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Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government at American University and has published two books on U.S. presidential power. This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, a project of The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s federal indictment, the former president remains legally eligible to run again — even if he is convicted, and even (bizarrely) if he is incarcerated, which is unlikely to occur before the election.
In a functioning, healthy democracy, Trump would be denied the Republican Party’s nomination. GOP elites would stand together to reject his candidacy and rally behind a nominee who is not facing criminal prosecution related to willful retention of classified documents.
In our current reality, however, the Republican Party seems to be a cult of personality organized around one person and only a few prominent conservatives have said what ought to be obvious: that the evidence supporting Trump’s federal indictment demonstrates his unfitness to hold office. At the moment, Trump is the clear frontrunner for the party’s nomination, and if he is its nominee, there is a chance he will be elected president again.
All of this is evidence of a continuing authoritarian threat to U.S. democracy. There is no mystery about what Trump has in mind if he wins — he would take the country on a road toward something that looks like Hungary under far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The stakes are especially high for people who have been targeted, scapegoated and demonized by Trump and other Republicans; in particular, LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, African Americans and other people of color.
None of this is reason for panic, but it is a reminder of what is at stake in the 2024 election. We need not be passive observers. A first step in making sense of what is going on and what could happen is to map out some possible scenarios over the next 16 months.
Although it’s possible he could end his campaign, let’s assume that Trump continues his bid despite the two indictments already issued (and possibly more). His campaign has to contend with logistical issues related to these multiple criminal cases (including another civil case by E. Jean Carroll). Meanwhile, some of his rivals for the Republican nomination — most persistently Chris Christie, but also Asa Hutchinson and to some extent Nikki Haley and Mike Pence — use the pending criminal cases to argue that Trump is unfit to serve. At that point, the Republican primaries and caucuses begin, and one or more of Trump’s criminal cases could go to trial in early 2024. Here are the likeliest scenarios that could follow:
In 2016, nearly all establishment Republicans endorsed Trump (and no prominent Republican endorsed Hillary Clinton). In 2020, however, some reasonably prominent Republicans — most notably John Kasich and Cindy McCain — endorsed Joe Biden. Political scientists believe elites play a central role when they decide either to endorse Trump, endorse no one or endorse his Democratic opponent.
The outcome of the election would likely depend in part on what Republican elites do — but also on the economy, any crises that might arise between now and then, and whether Trump fatigue is a significant factor for voters (as it seems to have been to some extent in 2020). Trump’s criminal cases would continue to be a significant factor, as one or more might go to trial before the 2024 election.
If Trump won the election, I would expect a dramatic move toward authoritarianism and an end to at least the federal criminal cases brought against him. If he loses, one question would be whether we see more violence, as we did after the 2020 election. I would also expect the criminal cases against Trump to continue, possibly leading to conviction and prison time in one or more cases.
Alternatively, Trump could lose the Republican primaries, or perhaps could drop out, though I consider that highly unlikely. If he lost, the key question would be whether he endorses the Republican nominee, which I also think is highly unlikely. Trump might well run as a third-party candidate, which could have a significant effect on the election — I suspect Biden and the Democrats would welcome this. If the Republican nominee won, there would likely be pressure to pardon Trump, although this would not affect state prosecutions in New York and Georgia.
This continues to be a perilous moment for U.S. democracy and the future, of course, remains uncertain. While we face the surreal possibility that Trump could somehow find a path to winning the presidency in 2024, that path will be rocky. A lot will depend on how he navigates multiple criminal prosecutions and whether Republican elites continue to stand behind him.