The Daily

Tom Nichols


Democracy is under attack around the world; in the United States, the summer brought good news and bad news. The institutions of democracy are still functioning, but not for long if enough Americans continue to support authoritarianism.

Almost two years ago, I engaged in a thought experiment about what the failure of democracy in the United States might look like. I wrote it for an Atlantic subscriber newsletter I had back then, and I hope you’ll forgive me for revisiting it, but after a summer in which American democracy has been walking a tightrope over the authoritarian chasm, it’s worth looking back to see how we’ve done since early 2022.

The most important point, and the one that I think bears repeating, is that the failure of democracy in America will not look like a scene from a movie, where some fascist in a black tunic ascends the steps of the Capitol on Inauguration Day and proclaims the end of freedom:

The collapse of democracy in the United States will look more like an unspooling or an unwinding rather than some dramatic installation of Gilead or Oceania. My guess—and again, this is just my stab at speculative dystopianism—is that it will be a federal breakdown that returns us to the late 1950s in all of the worst ways.

We’re already seeing this unwinding in slow motion. Donald Trump and many on the American right (including the national Republican Party) have made clear their plans to subvert America’s democratic institutions. They made continuous efforts to undermine the will of the voters at the state level, most notably in Georgia, after the 2020 presidential election, and then they tried to overrule the results at the national level by setting a mob on Congress on January 6, 2021. If Trump returns to the Oval Office, he and his underlings will set up a system designed to set up a series of cascading democratic failures from Washington to every locality they can reach.

They intend to pack courts with judges who are loyal to Trump instead of to the Constitution. They want to destroy an independent federal civil service by making all major civil servants political appointees, which would allow the right to stuff every national agency with cronies at will. They want to neuter independent law-enforcement institutions such as the FBI, even if that means disbanding them. They will likely try to pare down the senior military ranks until the only remaining admirals and generals are men and women sworn not to the defense of the United States but to the defense of Donald Trump, even if that means employing military forceagainst the American public.

Trump and his supporters are not even coy about some of these ideas. The Heritage Foundation—once a powerhouse think tank on the right that has since collapsed into unhinged extremism and admiration for foreign strongmen—has a “Project 2025” posted on its website, with sections that read like extended Facebook comments. I took a look so that you don’t have to, including at a policy-guide chapter on the militaryauthored by former Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller.

Heritage and Miller (a seat warmer brought in by Trump at the tail end of his administration) think it’s very important for the next president—I wonder who they could possibly have in mind—to “eliminate Marxist indoctrination and divisive critical race theory programs” and to reinstate personnel dismissed for disobeying orders to get vaccinated.


Codify language to instruct senior military officers (three and four stars) to make certain that they understand their primary duty to be ensuring the readiness of the armed forces, not pursuing a social engineering agenda.

Why not just write up a loyalty oath to Trump? Little wonder that Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama is holding up the promotion of some 300 senior officers; perhaps it’s occurred to him (or others) that sitting on those promotions until 2025 might open the door for Heritage’s unnamed next U.S. president to sweep out the Marxist gender theorists and replace them with “real Americans” who know that their duty is to a man rather than a moldering document in the National Archives.

The rest of Project 2025 is a lot of putative big-think from wannabe conservative intellectuals such as Ken Cuccinelli, Ben Carson, Stephen Moore, and Peter Navarro (who is currently on trial for contempt of Congress). Much of this stuff is nonsense, of course, but it’ll be nonsense right up until the point it isn’t: These are all names that would reappear in a second Trump administration, and this time, they’d move a lot faster in breaking down the federal guardrails around democracy.

This layered state, federal, and local repression is what I worried about back in early 2022:

This is where we really will have “free” and “unfree” Americas, side by side. To drive from Massachusetts to Alabama—especially for women and people of color—will not be crossing the Mason-Dixon line so much as it will be like falling through the Time Tunnel and emerging in a pre-1964 America where civil rights and equal treatment before the government are a matter of the state’s forbearance. If an American citizen’s constitutional rights are violated, there will be no Justice Department that will intervene, no Supreme Court that will overrule. (And arresting seditionists? Good luck with that. I expect that if Trump is reelected, he will pardon everyone involved with January 6.)

Trump, of course, has since made the promise to drop pardons like gentle rain from the sky. America’s democratic immune system, however, is for now still functioning. The courts have done their duty even when elected officials have refused to do theirs. (Imagine how much healthier American democracy would be right now if the Senate had convicted Trump in his second impeachment. Alas.) Trump is now under indictment for 91 alleged crimes, and Jack Smith seems undaunted in his pursuit of justice.

Likewise, the major ringleaders of January 6—all but one, I should say—have been convicted of seditious conspiracy, among other crimes, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Some of these supposed tough guys ended up blubbering and pleading for mercy in a federal courtroom, but to no avail. The would-be Oath Keepers centurion Stewart Rhodes and a leader of the Proud Boys, Ethan Nordean, each got 18 years, a record broken yesterday when a Trump-appointed federal judge sent the ex–Proud Boys chair Enrique Tarrio inside for 22 years, meaning he will be sitting out the next five presidential elections.

This is the good news, but none of it will matter if Trump returns to the White House.

I shouldn’t end on such a dire note. Trump is the likely nominee, and although I still feel a chill about the threat of authoritarianism, I also can’t shake the feeling that most Americans in most states want no part of this ongoing madness. I still have faith that most people, when faced with the choice, will continue to support the constitutional freedoms of the United States—but only if they understand how endangered those freedoms are.

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