At the Iowa State Fair, pork chops have been ceremonially flipped. At a presidential primary debate, establishment candidates have lashed out at a smooth-talking newcomer. In email inboxes, candidates are bringing the drama with increasingly histrionic subject lines.
All signs point to a presidential election season proceeding as usual. It’s almost enough to lull us into a sense of normalcy.
Almost—but not quite. The early months of the GOP primary have shown that there is no moving on from Donald Trump, no chance of salvaging the warped political party in his thrall. The 2020 presidential election drove the U.S. to the brink of disaster; a change in presidential leadership did nothing to maneuver us away from the precipice. Now, it feels like we’re once again teetering on the edge of something incredibly dangerous, in ways that seem almost certain to hasten democratic collapse, with little choice but to go through the motions.
To put it bluntly, absolutely nothing about the upcoming year will be normal. In the 2024 election cycle, we will have a twice-impeached former president—who was recently found liable for sexual assault—mounting a reelection campaign in the midst of multiple state and federal criminal trials for, among other things, trying to overturn the results of the last election. The Republican base seems almost certain to consolidate around him, despite the fact that he is unrepentant about fomenting a deadly coup attempt.
It has become a cliché of the post-pandemic zeitgeist to observe that any pre- or mid-pandemic event feels like it happened just yesterday, and also a lifetime ago. But really—isn’t that the case with the 2020 election and its immediate aftermath? Even though it’s been nearly three years since an alliance of militias, fascist organizations, and white supremacists staged a violent invasion at the seat of U.S. government in order to nullify the results of a democratic election, the wound still feels fresh. That’s in part because many prison sentences are just now being handed down to the rioters, and it was only this summer that Trump incurred federal charges for his part in the attempt to overturn the 2020 election results.
Since Trump’s loss, concerted efforts to sow disinformation and demolish democratic levers of power at the state level have become the Republican Party’s foremost strategies to regain or retain a hold on power. The GOP remains completely in thrall to the alliance of conspiracy theorists, antisocial bigots, and autocrat-thirsty fascists that it successfully nurtured. That coalition’s appetite for destruction—of truth, of norms, of pluralism, of specific demographics of variously vulnerable people, of essential mechanisms of the U.S. government—will be a major driving force of the 2024 election, whichever way it goes.
Journalists are often told to avoid the term unprecedented. Things are almost always precedented; recency bias and the narrative need for drama can lead us to inaccurately label an event as exceptional when it’s really just unusual. But I feel comfortable positing that the particular circumstances of this election cycle are definitively unique: The likely candidate for the Republican nomination may be a convicted felon when he wins the presidency. About two-thirds of Americans are convinced that Trump did illegal and/or unethical things as president, and even still, his Democratic opponent is barely keeping up with him in the polls. Both front-runner candidates are an age at which the actuarial likelihood of death while in office—or during the campaign!—is disconcertingly high. We are now so accustomed to the GOP’s casual incitement of political violence, and so sure that there will be no intra-party scrutiny or consequence, that when Trump suggests the nation’s top general should be executed, as he did Friday night, we can barely muster a scowl.
And the national mood? Well, for one indicator, look no further than Sen. Mitt Romney, who was the Republican Party’s pick for president a mere decade ago. These days, he is a full-on pariah, and he seems convinced that there is no saving the GOP. He has lately become “obsessed” with a chart that tracks the rise and fall of major civilizations throughout history, and according to the Atlantic, “more than once, he found himself staring at it alone in his office at night.” This is not normal stuff!
Even the parts of this election cycle that are running exactly as expected offer new opportunities for hand-wringing. An incumbent president running for a second term with his vice president sticking by his side? Sounds about right. But a deeply unpopular president whose approval rating has been underwater for almost his entire run? Showing visible signs of decline? Who reportedly promised in his first campaign that he wouldn’t run for reelection, yet is doing exactly that? Already the oldest president in history, who would be 86 at the end of a second term, running with a vice president who is less popular than every one of her four most recent predecessors and clearly unprepared to take the baton as Biden’s successor? It doesn’t exactly engender a sense of calm.
And what of the courts, our ultimate arbiter of what is possible and impossible in this here country? Embroiled in bribery scandals, the Supreme Court is overflowing with right-wing ideologues. Far-right plaintiffs, sensing their golden opportunity, are flooding the lower courts with lawsuits designed to erase every speck of progressive legislative and social advancement of the past 50 years. Republicans are also testing the courts (and their constituents) at the state level by attempting to push through ballot initiatives that are so deeply unpopular, especially on abortion, that the right wing has actually resorted to trying to trick people into voting for them.
It has all added up to an election cycle that feels dangerous, but also surreal. We have no analogous examples for what happens in an election following an attempted coup, especially as mainstream Republicans, who brushed it off as a “peaceful protest,” visit the rioters in jail and fundraise for their defense. Unlike in any election cycle in the past, generative A.I. is now capable of creating astonishingly realistic deepfake videos with the capacity to supercharge disinformation campaigns. We have never had a wildly popular candidate be actively on trial for federal conspiracy charges in the heat of his campaign—how the hell will all of this even work?
And what happens in the end? Could Trump go to prison? If he does, can we count on the right-wing militia community to be normal about it and take it in stride? What if Trump wins—how long will our institutions hold? What further damage will he do to norms, to trust, to the people whose demonization he has ridden to glory? Which domestic terrorists will he pardon and send off to do his bidding? What if another Supreme Court justice dies? What if Biden or Trump dies right before the election? If Biden wins, will there be another coup attempt? Or maybe something for which we’re wholly unprepared, something far more destructive, something aimed at civilians? There’s no way to tell, but whatever transpires, it will be like nothing we’ve ever seen before.
One of the particular agonies of this moment is the realization that the past two presidential election cycles may be our new norm, at least for as long as U.S. presidential election cycles continue to occur. There may not be another pandemic or outpouring of sexual assault allegations against one of the candidates any time soon, but there will be threats and outbreaks of violence. There will be Trump, or another wannabe authoritarian who has fashioned themself as a C-grade version of The Donald. The right will carry out actual attacks on voting rights while making fabricated claims of left-wing election interference. There will be populations terrorized and lives lost to political violence.
Even if there were a Democratic candidate to be excited about in 2024—and, to be clear, it’s not the guy who can still barely say the word “abortion” when abortion may be the biggest winning issue his party has—the pall of terror that has come to accompany every presidential election season would suck any of the “fun” out of it.
The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol should have shown the limits of the GOP’s flirtation with authoritarianism. Instead, a few hours after the deadly insurrection sent Republican lawmakers running for their lives, they returned to the Senate floor to take a more respectable stab at overturning the election themselves. In the aftermath, instead of banding together with Democrats to seek answers and accountability for the assault that threatened their own physical safety and the structural integrity of our democracy, Republicans doubled down and defended the mob. The rioters were free-speech patriots; the election was rigged. The insurrectionists and their sympathizers were not a dismissible fringe faction. They were, and are, the base.
This is the backdrop against which the 2024 election will play out. One party is desperately trying to hold on to long-standing democratic institutions and essential recently won rights while taking baby steps toward forestalling a climate catastrophe that could displace 1.2 billion people in the next 30 years. The other is populated by people more or less willing to die for a despotic former (and possibly future) president.
As of today, the front-runner candidates are neck and neck.