On August 23, 1864, as the Civil War seemed to be heading toward a stalemate, President Abraham Lincoln wrote a memorandum for his Cabinet that read: 

This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.    

Thankfully, just ten days later, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman took Atlanta, the entire political situation changed, and Lincoln was comfortably reelected. 

After the United States had survived the early travails of the Revolution in 1776-77, August 1864 was the last time the nation’s existence was seriously in question.  

Until now.

James Fallows is one of many writers who have wondered whether 2020 is even “worse” than 1968. The year that saw the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. may have been more painful to live through, but 2020 is more dangerous. The turmoil of the Vietnam era was wrenching, but there was never really a chance that America was going to slip into some level of authoritarianism. If Donald Trump wins reelection, however, that outcome is virtually certain.

Trump probably cannot spell “authoritarianism,” much less define it. But he has the instincts of a wannabe Duce, and he has been running the authoritarian playbook since he took office:

  • He has blatantly violated the Constitution by spending funds not appropriated by Congress, accepting gifts from foreign governments, and using the power of his office to pressure at least one foreign government to do him political favors;
  • He has obstructed justice, politicized the Department of Justice, used federal agents to provoke confrontations on our streets, and blocked congressional oversight over his administration;
  • He coddles authoritarian dictators while undermining our alliances with liberal democracies;
  • He has consistently worked to discredit and undermine the free press, free elections, the judiciary, and any federal official or agency that dares to contradict him.

These are precisely the tactics used by Victor Orban in Hungary, the Law and Justice Party in Poland, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and Vladimir Putin in Russia. We are seeing a new form of government evolve — call it “competitive authoritarianism” — in which democracy exists in form but not in substance. The executive branch of the government of the United States is today competitive-authoritarian in nature.

How is this possible? What happened to our vaunted system of checks and balances and the rule of law? The answer is that Trump has exploited vulnerabilities in our constitutional system that have allowed him to get away with all of this. A sitting president cannot be prosecuted, and the federal courts move too slowly to provide timely corrective action. And just one-third of the U.S. Senate can acquit the president and thwart the impeachment power of Congress.  

Yes, it can happen here. It is happening here.

The only real way to stop a competitive-authoritarian president is to win elections: defeat his party in congressional elections and beat him when he runs for reelection. This means that we are just weeks away from the moment of maximum danger. To stop the slide toward authoritarianism, Trump must lose and leave office. If he is reelected, he will change the basic nature of our political system for a generation, if not permanently.

As I write these words, Joe Biden is comfortably ahead in the polls. Optimism is growing that Trump will be defeated. But imagine what will happen if Trump wins a comeback victory – fairly and legitimately or not. If he takes the oath of office for a second time, the slide toward authoritarianism will accelerate, and there will be nothing to stop it. 

Imagine the effect his reelection victory would have on Trump and his enablers, on the Democratic Party, on the Republican Party, and on the American people.

If Trump wins, he and the people around him will be massively emboldened. Their beliefs and approach to government will have been vindicated and ratified by the ultimate authority, the American people. At the beginning of his first term, Trump hired people from the establishment wing of the GOP who tried to control him and to convince him to moderate his views and actions. All of those “adults in the room” are gone. What is left are family and enablers like Bill Barr, Stephen Miller, and Peter Navarro, who share and encourage Trump’s nativist, protectionist, and authoritarian views. Presumably, these are the very people who have convinced Trump that his authority is “total” and that Article 2 of the Constitution allows him to do “whatever I want.” 

In victory, Trump will exact vengeance, just as he did after surviving impeachment. He will continue to purge the “deep state,” probably turning first on the FBI and the State Department.  And he will continue to pack the federal courts with judges who share his views — which will include filling the several vacancies on the Supreme Court which seem certain to occur.  

If Trump wins, he will continue to defy and ignore Congress. He will issue more unconstitutional executive orders and then stall in the courts for years. And he will continue to move our foreign policy toward the emerging bloc of authoritarian strongmen he so admires.

If Trump wins, he will have beaten the most electable, most moderate candidate the Democrats could have chosen. If Joe Biden is defeated, the democratic-socialist wing of the Democratic Party will have a powerful new argument in the ongoing struggle for the soul of the party. Driven by “we told you so” zeal, the left will likely launch more primary attacks in the 2022 midterm elections. Someone from the left, younger and more appealing than Bernie Sanders — perhaps Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez herself — probably will be the Democratic nominee in 2024.  

If Trump wins, the tiny flicker of Never Trump resistance within the Republican Party will be snuffed out. The Steve Bannon/Pat Buchanan wing of the party will be able to point to two national victories as proof that focusing on white Protestant populist angst is the path to power. The party will even more slavishly follow Trump’s lead. And in 2024, they will nominate someone to carry on the Trump legacy — undoubtedly someone younger, smarter, and without Trump’s personal baggage. Authoritarianism will have a new, more energetic, and dangerous leader.

If Trump wins, it is highly likely the political center will finally fall apart. Americans could  be faced with the choice of European-style democratic socialism on the left and culture-war nationalism on the right. If you have any doubt about how that will turn out, look at the results of the last British election or at polling from earlier this year on how unpopular socialism is with American voters. Millions of Americans will give up on politics and just try to live their lives. And Democrats will have to compete henceforth in an electoral system Trump and his allies will do everything possible to disrupt. If Trump wins, a new party system will emerge with neo-fascist competitive authoritarianism as the dominant force.

If Trump wins, America will not become Hitler’s Germany or even Orban’s Hungary. But it will not be the America we have known.

My father fought the Nazis in World War II. As terrible as both World Wars were, once America joined the fight, victory was virtually assured. Franklin D. Roosevelt kept the Depression from destroying our political system. I am old enough to remember 1968, and I have lived through Watergate, the height of the Cold War, and 9/11. None of those periods matches the peril we face now. Every election year, pundits and politicians say, “This is the most important election of our lifetime.” This year, it is true.  We are approaching the most dangerous moment for our nation since the darkest days of the Civil War.