It has been three years since then-President Donald Trump incited a violent mob to storm the U.S. Capitol. In the dark days that followed Jan. 6, 2021, there was a glimmer of hope that the worst might be behind us. We now know, the darkness has persisted and the worst may lie ahead.
The loss of the 2020 election, followed by an embarrassingly incompetent post-election legal strategy left much of the Republican Party stunned. As the defeats in court mounted to more than 60, many were asking how a party that had strategically executed a victory in Bush v. Gore, had become a national laughingstock.
Then, on the night before the insurrection, Georgia voters elected two Democrats to the U.S. Senate in run-off elections, flipping control of the upper chamber from Republican to Democratic.
Like many others, I assumed that Trump’s defeat and his humiliating losses in the post-election period meant the end of his political influence. As the morning of Jan. 6 progressed, I was dealing with the last desperate court filings from Trump. I was cognizant that by the end of the day, Congress would have certified now-President Joe Biden’s victory and the 2020 election would be formally concluded and I could start turning to the future.
The events that followed that day were surreal. By afternoon, a violent mob had breached the Capitol and the House and Senate chambers had been evacuated. The police, which normally are ever-present during protests in Washington, D.C., seemed unprepared and overwhelmed. It took hours to regain control of the Capitol. Even then, the rioters simply walked away. No mass arrests, no show of force.
Immediately after the Jan. 6 insurrection, Republicans signaled they had had enough. Even as Republican profiles in cowardice refused to impeach him, Trump seemed alone and isolated. Even his most stalwart allies on Fox News and in the GOP offered criticism and kept their distance.
This was short lived.
Predictably, what Republican elites wanted for their party soon ran headlong into the buzzsaw of the grassroots. Right-wing activists poisoned by years of Trump-filled lies and conspiracy theories demanded new investigations into the 2020 election and new legislation to combat nonexistent voter fraud.
Republican officials who initially recoiled at the events of Jan. 6, soon came to see it as an electoral opportunity. They could simultaneously ingratiate themselves with MAGA voters and enact legislation that would give them a partisan advantage in future elections. The result was a new wave of voter suppression laws targeting Black, brown and young voters with a fury not seen since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Much of the 2022 election cycle was consumed with lawsuits combatting these new laws and developing electoral strategies to contend with them. The results of 2022 showed that litigation can work but also that where it does not, we cannot expect simply to out organize voter suppression.
Little changed in 2023. Republicans continued to enact laws that make it harder to vote and easier to cheat. New signs of a growing right-wing vigilante movement emerged. We fought these efforts in court and won more than we lost and more than people expected. On paper, at least, democracy was holding on.
The first steps toward accountability began to take shape in 2023. Trump was indicted in four separate criminal cases — two of which involve his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Rather than constrain Trump, the prospect of conviction and prison made him bolder. In his desperation, he has decided to go all in on conspiracy theories and lies.
Donald Trump has always been a liar. I grew up in New York where he was regarded as a clownish character in a larger-than-life city. He was the carnival barker who tried to get you to play a rigged game at a rundown amusement park. He was a spectacle who knew people were laughing at him as much as with him. Everyone was in on the joke.
But something is different now. This time, Trump has morphed into a bitter old man. Not the type who yells at clouds and screams at kids to get off his lawn. Instead, he is the old-man recluse who lives alone at the end of a dirt road with no trespass signs warning that he is armed, and you are under video surveillance. In this new version of Trump, his lies are darker and bend undoubtedly towards authoritarianism.
Trump has made clear that he will do everything in his power to win the 2024 election. Nothing will be off limits. As desperate as he was after the 2020 election, he is more so this time. He will cross any line, break any rule and violate any norm to return to power.
Trump’s entire candidacy is motivated by vengeance, with the stated goal of delivering retribution against his enemies. He has said that if he is elected, he will be a dictator for at least the first day he is in office. He recently shared an image of words that voters associate with him, which include “revenge,” “power” and “dictatorship” in the center in large, unmistakable font.
Our election systems have also changed since the last presidential election. Three years after Jan. 6, too many election officials have left their jobs. Even worse, entire election offices have been taken over by election deniers and adherence to the “Big Lie.” While we have struck down many of the voter suppression and election subversion laws in court, some remain in place and GOP legislatures enact new ones every year.
Worst of all, voters are becoming tired and cynical. Tired of the constant political warfare that dominates our culture and cynical that any of it will ever change. Those who favor democracy thrive on the promise of hope and change. Cynicism and despair are the weapons of tyrants and despots.
If this makes you worried, it should. Our democracy will face challenges in the months ahead that we cannot even imagine. Those who care about democracy must be prepared to fight with the same single-minded tenacity as those plotting to undermine it. The courts will again need to play a central role in protecting the right to vote and free and fair elections.
The America that emerges on Jan. 7, 2025, will be different from the one in place four years earlier or even today. It will be shaped by the crucible of the 2024 election and everything that leads up to it. Let’s hope it emerges for the better.