, there are a few exceptions. There are a few senators. Senator Elizabeth Warren has talked about this. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has talked about this. He’s been pretty effective, actually, in trying to get some legislation passed. There are a few others in the House. But as a fundamental source of distortion, as one of the distorting elements in American public life, nobody has really focused on it or built a campaign around it.
LaFrance: Perhaps they’re being a bit cheeky, but I’ll put this reader question to you. This person writes, “How about secession? We’ve become two nations. Let’s acknowledge it and move on. It won’t be easy, but we’ll figure out who gets the kids and when and how to split up finances. We can have good relations with each other, like the U.S. now has with Canada.”
I’d love your reaction to that.
Gellman: Besides the fact that I’m certainly not in charge and everyone should be really happy that I’m not in charge of what we should do next, as a citizen, I hate the idea of secession. I’m convinced that we have to make this American experiment work. And by the way, practically speaking, it’s a nonstarter. We don’t have contiguous geographical political boundaries in this country. It’s easy to talk about the coasts versus the center and so on. But an interesting fact about the insurgents of January 6 is that they came primarily from counties in which the vote was close. In which Biden won by a narrow margin. And they were objecting to changes in the world around them. We have cities that are largely democratic, but it’s not as simple as a big bloc of states. There would be no way to divide the territory. It would be worse than the West Bank.
LaFrance: There’s plenty for us as Americans to work on domestically, but there’s also the question of our reputation around the world, and another reader asks, “Other democratic countries now look at us and laugh. Can America regain its stature within the international community, and how?”
Applebaum: Some of the greatest damage that has been done by Trump and by the Republicans who created this Big Lie conspiracy theory is not only to America’s reputation, but to the cause of democracy in other places. Lots of democratic movements around the world, whether in Belarus or in Hong Kong, have looked to the United States for inspiration, for help, for support. And now they’re afraid, more and more often, that it’s not there. I actually think that I’m more optimistic than most about the possibilities of American Democrats working with democrats in other places to build some common cause around issues of democracy.
It does seem to me that democracies could work together on anti-corruption laws and anti-kleptocracy laws. There is a constituency for looking at reform of the internet, you know, that also goes across democracies, and that’s something that Biden could do in conjunction with Europeans, with Asian democracies, with democracies around the world. It seems to me that America working on concrete problems with other democracies, and Americans working to support and talk to democracy movements in different places, is one of the ways in which we can shore up our own democracy at home, remind ourselves what it’s worth. Remember, there are people who are going to jail and being beaten and being murdered just for the right to be able to have a vote in many countries around the world, and it’s a good reminder, I think, to us, what our democracy is worth.
I would say that the issue isn’t really rebuilding our reputation. Our reputation is going to be in trouble as long as we have this antidemocratic movement inside our country. But I do think there’s a foreign-policy aspect that could actually help at home: working with other democracies to fix some of the international aspects of the problem, supporting democracy movements, as a way of inspiring them and us and making it clear that the United States, although it’s suffering from the same problems that many others are, that it still contains a plurality, a majority of people who believe in these ideas and these ideals and that are willing to work with others. I think that’s a really important piece of Biden’s foreign policy, and I’m hoping they’ll get a little bit louder about it.
LaFrance: That’s a useful lead into another reader question: “I’d like to hear from Ms. Applebaum. How do you put this movement in the context of your December cover story about autocrats dominating the globe?” So how do you think about what’s happening now, and where Trump is looming large in this movement in the context of what’s happening globally in terms of autocracy?
Applebaum: I think Trump and the Trumpists and the Trump campaign learned a lot from autocrats. Trump himself was the beneficiary of the world of kleptocracy over the last two decades in his business career. Trump openly sought and then used Russian-style propaganda tactics, as well as actual Russian bots and trolls in his electoral campaign. I think that Trumpism borrowed, really, from the autocratic world a lot of tactics and ideas and ways of behaving. I think—although one never wants to draw precise lines; I’m not saying the United States is Russia or even that we’re in that same category—but I do think that the antidemocratic piece of the Republican Party has learned a lot from its contacts with the autocratic world, and that’s a part of the explanation for what we’re seeing.
LaFrance: Another reader asks: “Do you have any hope that a Republican candidate might win in 2024, other than Trump? And that that person could transform into a Republican FDR, or at least a Republican Eisenhower who would disown Trump?” Bart, what do you think?
Gellman: Well, it’s so easy to predict the president, right? And almost all predictions end up being just a projection of what we see now, forward. From my point of view, 2024 is not very far away. Trump is this absolutely dominant figure in the Republican Party, dominant to the point that we have not seen in a politician in a very long time, such that you have very few willing in his party to contest him, and so I made the bold claim in my article that, absent a biological intervention, Trump would be the nominee in 2024. That said, you just never know. I’ve often wanted to sit down with Liz Cheney and sort of hypnotize her into telling all. I would like to know, what is her vision of the future of the party? How is it that she is doing what she is doing? Does she have a picture in her mind? Could she imagine a world in which the party comes to her, in which she’s not just drummed out, that she makes a big return and develops support for her or for someone like her, who wants to take a new direction? We won’t see that coming until it starts to happen. But I wouldn’t rule it out.
LaFrance: We have a lot of questions from folks about the Supreme Court and how you both see the courts playing a role in any sort of continued turmoil with regard to elections. In some cases, people are explicitly asking about the makeup of the Court, of course, with Trump’s picks, and the balance of the Court, the politicization of it.
Gellman: So here’s the piece that I’m not worried about. I don’t believe that Trump’s appointees are sitting on the Court waiting for a chance to make him president, come what may. I don’t think they feel that obligation to him; I think they have more self-respect than that. They are, nevertheless, highly conservative and have their own doctrinal preferences.
The concern I have right now is that there’s a growing momentum in the legal side of Trump world toward a doctrine called “independent state legislatures.” This is the doctrine that says it’s up to the state legislatures to decide who their electors are and to decide rules of elections. Trump’s central strategy in his attempt to overthrow the election—no matter all the other things that were going on—his central strategy was to persuade state House and state Senate legislators to take control of their state’s electors in states that Biden won and send Trump electors to the Electoral College anyway. There are indications from dicta, from nonbinding statements in previous Supreme Court cases, that at least four justices are interested in and find some persuasiveness in this doctrine of independent state legislature, which comes from the fact that Article II of the Constitution states that electors in a presidential race will be chosen in such manner as the state legislatures decide. If you get a fifth justice for that and you have Republican state Houses sending Trump electors when Biden won the popular vote in their states, then we’ve got a potential for pretty earthshaking trouble.
LaFrance: I want to go back to a question that we talked about a little bit before, and this is where, Bart, you talked about the absence of Republican leadership. Many readers are asking about how we get through to the millions of voters who no longer can see the truth or are willfully ignoring it. Anne, I’m curious for your views on that, aside from Republican leadership being willing to tell the truth. What else can be done to get through to people who are operating in a different reality right now?
Applebaum: I actually have been asking this question of some European politicians as well. I talked to the leader of the Hungarian opposition, who has exactly the same problem, and even worse in some ways, because something like 95 percent of the media in Hungary is controlled by the ruling party. So that gives him 5 percent in order to try and reach the whole country. I’ve talked to the de facto leader of the Polish opposition, I’ve talked to the leader of the center-right in Spain, but none of them have slam-dunk answers. Most of them talk about choosing themes that will unify people. In other words, trying to rekindle feelings of patriotism as opposed to nationalism or using patriotic and universal themes that can reach people—not falling into the polarization trap.
Some of them speak about focusing on issues of corruption. There’s an anti-corruption campaign in Hungary that is trying to take off. The astute use of social media to try and reach people inside their filter bubbles. You know, there’s a whole technical conversation around that. It’s actually pretty difficult to do. Liz Cheney, whom I have spoken to in the past, has talked about trying to reach voters at a very grassroots level. When she’s at home, in Wyoming, she goes around from town hall to town hall and makes her arguments, very often against very hostile audiences. The more people who are able to do that, the better.
I would also say that there’s a role for nonpolitical authority figures, whether it’s religious leaders or business leaders or other kinds of community leaders who have some trust inside Republican-majority communities. If they were able to speak to the people who work for them or work with them or the people who go to their churches. I’m aware of some attempts to do that as well. There have been a couple of Atlantic writers, Peter Wehner and David French, who have both written about this increasingly bizarre phenomenon of evangelical congregations pushing back against their leaders, against preachers who try even to depoliticize the conversation. So that’s difficult. But, it seems to me, there are a dozen different small answers that have to be part of the question. Bart alluded to this before. Biden’s answer has been, Make democracy work; talk about things that are real; talk about, I don’t know, housing and roads and schools instead of talking about mythical culture wars. Although that hasn’t been successful in the United States, if you look at Northern Ireland, for example, very often when you have had a very bad conflict, one of the solutions is to try to get people to return to talking about, again, real things, as opposed to the things that divide them, and their sort of irreconcilable differences. The more that—and this is something the Democratic Party could do—the Democratic Party and Democratic leadership can change the subject, so that we’re talking about things that we can disagree about, but in a civilized way. Should we build a road or a bridge? If we can just have a single conversation again. A final part of the answer, but this is too long term to help us immediately, is the thing that, Adrienne, you and I have both written about, which is reform of the internet. But that’s a longer-term conversation.
LaFrance: Do you think that “post-conflict” is the right framework or the necessary framework for us, rather than still trying to avert conflict at this stage?
Applebaum: No, it’s really the same process. It’s what do you do when you have two very polarized communities. And it can either be after a civil war, or in the case of Northern Ireland, which wasn’t a civil war but a kind of ongoing conflict that is surprisingly similar to what we have: You have two communities who have completely different definitions of what they think their nation is. They call themselves by different names, they have different values, and each one thinks the other are traitors. How do you somehow bring them together again so that they can live in the same state? That was the problem in Northern Ireland, and the conflict-resolution measures are not really post-conflict, actually. They involved getting people together at the community level and getting them to talk about other things. It’s very hard in the United States. There have been towns where mayors have tried to bring people together and not succeeded. On the other hand, there are some success stories as well. There are a number of community organizations and NGOs who have tried to facilitate those kinds of conversations across the United States, and some of them have had some success. [Braver Angels] is probably the most famous one, but there are a number of others. And by the way, that’s another thing you can join in your community.
This article has been updated to clarify that Anne Applebaum was referring to the organization Braver Angels, not Better Angels, as originally stated.