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The conservative flavor of the week for liberals is Robert Kagan’s Washington Post opinion piece from September 21, 2021. It recounts, in apocalyptic terms, what everyone who cares about democracy in both parties worries about: that J6 was just the beginning; that the continuing lies and chaos that Trump and his minions are spreading are not about a Trump restoration now, but challenging a potential Republican/Trump defeat in 2024; and that political violence will escalate over the next three years.
In other words, Kagan argues that without some serious intervention, the United States will face an actual stolen election—this time at the point of millions of guns held by MAGA insurrectionists and public officials elected with the express purpose of overturning the 2024 results.
If you are on Gab or follow conservative media, the evidence is there for this scenario. Research also suggests that a truly rigged election backed by armed militias is at least plausible: Today, most of the GOP believe that Trump won the election. Around two million of them are heavily armed.
Here is how Kagan believes this coup could play out:
First, Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate for president in 2024. The hope and expectation that he would fade in visibility and influence have been delusional. He enjoys mammoth leads in the polls; he is building a massive campaign war chest; and at this moment the Democratic ticket looks vulnerable. Barring health problems, he is running.
Second, Trump and his Republican allies are actively preparing to ensure his victory by whatever means necessary. Trump’s charges of fraud in the 2020 election are now primarily aimed at establishing the predicate to challenge future election results that do not go his way. Some Republican candidates have already begun preparing to declare fraud in 2022, just as Larry Elder tried meekly to do in the California recall contest.
Meanwhile, the amateurish “stop the steal” efforts of 2020 have given way to an organized nationwide campaign to ensure that Trump and his supporters will have the control over state and local election officials that they lacked in 2020. Those recalcitrant Republican state officials who effectively saved the country from calamity by refusing to falsely declare fraud or to “find” more votes for Trump are being systematically removed or hounded from office. Republican legislatures are giving themselves greater control over the election certification process. As of this spring, Republicans have proposed or passed measures in at least 16 states that would shift certain election authorities from the purview of the governor, secretary of state or other executive-branch officers to the legislature. An Arizona bill flatly states that the legislature may “revoke the secretary of state’s issuance or certification of a presidential elector’s certificate of election” by a simple majority vote. Some state legislatures seek to impose criminal penalties on local election officials alleged to have committed “technical infractions,” including obstructing the view of poll watchers.
The stage is thus being set for chaos. Imagine weeks of competing mass protests across multiple states as lawmakers from both parties claim victory and charge the other with unconstitutional efforts to take power. Partisans on both sides are likely to be better armed and more willing to inflict harm than they were in 2020. Would governors call out the National Guard? Would President Biden nationalize the Guard and place it under his control, invoke the Insurrection Act, and send troops into Pennsylvania or Texas or Wisconsin to quell violent protests? Deploying federal power in the states would be decried as tyranny. Biden would find himself where other presidents have been — where Andrew Jackson was during the nullification crisis, or where Abraham Lincoln was after the South seceded — navigating without rules or precedents, making his own judgments about what constitutional powers he does and doesn’t have.
Today’s arguments over the filibuster will seem quaint in three years if the American political system enters a crisis for which the Constitution offers no remedy.
I usually don’t bother with extended quotes. Still, we live in an age where even the most responsible readers do not navigate to the original story, so I want to make sure you understand, in his own words, what the guy is saying. Kagan, a Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush-era foreign policy professional, argues that the narrowly failed right-wing coup of December 2020 and January 2021 proved our democracy weak, not strong. Furthermore, another coup, backed by armed militias, is likely because, in Kagan’s view, Trump supporters believe that he is an “infallible” answer to their woes.
Yet weirdly, Kagan portrays himself and other neoconservatives as bystanders to Trumpism when the truth is that they created the party that nurtured it. They built a new conservative movement based on white grievance, American exceptionalism, and lies. They promoted wars that energized a conservative and armed populist resistance among the poor and rural people who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. They believed that running Jeb! would be successful, despite the apparent hatred of the Bush family by a populist element in their party that had been metastisizing since 2008.
As importantly, how does Kagan, a lifetime fanboy for American exceptionalism, understand the gross failure of our Constitutional safeguards to cope with a fascist challenge?
His answer seems to be: how could the Founders have known that such a thing was possible? (This is, by the way, analogous to the “How could educated eighteenth-century politicians have known that slavery wasn’t compatible with liberty?” argument.)
The answer is always: they were men of their time. “The Founders did not foresee the Trump phenomenon, in part because they did not foresee national parties,” Kagan writes. “They anticipated the threat of a demagogue, but not of a national cult of personality. They assumed that the new republic’s vast expanse and the historic divisions among the 13 fiercely independent states would pose insuperable barriers to national movements based on party or personality.”
But Kagan’s version of history isn’t accurate precisely because they were men of their time. The founders foresaw political parties because such parties had emerged in England as early as 1688. The divisions between Whigs and Tories about whether to fund George III’s war had a great deal to do with why the American Revolution ended when it did, which is why they worked to prevent them—an effort that died in 1796. And the founders longed to participate in that system. So I am not sure what Kagan thinks “taxation without representation means” if it didn’t mean the desire to influence an English constitutional monarchy governed by a two-party system.
Second, the founders anticipated a cult of personality because they knew it when they saw it. A cult of personality existed around George Washington, the first president, otherwise known as the “Father of Our Country.” It was not until after his death that Washington became idealized and elevated to secular sainthood. Still, as Zack Wasserman of Foreign Policy pointed out before the 2020 election, “Washington worship ran wide and deep” during his presidency as well. There was a brief and worrisome effort by Alexander Hamilton to make the general a king and his officers a landed gentry in the English tradition. While “Washington never conspired against democracy,” Wasserman reminds us, others certainly did so on his behalf, with an eye to how they might profit from accumulated wealth and influence.
Finally, the claim that the founders believed that “historic divisions” between colonies would weaken the demagogic instinct is spectacularly untrue, reflecting the broad influence of states’ rights ideology among Republican normies like Kagan. The founders put a lot of effort into knotting those colonies together and steering them towards a common fate. The coherence of the southern colonies over human slavery nearly broke the new nation until northern abolitionists fatally agreed not to disagree. And that pact survived for almost 70 years, primarily because of the party system.
So why is Kagan—a well-educated, intelligent, and politically experienced scholar—making this argument?
My guess? To salvage what is left of the Republican party he helped to build—an organization that has rested for decades on flawed understandings of history, economics, sociology, you name it!—from the eternal shame of what it has become.
Disassociating the GOP from Trumpism might occur through accounting for past lies rather than telling new ones. But no: we get more lies. “Critics and supporters alike have consistently failed to recognize what a unique figure Trump is in American history,” Kagan writes. “Because his followers share fundamentally conservative views, many see Trump as merely the continuation, and perhaps the logical culmination, of the Reagan Revolution.”
The only way to make this argument is for Kagan to misrepresent our national history. For example, he ignores demagogues like John C. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, and Alexander Stephens. These men built the case for the Civil War out of mainstream, conservative ideas and mobilized a population around them. Likewise, if Trumpists portray totalitarianism as freedom, Confederate intellectuals proposed a legal and cultural foundation for a government where human liberty would be built on slavery forever. The descendants of these traitors have called this system of domination “democracy” ever since: these were the voters that neoconservatives mustered for the Reagan “Revolution” that set Trumpism in motion.
Kagan actively conceals this history. Portraying Trump as an aberration is necessary to his argument because the other option is to account truthfully for how the GOP got to this place. It was a deliberate strategy, albeit with a Frankenstein ending: Republican political consultants imported centuries of race-baiting, government-hating, Southern-style politics into the national GOP. Reagan’s party was always a white identity movement, based on the fantasy that a centralized government was the enemy. This vision evolved under friendly normies like George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush—and Robert Kagan was on the team.
This is Part 1 of a 2-part post. For part 2 of this essay, go here.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This essay is adapted from a post on her Substack, Political Junkie.