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The Trump Era Could Have Been Much, Much Worse

What happens when our luck runs out?

Oliver Douilery/Getty Images

It’s been almost three weeks since Donald Trump began his exile from public life on a Florida golf course. I thought this would be a moment of relief after years of exhaustion and misery. But as we start to get some distance from his presidency, I haven’t been able to shake a thought that’s increasingly haunted me of late: The United States got very, very lucky over the past four years.

By “luck,” of course, I don’t mean that Americans reaped any benefits over the last four years. This country is less healthy, less wealthy, less happy, and less stable than it was when Trump became president four years ago. At least 400,000 Americans died from the Covid-19 pandemic just while Trump was in office; his mismanagement of the response will also likely kill scores more before things stabilize. It’s hard to wrap that level of mass suffering around one’s head. By one estimate, there may have been fewer Americans alive when Joe Biden was inaugurated on January 20 than on Election Day, on November 3. So when I say that Americans were “lucky,” I don’t mean that we were fortunate. I only mean that there were countless moments when things could have gotten much worse—and didn’t.

Despite Trump’s best efforts and worst mistakes, the U.S. didn’t end up in a full-fledged war with either Iran or North Korea. We got lucky that Trump somehow chose Christopher Wray to lead the FBI after James Comey’s dismissal in 2017, instead of a more pliable crony who could’ve abused the bureau’s immense powers for Trump’s benefit over the past four years. We got lucky that the rest of the Justice Department’s upper ranks pushed back against an eleventh-hour plot to use the department to boost Trump’s efforts to overturn the election. We got lucky that Trump appointed Jerome Powell, a mild-mannered bureaucrat who prevented the partially collapsing U.S. economy from fully collapsing last year, to the chairmanship of the Federal Reserve instead of Stephen Moore, Judy Shelton, or any of the other Trumpworld eclectics that he could have slotted into that important perch.

I started thinking about this in late November, after I wrote about a string of setbacks for conservative efforts to overturn Biden’s electoral victory in the courts. None of their legal arguments were particularly persuasive. Those making claims of mass fraud or illegal voting had no substantive evidence to support them. Democrats held key statewide offices in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin that guaranteed Biden would be able to cross the 270-vote threshold once he won those states. And Democrats controlled the House of Representatives, which made it effectively impossible for a pro-Trump slate of disputed electors to be counted in any event.

In other words, the electoral system held not just because some GOP officials in Arizona and Georgia refused to embrace Trumpworld’s lies about the victory but because Democrats had gotten lucky with which races they’d won in the 2018 midterms. This is not a vote of confidence in American democracy. It is a warning light for the chaos that could take place in presidential elections to come. As I noted last November:

What if Biden’s Electoral College lead were much slimmer and hinged on a more Trump-friendly state like Florida or Texas? What if Democrats hadn’t taken back the House in 2018, and Republicans instead had firm majorities in both chambers when the Electoral College votes were counted? What if the Republican candidate wasn’t Trump, whose authoritarian tendencies and reckless mendacity are already priced in, but a less polarizing figure who could make a more subtle and competent play for power?

What really keeps me up at night, however, isn’t who won the 2018 midterms or who Trump named to run the FBI. It’s how close—and how often—we came to the mass slaughter of elected officials over the past four years. In June 2017, for example, a left-leaning man named James Hodgkinson drove up to a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia, and began opening fire at a group of GOP lawmakers and their associates. In a matter of minutes, Hodgkinson seriously wounded Steve Scalise, the number-three House Republican at the time, and a lobbyist named Matt Mika, as well as four others. Capitol Police officers who were at the practice returned fire and killed Hodgkinson at the scene. The gunman was the only one present who died of their injuries.

It could have been much, much worse. Though Scalise and Mika were critically wounded, the bullets managed to avoid major organs and arteries. Ohio Representative Brad Wenstrup, one of the lawmakers present, was a doctor who had served in the Army Reserve in Iraq. He administered first aid to Scalise until they reached the hospital. Scalise’s presence, in turn, likely saved the lives of everyone else: The Capitol Police officers were only at the practice that morning as part of Scalise’s security detail, which he received as a member of House GOP leadership. If he had not shown up, things could have ended far worse all around. Those who were present later told BuzzFeed that “a series of miracles took place that morning.”

The following year, a fervent Trump supporter named Cesar Sayoc mailed more than a dozen pipe bombs to some of Trump’s most prominent political foes just weeks before the midterm elections. Among his targets were Barack Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, multiple Black lawmakers, prominent Democratic donors and activists, and the headquarters of CNN. Federal agents captured Sayoc within a week; he received a 20-year prison sentence without pleading guilty. Fortunately, there were no casualties in the attempted attack. An FBI analysis found that none of the bombs went off because they lacked functional detonators, even though they contained explosive materials.

And in 2019, federal prosecutors arrested Christopher Hasson, a white nationalist who worked as a Coast Guard acquisitions officer in Washington, D.C., on federal drug and gun charges. In a motion to detain Hasson pending trial, however, they revealed that he had been under investigation for organizing a mass assassination campaign against Democratic lawmakers. “The defendant intends to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country,” the Justice Department told a federal judge. Hasson’s end goal, according to court filings, was to provoke a civil war by inciting violence between the far right and the far left that would somehow result in a white ethno-state in the Pacific Northwest.

“Have to take serious look at appropriate individual targets, to bring greatest impact,” he wrote in shorthand notes seized by federal agents. “Professors, DR’s, Politian’s [sic], Judges, leftists in general. Look up tactics used during Ukrainian civil war. During unrest target both sides to increase tension. In other words provoke gov/police to over react which should help to escalate violence. BLM protests or other left crap would be ideal to incite to violence.” Hasson’s Google searches included “best place in dc to see congress people,” “where in dc to congress live,” and “civil war if trump impeached.” A federal judge sentenced Hasson to more than 13 years in prison last year. His arrest was aided by his own errors: Hasson conducted some of his research into orchestrating mass murder on his work computer at Coast Guard headquarters.

Before the Capitol Hill riots, there were other portents of what could ultimately happen. Armed anti-lockdown protesters in Michigan forced the shutdown of the state capitol in Lansing in May, leading state lawmakers there to cancel a legislative session. The anti-lockdown protests received encouragement in Twitter posts by Trump, who fired off all-caps missives like “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE WISCONSIN!” while clashing with Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Five months later, the FBI arrested 13 members of an armed far-right group who planned to storm the state capitol building and kidnap Whitmer. Trump, unsurprisingly, responded to the news with more criticism of Whitmer.

And for all the tragedy of the Capitol Hill riots, most of what we’ve learned since January 6 is how much worse it could’ve been. Federal investigators reportedly found that two unexploded pipe bombs discovered that day outside the Democratic and Republican National Committee headquarters had been placed the night before, raising the possibility that they were intended as a distraction during the attack on the Capitol itself. Multiple participants who were later arrested were found to have large caches of guns and ammunition; one even allegedly had “homemade napalm” in his truck when police arrested him. At least one had zip-tie handcuffs, raising the possibility of a hostage situation. Four people died during the riot, including a Capitol Police officer. Two other Capitol Police officers have committed suicide since then.

Though the rioters managed to breach the Capitol, none of them managed to capture or assault a senator or representative. An even split in the Senate means that if a Democratic senator had been seriously injured or worse, control of the chamber could have shifted back to Republicans, effectively overthrowing the 2020 election results. One officer, Eugene Goodman, managed to divert a large group of rioters away from the Senate chamber just moments before other security officials were able to lock it down and evacuate those inside. The Washington Post later reported that Mike Pence, a focal point of the rioters’ rage, and his family also came less than 100 feet from the mob at one point during Goodman’s efforts. “If the pro-Trump mob had arrived seconds earlier,” the Post reported, “the attackers would have been in eyesight of the vice president as he was rushed across a reception hall into the office.”

There are some things that went right that can’t be attributed to chance. The archetypal coup d’état, of course, is when the military seizes the powers of civil government by force. That was never a serious threat over the past three months. Top U.S. generals consistently signaled that they would respect the results of the election—a grim note in and of itself about the health of American democracy. The unstated message was clear: They would not obey an illegal order. Nor was there a chance that the Supreme Court would somehow overturn a clear Biden victory and keep Trump in power. None of the justices turned out to be as reckless, shortsighted, or corrupt as he had hoped.

So why can’t I stop thinking about luck? Because it could easily change. If anything, the GOP has drifted even further toward extremism and illiberalism since the riot. Figures like Josh Hawley, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Lauren Boebert are in Congress for the foreseeable future. At the state level, Republican lawmakers are working to suppress future voter turnout and carve out ways to lawfully overturn a future Democratic presidential candidate’s victory. All of the forces that fueled Trump’s rise—and all the misery that came with him—are still active, vital forces in American politics. It’s hard to be optimistic about the long-term health of our democracy when you see how much of it depended on chance.