Democracy, Truth, and the Doomsday Clock: The Danger of 2024

Photo by Evan Vucci

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The proverbial temperature rose in the still-young United States of America in the late 1830s. Though the country then knew nothing of Dred Scott and Bleeding Kansas, nor would it see the horrors of civil war for almost 20 years to come, the writing was already on the wall for the fledgling republic.

In St. Louis in April of 1836, local policemen attempted to arrest a river boatsman for reasons not entirely known – perhaps for fighting, as the captain of the vessel Flora claimed, perhaps for drunkenness, or perhaps for both. Whatever the case, when the boatsman ran by the freed black cook of the Flora, Francis McIntosh, the officers shouted for McIntosh to apprehend him. McIntosh refused to do so and was then himself arrested.

When one of the officers joked that McIntosh would be hanged, McIntosh pulled a knife, killed one of the officers, and seriously wounded another. Enraged onlookers formed a mob and overcame McIntosh, binding him to a tree and burning him alive.

In the immediate aftermath, local abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy wrote scathingly of the attack, describing discussions of villagers present “which made the blood curdle to hear” and deriding the lynching as “savage barbarity.” Just over a year later, in November of 1837, for publishing these and other similar sentiments, a set of local men killed Lovejoy in cold blood.

Abraham Lincoln referenced these grisly events in an 1838 speech given to a club of young debaters in Springfield, Illinois. “…There is, even now, something of ill-omen, amongst us,” Lincoln warned. These events demonstrated the great danger the country’s political institutions were in, Lincoln argued, and not from anyone other than their own citizens. “Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! –All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined…could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.” Instead, Lincoln famously insisted, “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Over 180 years after they were first uttered, Lincoln’s timeless words ought to be a clarion warning to us as we approach the 2024 presidential election. The presidential election this year will be the most consequential for the fate of American democracy itself since the 1860 election that elevated Lincoln to the presidency. The threat posed by Donald Trump to democracy is enormous, immediate, and undeniable. On this, there can be no reasonable equivocation and no balanced ‘bothsidesism’: he has left no doubt in recent speeches, appearances, and reports of his intentions for his potential second term.

One’s personal opinion of Trump has no bearing on the authoritarian content of his speeches and schemes; whether one detests Trump or worships him, no reasonable person can believe that any man who threatens to execute the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, any man who, in the vein of Mein Kampf, pledges to “root out” the “vermin” when speaking of his political opponents, any man who has been found in the Colorado State Supreme Court to have “engaged in insurrection” against his own government, is legitimately qualified to serve as the leader of the free world and as the president of the world’s most powerful democracy.

Critics will argue that these fears are far-fetched and that Trump is not nearly as much of a threat to democracy as his inflammatory rhetoric and flagrantly anti-democratic behavior may indicate. They will point to his first term as evidence that he is not genuinely autocratic. This argument is farcical: Trump’s second term would be very different, as laid out excellently by Brookings fellow and scholar Robert Kagan in a devastating editorial in the Washington Post:

What limits [Trump’s] powers [in a second term]? The most obvious answer is the institutions of justice — all of which Trump, by his very election, will have defied and revealed as impotent. A court system that could not control Trump as a private individual is not going to control him better when he is president of the United States…Think of the power of a man who gets himself elected president despite indictments, courtroom appearances and perhaps even conviction.

Will a future Congress stop him? Presidents can accomplish a lot these days without congressional approval…The one check Congress has on a rogue president, namely, impeachment and conviction, has already proved all but impossible…

A third potential bulwark against a Trump-instigated dictatorship is the vast federal bureaucracy whose often-unfireable employees partially hampered Trump the first time. However, propositions by many on the right to reinstate Schedule F, a measure first implemented in October 2020, would make hundreds of civil service employees far easier to fire. As Kagan puts it, “[Trump’s] administration will be filled with people with enemies’ lists of their own, a determined cadre of ‘vetted’ officials who will see it as their sole, presidentially authorized mission to ‘root out’ those in the government who cannot be trusted.”

With a court system and legislature that have either found or proven themselves unable to hold Trump accountable and a completely reformed civil service tailor-made to cater to his every whim, what would stop Trump from pursuing his worst, most fascistic impulses, such as prosecuting his political opponents? Again, we need not theorize that he would do this – we need only listen to his own words:

Claiming without evidence that President Joe Biden and Democrats have “weaponized” the legal system against him, Trump said he is willing to do the same to them if he gets the chance.

“If they do this and they’ve already done it, but if they want to follow through on this, yeah, it could certainly happen in reverse,” Trump told Univision…

Trump claimed “they have done something that allows the next party” to do the same.

Said Trump: “If I happen to be president and I see somebody who’s doing well and beating me very badly, I say, ‘Go down and indict them.’ They’d be out of business. They’d be out of the election.

Trump’s threat to the United States goes beyond his potential to destroy its bedrock institutions. Instead, he puts the lives of others in legitimate danger. As Peter Wehner elucidated in a striking article in the Atlantic, “Trump’s rhetoric is a permission slip for his supporters to dehumanize others just as he does. He portrays others as existential threats, determined to destroy everything MAGA world loves about America.” The word ‘dehumanization’ should set off alarms in the minds of any who can think of other political-turned-human-rights tragedies in which it has been invoked: most recently, in Israel and Palestine; historically, in Rwanda, Cambodia, Armenia, and, of course, World War II, among countless others. Wehner is keen on the importance of this rhetoric in enabling such disasters: “It signals to his supporters that any means to vanquish the other side is legitimate; the normal constraints that govern human interactions no longer apply.”

Trump has told his supporters that their opponents are ‘vermin’ who must be rooted out, as already mentioned. He has said in the past that if his supporters “don’t fight like hell, you won’t have a country anymore.” He – as well as some of his followers in Congress – have suggested, as previously mentioned, that some who defied his treasonous wishes on January 6th ought to have been killed. Could any reasonable person be shocked by widespread violence with – or without – a second Trump term?

Again, we need not guess at the likelihood of such violence. Every one of the August 2022 attack on an FBI field office by a devoted Trump supporter, the October 2022 attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband by a devotee to the QAnon conspiracy cult that Trump himself endorsed in the past, and the general increase in death threats (a plurality of which, The New York Times notes, are Republicans threatening Democrats) is another indicator pointing towards what should already be obvious and should have been obvious since January 6th—namely, that Trump encourages violence and that violence will follow in his wake whether he wins or loses.

Lincoln asked his audience in 1838, “At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?” The danger is already upon us, and more soon shall come. The idea that Trump will not be the Republican nominee for President next year is a pipe dream at best and delusional at worst. We must now fortify ourselves against the danger in a number of ways.

First, the media must stop reporting on Trump as if he were ‘any other candidate’ – as Brian Klaas of The Atlantic pointed out when Trump ‘truthed’ about potentially executing former staff members, “the post barely made the news. Most Americans who don’t follow Trump on social media probably don’t even know it happened.” Perhaps the media is afraid of amplifying Trump’s message to the masses in a redux of 2016 when much handwringing was done over the role of the media in legitimizing Trump’s candidacy. The time for such concerns has long since passed. It is incumbent upon the media to ensure that the masses know of his dastardly rhetoric and charlatanic machinations. 

The media ought also not to pretend that Trump is anything other than an unabashed wannabe autocrat in the name of fair and balanced reporting. Pandering to a middle-of-the-road voter (whose mere existence is dubious; few in the country are ‘in-between’ on Trump at this point, as polls show) is a disingenuous strategy that conflicts with the responsibility of and purported interest of news outlets to report the unbiased truth. The truth is unbiased, regardless of what political talking heads say about it, and their opinions should not influence news coverage, particularly on this matter.

Second, the Democratic Party must change its line of messaging. As is well-documented, Joe Biden is deeply unpopular, but democracy itself is not. Large swaths of voters are very concerned about the fate of American democracy largely due to Trump, whether because he has told them to be worried or (like myself) he has made them worried through his appalling behavior. Biden’s messaging during the 2020 campaign about the election being “a battle for the soul of America” was both strong and accurate, and he ought to revisit it. Political bookmakers are frequently concerned with who is ‘more motivated’ heading into an election year; Democrats would do well to shore up their motivation by being incredibly clear on just how paramount a victory in 2024 is.

Finally (although there is much to be done beyond what I have listed), in a broader sense, we must find a way to, as Lincoln put it, instill a “sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws” among the American public, where currently polarization is acute and unity scarce. As I have argued here, much of the voting body, by being so committed to Trump, has shown a disturbing lack of commitment to the Constitution and democracy and, by extension, to one another. If American democracy is to sustain itself in 2024 and beyond, we must cultivate a society with collective faith in and respect for democracy and the Constitution. That starts with defeating the man who has shown a blatant and unrepentant disregard for both, but it does not end with him, either.

The keepers of the Doomsday Clock at the Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences closely watch the many international political developments and adjust their eponymous clock accordingly to reflect the imminence of danger to world peace, particularly in a nuclear context. (Most recently, they advanced the clock 10 seconds – now 90 seconds to midnight, in their estimation). Were there such a clock for American democracy, we would surely be even closer than that. The next eight months will be crucial for our republic: we may live forever, as Lincoln said, or die by suicide. It is pivotal that we ensure that, come November 5th, Americans head to the voting booth informed by the better angels of their nature. 

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This article was edited by Danielle Barber and Isabella Valentino.