Its Threat and Opportunities (January 15, 2024)

Friend and blog subscriber Bob Collins got me started with an emailed challenge. After conveying appreciation for my recent Walkabouts post, he asked if I couldn’t lower my sights from migratory wildfowl to skirmishing humans. Bob’s specific interest was in toxic disinformation, but his broader context was America’s electoral turmoil. He encouraged me to draw upon my international policy-advising experience to offer any national insights.

I was hesitant to take up Bob’s challenge. The 2024 election is complex, viscerally controversial and highly fluid. Fresh developments, genuine or contrived, compete for daily headlines, making it difficult to keep an interpretation current, coherent or convincing. Despite these inhibitions, I decided to give it a try. This election is the story of the year. Without exaggeration, it may impact our nation and world for decades to come. I feel an Agile-Aging obligation to stay informed and engaged.

The following notes were composed at the turn of the new year, with January 10 as the content cut-off date. Here’s my overview:

 Trump’s re-election would be historically devastating. Yet Biden/Harris’s unpopularity makes Trump an even bet. Merely alarming voters won’t ensure his defeat. Disenchanted swing-state Independents and undecideds might stay home or leave the top of their ballots blank. The country’s best hope to avoid dictatorship and reduce cancerous polarization may be a game-changing initiative for bipartisan collaboration. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Let me unpack that assessment with four interlinked inquiries. What facet of the upcoming election can gravely threaten American democracy? Why hasn’t that threat been addressed and defused? What countervailing opportunities can the election present? What influential milestones should we be watching for next?


Please join the conversation by sending your own views: .

Constitution of the United StatesTHE SOURCE AND SCOPE OF THE THREAT

             I believe the 2024 presidential election presents America’s democratic system with an existential threat. Not because political opinions are so divided. In fact, differences are the life’s blood of a healthy democracy. Conformity crushes. No person or ideology has a monopoly on wisdom. Especially in a nation-state encompassing 330 million citizens and 3.8 million square miles of territory, free expression of a diversity of views can stimulate civic engagement and negotiated consensus-building. Only if opinions become paralyzed and polarized can those differences stifle democratic pluralism.

            The upcoming election’s chief democratic threat has a different source. It’s the possible reelection of Donald Trump. His conduct and rhetoric assault foundational institutions and norms. Trump’s capacity for anti-democratic disruption has past and future dimensions. After the 2020 election, he refused to accept his unequivocal defeat, even when counselled to do so by his top White House aides. Instead, he pursued a uniformly unsuccessful campaign of litigation alleging non-existent election fraud. Abusing presidential authority, he personally contacted Republican state election officials, trying to intimidate them into tampering with ballot counts. He schemed with Republican state-party officers to assemble rosters of false electors. On January 6, 2021, he incited a violent insurrection that could have escalated into Congressional assassinations and blocked the legal transfer of presidential power. His offenses have led to his being personally named as a defendant in 91 felony counts of pending criminal indictments.

            Turning to the future, Trump is continuously unrolling an expanding agenda of priorities for his hoped-for second term. The list is anchored to vengeance and vindication. He plans to wreak revenge on his political opponents within both political parties and double down on his never-surrendered claim that he’d in fact won the 2020 election. Consolidating unprecedented presidential power within the federal government, he intends to assert direct control over the traditionally independent Attorney General and Department of Justice. He says he will immediately terminate all federal prosecutions of his own prior conduct, while pardoning convicted participants in the January 6 insurrection. On the immigration front, he will rebuild his Southern Border wall, aggressively catch and deport all undocumented border crossers, and severely restrict non-European immigration. He has threatened to mobilize military force to quell civilian protests and to cross the border into Mexico to curb drug trafficking. On the economic front, he plans to raise protectionist tariffs against all imports and cut off all contact with China.  Connect these planks and his platform becomes an authoritarian coup. There are solid grounds for treating these previews as more than social-media bombast. Trump is aware he must regain and strengthen the highest office in order to escape probable criminal conviction and possible imprisonment. This desperate candidate is literally running for his life.

            Some pundits attribute his obsessions to psychological damage; in particular, a pathological inability to accept losing, instilled by an abusive father. Other analysts, drawing on revealed conversations with Trump’s innermost advisors, profile him as a cynical con-artist. Whether crazy, crooked or both, he appears poised to do whatever it takes to secure his power and avoid accountability. And while his past and future motivations seem consistently personal, not policy-driven or partisan, he has assiduously cultivated a constituency to give his ascension electoral support. Though himself a millionaire graduate of Wharton, starting in 2015 Trump has donned the mantle of populist champion, representing his fellow-aggrieved. This charade is grotesque. Trump has been taking advantage of weaker parties for decades – employees, tenants, contractors, debtors, even small campaign contributors.

            His core base is primarily composed of white, non-college-educated, working-class, heartland males. (Distressingly, Trump is apparently starting to also attract some Black and Hispanic males to this base.) His MAGA messages are implicitly racist, misogynist and xenophobic (especially anti-Muslim.)  Significantly broadening his support are behind-the-scenes, super-rich oligarchs benefiting from his tax relief and IRS cutbacks; and Evangelical Christians rewarded by abortion curbs and reduced separation of church and state. His platform is zero-sum, win/lose and anti-government. To discredit his 2020 electoral defeat and resulting criminal prosecutions, he spurns the rule-of-law as a deep-state conspiracy. If he wins reelection, Trump has already staked out a score-settling agenda. If he loses, we’ve seen that movie before.


            In any normal American election, a comparable rap-sheet of anti-democratic extremism would deny a candidate his or her party’s nomination. If they somehow slipped through, the profile would condemn them to resounding General Election defeat. Yet Donald Trump maintains momentum as Republicans’ overwhelming presidential choice. He commands over 60% of total support in the party’s nomination contest. What’s going on? For starters, in today’s polarized political climate, Trump’s base remains unshakably faithful, stubborn believers in a personality cult. Other less gullible, more cynical interest groups still see him delivering the goods.

            Despite these Republican machinations, the voting public has given no indication of enthusiasm for the reelection of Trump’s Democratic opponent, President Joe Biden. They seem to give the incumbent no credit for accelerating economic recovery, while blaming him for their personal pocketbook pressures. Biden’s 39% approval rating at the end of 2023 was the lowest of any modern president at this point in their tenure.  Key negatives include his advanced age and rhetorical fumbles. Equally important is the public’s widespread lack of confidence in his 2024 running-mate, Vice President Kamala Harris. During their first term, Harris has failed to make a mark for decisive project management, effective coalition-building or persuasive messaging. With Biden’s age and possible infirmity on everyone’s mind, Harris’s perceived unpreparedness to step up into the second-term top slot is a major re-election impediment. For Trump to prevail, disenchanted Democrats and Independents need not vote for him; it may suffice if they merely stay home or cast a protest vote for a third-party candidate.

            The Electoral College makes it possible for a presidential candidate to win despite a crushing popular-vote defeat. (Trump trailed Hilary Clinton by three million votes in 2016.) And with most states overwhelmingly safe for one party, the 2024 election is likely to be decided in only six swing or battleground states: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In the most recent polling, Trump leads Biden in five of those six, even though Biden carried all six in 2020.

            The U.S. Constitution was explicitly framed to guard against dictators. (The precedent of King George III was fresh in the founders’ minds.) The separation of powers gives Congress and courts power to check Executive-Branch overreach. Free and fair elections give citizens’ additional direct control. In practice, however, Constitutional constraints require action for implementation. And in 2024, the other branches are unlikely to intervene to block Trump’s destruction of democratic institutions. The U.S. Senate is immobilized by archaic “fraternal” customs giving blocking power to individual members. No significant legislative action can be taken without a 60% supermajority. The House is paralyzed by the swing votes of a small but disciplined alt-right bloc. 2023 has been judged the least productive Congressional year in modern history. The primaries system pressures incumbents in both chambers to take extreme partisan positions in order to win re-nomination. And with Trump threatening to punish defectors by financing primary opponents, virtually no Republican officeholder up for re-election has dared to break ranks.

            Turning to the judiciary, there are strong Constitutional and legal grounds to criminally convict Trump for inciting insurrection (in Washington, D.C.) and interfering with election officials (in Georgia and other states); as well as to disqualify him from standing for further public office, as recently determined by the Colorado Supreme Court.  However, there are equally strong reasons why the U.S. Supreme Court may decline to exercise this authority. Three key Justices are Trump appointees and arch-conservative jurists. The Court has been severely criticized in the past for “partisan political activism” (in Bush v. Gore and Dodd v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturning Roe v. Wade.) Chief Justice Roberts, a passionate institutional defender, is determined to avoid a repeat. These criminal offenses have never before been charged against a former president; these are uncharted legal waters. Tacitly if not explicitly, all Washington officials, including the Justices, are concerned about Trump possibly unleashing armed violent mobs should the Court rule against him. The Bottom Line? Expect the Supreme Court to overturn the Colorado decision and keep Trump on primary and General Election ballots, at least until he is criminally convicted. Potentially significant: they may attempt to limit and balance their ruling by declining to grant him full immunity against criminal prosecutions.

            The press is not a governmental institution but does have a 1st Amendment “Fourth Estate” anti-dictatorial role. But in practice today, most news media do not see their role as educating the public or bridging partisan gaps. A more common priority is boosting revenue-generating audiences by trumpeting partisan conflicts.

            Pulling these institutional constraints together, if candidate Biden seeks to prevent Trump from derailing American democracy, he’s going to have to lead this battle himself. Directly, unsparingly and without further delay.   

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

 Never let a serious crisis go to waste.
Rahm Emanuel


            The President and his campaign ground their intensified effort in a candid acknowledgement of their current disadvantages. Trump is running ahead in the six battleground states. Biden’s approval ratings remain stubbornly low. Legal decisions convicting or otherwise disqualifying Trump are likely to be delayed until after the election, if they come at all. Southern Border chaos is laid at Biden’s door. How can he turn things around, converting the threat to opportunities? My advice would be to seize two opportunities: hammering Trump’s criminality and authoritarianism; and contrasting Biden’s healing vision and power.

            Naming and Shaming

            There are many reasons Trump has kept his gig going for so long. He’s a veteran manipulator of the media and the courts. He’s telegenic, charismatic and fast on his feet. (Just think back to the ways he out-maneuvered Republican rivals and then Hillary Clinton in 2016 TV debates.) As a political and governmental outsider, he is consistently underestimated by Beltway veterans. As a pathological narcissist who earned his chops in the anything-goes Manhattan commercial real estate business, he is totally dedicated to winning, with no compunction to obey the truth or the law. As a millionaire with deep pockets, he understands that his legal guilt will never be finalized if he can keep stringing out appeals. As a polished grifter, he understands that his supporters (including Evangelicals) will forgive him his most outrageous misconduct as long as he keeps on assuring them that they’ve been unfairly disadvantaged and he’s going to put them back on top.

            This is not politics as usual – right vs. left, challenger vs. incumbent. This is a man who longs to be a divisive dictator. To win back personal power, he is deliberately promoting cancerous polarization. To regain the top government office, he’s perversely prepared to discredit and demolish the entire democratic structure. One revealing signal is Trump’s roster of role models: Putin, Kim and Xi. Think of their treatment of “dissidents”; their tolerance of democratic pluralism.

            Candidate Biden must unambiguously call Trump out. Reiterating Trump’s own deeds and words to pin down his criminality and systemic threat. President Biden’s sworn duty “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution” requires him to hold Trump legally responsible for and alert the citizens to his felonies: attempting to overturn the 2020 federal election, intimidating state election officials into altering ballot tallies, mustering false alternate electors, and inciting an insurrection. Biden’s recent Valley Forge speech was a beginning. It should not be an exception. This is not partisan persecution; it’s protecting our nation against domestic terrorism. (Timothy McVeigh used crude explosives. Subtler Trump employs disinformation and legal obstructionism. Both attacked governmental structures to shake citizens’ trust and confidence.)

            That said, we should not be surprised by this Artful Dodger’s wily self-defense. It has already been launched. He’s started trumpeting that Biden, not he, is threatening democracy. (Remember when he tried to steal the 2020 election and then accused Biden of “The Big Steal”? Flipping accusations muddies the waters and wearies voters.  Trump is also a master of false equivalence. Lowering the bar of officials’ conduct by pretending that his opponents have committed comparable offenses; e.g., pressuring House Republicans to launch groundless, tit-for-tat impeachment proceedings against Biden. And his successful efforts to prolong judicial proceedings with motions and appeals, delaying criminal convictions. Meanwhile deriding and discrediting criminal prosecutions as personal persecution. A fraudster is never going to let up if the rest of us let him get away with his cons. Biden can’t mince words. (He must be careful, however, not to violate Trump’s presumption of innocence.) In parallel, the prosecutors and judges can’t abandon their proceedings, even in the face of death threats to themselves and their families. Defense by intimidation is a familiar strategy of Mafia dons.

            Promoting Bilateral Partnership

            Biden’s second opportunity is to demonstrate his own sober, seasoned leadership and positivity, in dramatic contrast to his opponent’s systemic destructiveness. This demonstration can confirm Biden’s creative energy, tacitly refuting the criticism that he’s too old for the job. Equally important and simultaneously, it can start reducing the country’s dysfunctional polarization. A pivot to bipartisan collaboration can offer a lifeline to demoralized voters, giving them someone and something to vote for, instead of staying home in disgust. It’s also a natural fit with the President’s personal strengths and instincts. He’s a productive Chief Executive and Commander-in-Chief, not a bitter loser. A seasoned centrist, not an aggrieved extremist. A career public servant, not a scheming narcissist. In terms of tone, the contrast is adult equanimity vs. adolescent rage. Biden is earnest and experienced but bland. There’s no way he’s going to out-demagogue his charismatic opponent by exchanging extremist salvoes. Trump already controls and inflames his right-wing base. At the opposite end of the political spectrum, progressive activists only make things worse for the campaigning President, alienating moderates and Independents with strident summons to the culture wars. Biden’s comfort zone, on style as well as substance, is mainstream. Bipartisanship is in his resume. He should boldly counter infectious cynicism by reaching out to patriotic, risk-ready conservatives. Fortune favors the brave.

            A Beguiling Brainstorm

            When formulating this reconciliation proposal in late December, I was vain enough to think I’d identified an ingenious break-through: As soon as Trump’s Super-Tuesday (March-5) primaries sweep convinces Nikki Haley she cannot overtake the frontrunner, Biden should offer her the Vice Presidential slot on his ticket.  Not by forcing her to switch her party affiliation. To the contrary, respectfully encouraging her to remain a Republican and join him in break-through, bipartisan leadership. At one stroke, he’d command headlines for innovative problem-solving. He’d tap the energy of an increasingly popular member of the younger generation. (And a minority woman.) Haley’s professional background was perfect for a centrist contribution: business owner, State Representative, UN Ambassador and South Carolina Governor. What could she gain from accepting the offer? Retained national prominence and a reputation for pragmatism, without having to humiliatingly beg Trump for forgiveness for having dared to contest his nomination.

            I was aware, of course, that Kamala Harris held a virtual veto. She couldn’t be expected to surrender her announced place on the Democratic ticket as long as she held out hope of being elected (and perhaps stepping up to the presidency if Biden were to ail.) This substitution scenario would only persuade her if the Biden/Harris campaign’s own internal polling clearly forecast that a Trump victory was increasingly certain. If that prerequisite could be satisfied, there might be another prestigious position she could accept, in addition to earning national praise for patriotism and self-sacrifice. The President appoints the Chief Justice of the California-based, 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. As an alternative placement, he might be able to convince Governor Newsom to appoint Harris Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court.

            Alas, almost as soon as I began fantasizing about a transformative Haley elevation, she critically stumbled in New Hampshire. Civil War history is a treacherous minefield. But a former Governor of South Carolina could not be seen to ignore and then downplay the significance of slavery. Even though gaffes are daily occurrences in national politics, I reluctantly concluded that my cross-over candidate had just forfeited her eligibility for my bipartisan dream ticket.

            A Creative Coalition

            Even without Governor Haley as running-mate, bipartisan collaboration can be an effective antidote to threatening dictatorship. There are numerous concerned Republican leaders, in addition to Haley, who might rally to the President’s call to join a National Taskforce on “Working Together.” High-profile Chris Christie has just become available. Senators Collins, Murkowski and Romney are nationally well-known and respected. Former Representatives Cheney and Kizinger deserve recognition for standing up to hold Trump accountable. Governors DeWine and Hogan enjoy reputations for bipartisan problem-solving. Many of these leaders are retiring or retired, but that security insulates them from Trump’s vindictive wrath. And speaking of wrath, Biden should recruit top-level military generals who attempted but failed to discourage Trump from impulsive foreign overtures. Joining these public-sector veterans, private-sector luminaries like Mike Blumenthal and Jamie Dimon are dynamic change-agents. As a senior myself, I’m more familiar with older leaders. But dozens of outstanding younger Republicans are also available. An even more comprehensive coalition should include respected Independents, in addition to centrist Democrats and Republicans. Time is short for mounting this major initiative. But it would only have to launched, not fully operational, before November 5, in order to register an affirmative impact. To ensure recruits and voters that the Taskforce was not to fade into another interminable talking shop, the President could pledge to introduce legislation based on its policy proposals in his second term.

            Adding articulate Republican voices to the President’s reconstructive proposals can pump up their energy and persuasiveness. Biden and Harris are never going to be telegenic. Expand the chorus. Share the limelight. Accept, even encourage, differences of emphasis within the coalition.

                       As a bonus, bipartisan collaboration in November could help breach Congressional paralysis. There are razor-thin margins in the Senate as well as the House. If only a handful of candidates, from both parties, were to publically commit to supporting a Creative Bipartisanship agenda, first steps could be taken to renew legislative productivity.

            With or without a Taskforce, Biden should champion bipartisan policy breakthroughs on his own. Voters are exhausted and disheartened by governmental dysfunction. The main source of this crippling inertia is not the insolubility of economic or political problems. It’s fervid, ideological rigidity, enforced and exacerbated by conflict-promoting Trump. Here’s a sampling of headline logjams overdue for bipartisan liberation:

  • Immigration reform. Contrary to Trump rants, this is not a liberal conspiracy. Comprehensive reform’s most dedicated champions have included arch-conservative Senators Hatch and McCain, as well as both Presidents Bush. The complexity of the challenge invites counter-balancing components in a bipartisan package: upgrading Southern-Border security; expediting asylum hearings for persecuted refugees (America’s obligation under international law); apprehending and deporting most economic migrants who cross illegally; granting Dreamers a path to citizenship; expanding and expediting skilled-worker visas; and protecting the health and safety of agricultural and other seasonal guest-workers. With a rapidly declining birthrate and job-openings twice the level of citizen applicants, America needs more, not fewer, qualified immigrants.
  • A balanced Climate-change package could combine carbon-pricing to incentivize fossil-fuel reductions with subsidies and grid-expansion to accelerate substitution of renewables. Complementary mitigation measures could help prepare American communities for coastal flooding, wildfires, drought and other extreme-weather devastation.
  • Successful Homelessness solutions have been designed and implemented by local Republican leaders in Houston and Democratic counterparts in Newark. These cities’ vigilant, coordinated program management combines safe housing with medical care and re-employment facilitation. Meanwhile, Austin is leading a national movement to construct and manage tiny-house villages. There is no shortage of field-tested, apolitical innovations for adoption and adaptation.
  • Needed and already funded Infrastructure upgrading is an obvious candidate for bipartisan support. Federal initiatives should include fast-tracking regulatory approvals, job-training and prioritizing heartland site selection.
  • Now that the Trump-dominated Supreme Court has invalidated a Constitutional right to Abortion, there is room for bipartisan leadership to respect the deep-seated concerns of advocates on both sides of this issue. For example, a national statutory right to abortion through 20 weeks of pregnancy might be enacted, leaving individual states to regulate termination of later-term pregnancies.
  • Effective International Relations policies can be crafted to win bipartisan support. Between ill-advised poles of reckless isolationism and military adventurism, there is solid scope for supporting NATO’s and Ukraine’s defense, plus even-handed recovery assistance to Israel and Palestine. So also with balanced China relations: protecting America’s national-security interests and Asia-Pacific allies; competing for international trade and investment; and cooperating to lead worldwide pollution reduction for climate-change mitigation.

Voter registration card            All of these illustrations of creative collaboration can be win/win compromises, with buy-ins for both conservatives and liberals. None offer unilateral red or blue victories. Sustainable policy-making is balanced and incremental.  Cooperation can lead to consensus. And consensus is the most democratic foundation for decisions. A bold Biden push for bipartisan cooperation can give disengaged voters a positive alternative to Trump’s slash-and-burn negativity. To cast affirmative ballots, they must have hope in place of fear. They can be helped to see that, in the real world, their citizens’ choice is not between cult indoctrination and despairing abdication. It’s between stability and chaos, progress and paralysis, democratic partnership and domineering dictatorship.

            Here’s one more potential benefit from promoting a positive list of bipartisan initiatives. We often assume that the 2024 election will be all about personalities: Trump’s destructiveness, Biden’s deterioration. But young voters are going to be key. And there’s ample evidence that youngsters care more about issues than institutions (parties) or personalities (candidates.) Restoring women’s abortion access is their current chief public-policy objective.  They’re anti-Establishment but still holding out hope for a responsive democratic system.

            Biden should seize his paired opportunities with focus and realism. Trump’s loyal base is never going to be swayed. This election is a battle for swing-state Independents and undecideds. That’s a precarious concentration. Although Trump lost the 2020 election by the huge margin of seven million popular votes, if he’d flipped merely 44,000 total votes in three swing states, he would be our current president.


            The 2024 presidential election has not yet been decided. Ten months out, the situation remains too fluid, too many variables still in the air. Sure, it’s highly discouraging that the race remains a toss-up in the key battleground states. But there’s plenty of time remaining for the Fat Lady to sing. Here’s a mini-calendar of a half-dozen influential milestones worth election-watchers’ attention:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to fast-track its review of the Colorado Supreme Court’s disqualification of candidate Trump from that state’s Republican primary, on 14th Amendment grounds. Arguments are scheduled for February 8, with a decision expected before March 5. If the Court overturns the Colorado ruling and affirms Trump’s right to remain on this and other state ballots, Trump will typically exaggerate the scope of this decision, while opponents rush to interpret it narrowly.
  • Other ongoing criminal prosecutions of Trump in Washington, D.C., Georgia, Florida and New York may inflict cumulative, drip-by-drip damage to his electability, even if he succeeds in delaying final judgments until after November 5.
  • Watch the total delegate count emerging from the 25 Republican state primaries and caucuses on Super Tuesday, March 5. If, as expected, Trump collects enough delegates to wrap up the nomination, almost all Republican officeholders, including even his presidential rivals, are likely to rush to endorse him.
  • Two days later, on March 7, President Biden will deliver his State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress. He will have to react to Super Tuesday. Watch how he tries to regain momentum.
  • Throughout 2024, flaring foreign-affairs crises could inflict campaign complications on both candidates, but especially the President and Commander-in-Chief. The Southern Border migrant surge is currently most pressing. Ukraine/Russia and a widening Middle East conflict are also on the front burner. Other hostilities affecting American security interests could also erupt without warning.
  • During this stressful season, either or both candidates could suffer a debilitating health incident.

          Bottom line: At this stage, no one can confidently predict how this contest is going to play out. But its impact will be seismic. It’s going to change our lives.




With thanks to Nancy Swing for her photos