Trump Capitol Hill

‘Completely uncharted terrain’: what the last 12 days of Trump could look like

In their 2018 book How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt examined history to predict where Donald Trump’s presidency could be headed. In the wake of the attack on Capitol Hill, they talk about how the US got here – and what might happen next.

On 6 January, hundreds of armed pro-Trump insurgents entered the American Capitol building and forced their way onto the Senate floor in a violent attempt to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory.

Though Capitol police responded with tear gas in an armed standoff, they were overwhelmed by the mob. Vice President Mike Pence was escorted from the premises. Gunshots were fired; five people were later pronounced dead. The violence came after weeks of Trump claiming the US election was stolen, and days after an audio recording surfaced of the President urging Georgia’s Secretary of State to help “find” votes to overturn the election results.

Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the authors of How Democracies Die, couldn’t have seen the events of 6 January coming, but its possibility propelled the writing of their 2018 book, according to Levitsky.  

'It was an anti-democratic, illegal effort to remain in power.'

"The reason we wrote How Democracies Die is because we saw Trump, early in his campaign in 2015 and 2016, begin to cross that [anti-democratic] line. Both Daniel and I, though we study different regions of the world, saw immediately that Trump was willing to condone violence, and that that might end in a bad place.

"It took a lot – and for many until yesterday – to come to grips with the fact that, ‘No, this is new’. We really are in an unusually bad place.”

The events of 6 January feel unprecedented in American history, but globally, there are precedents.

Daniel Ziblatt: There are historical precedents, but what’s unprecedented, or at least pretty rare, is this happening in a very old, rich democracy. That’s why it’s so shocking, and why we don’t have the right vocabulary for it: you know, is this a ‘coup’, a ‘riot’, a ‘putsch’. That conceptual imprecision reflects the fact that in an old, rich democracy, where politics are highly institutionalised, this is extremely rare.

Steve Levitsky: Violence, even coups and overturning of elections, is not unprecedented at the state level in the United States: it occurred in the post-Reconstruction South on several notorious occasions. And presidents overturning results of elections are not unusual in the world, but the president almost always needs the military, or some key component of the armed forces, to pull it off. I would not be at all surprised if we found out that Donald Trump made phone calls similar to the one he made to the secretary of state in Georgia to military officials. I suspect, based on the evidence, that Trump tried. But the military didn’t play a role, and that was crucial to its failure.

 A pro-Trump mob confronts U.S. Capitol police outside the Senate chamber of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 06, 2021
A pro-Trump mob confronts U.S. Capitol police outside the Senate chamber of the U.S. Capitol Building on 6 January, 2021. Photo: Getty.

Some media outlets are calling the people involved in what happened ‘protestors’ – is there a better word for it? Was this a coup?

SL: They were more than protestors; protestors are not armed, and are not inflicting damage on people. These were thugs. These people there were not your average shop owners; they were far-right political activists. In Latin America, scholars would use the term ‘self-coup’ to describe elected, sitting presidents who subvert democracy from the presidency, and if you look at all of Trump’s behaviour since the election – the effort to overturn the election, and inciting mobs to prevent certification of the election – his behaviour easily fits the category of a failed self-coup. It was an anti-democratic, illegal effort to remain in power.

Trump’s been inciting unrest and emboldening far-right extremists for years. Is that what led us here?

SL: Since the inter-war period, it’s been very clear to social scientists that there are certain things you just don’t do if you want to maintain peace and a stable democratic system. Incitement to violence is something every political scientist, any scholar who studies political regimes, will put at the top of their lists as a no-no. You just do not repeat, over and over again, that your political rivals are dangerous enemies, that they’re ‘subversives’, or ‘traitors’, or plotting to steal the election or destroy the country. And I’m not exaggerating: Trump said every single one of those things. You don’t do that and you do not encourage or condone violence; if there’s ever a hint of violence on your side, among your supporters, you must actively, publicly, clearly denounce it. That’s rule number one of preserving a democracy.

I remember him saying something about beating somebody up at one of his rallies.

DZ: "In the old days, guys like that would be carried out on a stretcher"; that was one of his lines.

What do you think Trump thought he would get out of the events on Capitol Hill, and what do you think might happen next?

SL: I’m not convinced that Trump thought much about what would happen. There are other views, but I’ve always been of the view that the vast bulk of what Trump does is not a thought-out strategy. He seems incapable of thinking or caring about consequences of his language, his discourse; he is just a very reckless human being, and he was in a political corner; I don’t think he had any idea what might happen.

'There are very few limits on what Trump would be willing to do to stay in power.'

I can imagine him slowly backing down, and his last tweet [about an “orderly transition”] suggested that; he would maybe just shut up and pout for the remaining 12 days, and then sort of rebuild, in which case he may stay in the Republican party. The other is that he would double down, and accuse the entire Republican party of betraying him, and fight on. It’s not inconceivable that he would run for president as a third party candidate in 2024, so it will depend a lot on Trump’s relationship to other Republicans in the next 12 days.

DZ: That scenario that Steve plays out raises the question: is it better for American democracy if this Trumpist faction remains within the Republican party, or is it better to have his supporters out? I think some people assume it’s better to have them out, so that the Republican party is more reasonable, and the Trump group is isolated, but I think it’s worth thinking about if that’s true. Having a totally anti-system party that’s completely unhinged, uncontained and unconstrained could be very poisonous, depending on its size. If it’s 10 percent of the electorate that’s one thing, but if it’s 25 percent, that’s incredibly dangerous.

Vice President Mike Pence presides over a joint session of the House and Senate as it convenes to confirm the Electoral College votes cast in November's election, at the Capitol in Washington, DC, January 6, 2021
Vice President Mike Pence presides over a joint session of the House and Senate as it convenes to confirm the Electoral College votes cast in November's election, at the Capitol in Washington, DC, 6 January, 2021. Photo: Getty

If the Cabinet or Congress don’t remove Trump, how much is reasonably at stake?

DZ: I think Steve’s point about his access to the military before is critical here. You have to make a distinction between what Trump would like to do, and what he has the capacity to do. I think there are very few limits on what Trump would be willing to do to stay in power. The constraint on him isn’t that he’s not sufficiently authoritarian; he simply doesn’t have some of the resources, meaning control of the military, which hinders his ability to do some things. When you hear former Republican senator William Cohen, who’s one of the most down-to-earth, sober people, saying America is “standing on the abyss of the destruction of our democracy,” you have to take this stuff seriously.

SL: Most authoritarian situations occur with a smaller gap between what the autocrat wants to do and what the autocrat can do. This was a case with an unusually large gap between what Trump tried to do, and what he accomplished. At this point, Trump tried to overturn the election; he tried to steal the election; we know he was interested in declaring martial law. He attempted to destroy American democracy. He wasn’t able to because, thank god, we have a relatively effective constitutional military.

Congress has now affirmed Joe Biden’s victory, and Trump has agreed to an “orderly transition” on 20 January, but also referred to his single term being “only the beginning of our fight to Make America Great Again”. The next 12 or 13 days are going to be tense – do you have any sense of what might happen in those two weeks?

SL: This is completely uncharted terrain. In a Latin American democracy, Trump would have been forced to resign by now. You can’t get caught engaging in this kind of abuse and stay in the presidency. I think there’s going to be a serious push to remove him. It probably won’t succeed, but enough people in Washington are truly afraid now of what Trump might do. Somebody pointed out, ‘Having somebody who’s not allowed on Facebook but is allowed the nuclear codes is extremely frightening.’ We may see what we saw in the final days of Nixon, where important cabinet members took extraordinary steps to tie the hands of the president, keep him out of the loop and protect the country from the president.

Apparently, on January 6 Trump did not want to mobilise the National Guard initially [against the insurgents], and the acting defense secretary and the head of the military mobilised the national guard without him; that’s basically Article 25 in practice. So people are operating around the president. If they don’t remove Trump, at the very least we may see the incredibly unusual situation in which the government operates around him.

DZ: In politics, at usual times, things are fairly predictable, but because the situation is so fluid right now, the decisions of individuals matter a lot. It’s hard to predict what those decisions are going to be, so there’s a lot of openness about the next two weeks.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more