“I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution.” These were the words of former US president Donald Trump during an address to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference on March 4. In a speech laced with threats and misleading information, he added a warning that: “I’m the only candidate who can make this promise: I will prevent – and very easily – World War III.”
Trump presented the 2024 presidential race as “the final battle” and suggested that if he was not elected “our country will be lost forever”. The 2024 presidential race is clearly under way and a repeat of 2020’s contest between current president Joe Biden and Trump remains a strong possibility. There are already signs that the election will also serve as the next test of democracy in the US.
Two recent incidents in Arizona highlight the tactics being used to undermine and challenge election results. The Arizona appeals court rejected claims by defeated Trump-backed Republican candidate for governor, Kari Lake, that the election result was incorrect, and she had won. In Cochise County, Arizona, elections director Lisa Marra has resigned after coming under pressure from two Republican supervisors for a recount of the ballots in the midterms. Marra resisted and took the case to court, which ruled in her favour. She has now decided, however, that her working environment is too threatening.
Biden has yet to officially announce his bid for a second White House term, but this is expected soon. But the race for the Republican nomination is generating the most attention. The two main confirmed names so far are Trump and former South Carolina governor Nikki Hayley. Several other contenders are expected to declare their candidacy in the coming months, including Florida governor Ron DeSantis.
Trump launched his 2024 campaign in November 2022. There are signs that some influential figures within the Republican party who oppose the former president are already mobilising to block his path to the nomination. For instance, Trump has been omitted from a list of 2024 candidates invited to address a weekend retreat of major conservative donors.
Nevertheless, recent opinion polls have Trump ahead of his Republican rivals. A Trump bounce was recorded in a YouGov poll from the end of February 2023, which showed the former president leading Biden in a direct contest.
The prospect of Trump becoming his party’s nominee and even prevailing in 2024 has raised concerns about the threat this poses to US democracy.
In an interview I conducted with Harvard University professor of government Ryan Enos, he argued the dangers from a Trump victory in 2024 are real. Enos said that since his defeat in 2020 Trump has gone even further down the path as an anti-democratic candidate as he has cleared the Republican Party of figures that can act as a “bulwark against violations of the norms”.
Trump faces a credible challenge for the Republican nomination. A January poll by the University of New Hampshire showed a plurality of Republicans favouring Ron DeSantis as their party’s nominee. Whoever the party chooses, threats remain to US democracy. In an interview Darrell M. West, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told me that Trump showed “massive disregard for the procedural aspects of democracy and the rule of law”, and warned there are now several “Trump wannabes… mimicking his issues and tactics”.
Donald Trump and Threats Ahead
Threats to free speech and freedom of the press are tactics likely to be used by Republicans in the race. In February DeSantis called on the US supreme court to revisit The New York Times Company v Sullivan ruling from 1964. This landmark decision ruled the US constitution’s freedom of speech protections limits public officials’ ability to sue for defamation. During a panel discussion the Florida governor accused the press of using the case to intentionally “smear” politicians. Similarly, in his defamation case against broadcaster CNN, Donald Trump advocated overhauling these freedom-of-the-press protections.
Republicans who publicly criticise Trump risk being labelled “RINOs” (Republicans In Name Only). This can lead to individuals being targeted by hateful rhetoric online or other threats. During an interview with Wendy Schiller, a professor of political science at Brown University, she told me that “general political discourse in America has declined [with individuals feeling] free to behave badly [and] act out in anger”. One such example was a series of shootings at the homes of Democratic party officials in New Mexico.
In January 2023 a failed Republican candidate for the New Mexico legislature was indicted on 14 charges of involvement in the shootings. Solomon Peña, described by police as an “election denier”, lost in November to his Democrat opponent in a landslide. Police alledge Peña targeted multiple elected officials in Bernalillo County and gunshots were fired at their homes and businesses.
The dissemination of Trump’s election denialism continues among his congressional supporters. According to a Monmouth University poll, almost a third of Americans, including 61% of Republicans, view Joe Biden as an illegitimate president. In an interview with Columbia University professor of political science Sheri Berman, she argued that the “presence in Congress of people who have not fully elevated their commitment to US democracy above their partisan commitments” has profound consequences for America’s democratic model as not every actor is “playing fairly by the rules”.
There are, however, some signs of a pushback by the US electorate. In the November 2022 midterms voters rejected a significant number of right-wing extremist candidates, many of whom were personally endorsed by Trump. This may be a good indicator of public opinion during the 2024 presidential election. Enos is somewhat reassured that US democracy may “be more stable than we thought it was”.
Richard Hargy is a Senior Teacher and PhD Candidate, Queen’s University Belfast. This first appeared in Conversation UK.