Before rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, the consensus was that Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election amounted to a “clown coup”: fumbling, incompetent, and ultimately futile. This characterization made a certain sense at the time. Most of the lawsuits filed by Trump and his allies were a ridiculous mix of shoddy constitutional law and conspiracy theories, and they were laughed out of courtrooms around the country (of the 62 lawsuits they filed before January 6, 61 failed). None of the several states whose results Trump challenged—notably Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Arizona—changed their votes. He also tried to pressure elected officials in some states to alter the results, but they rebuffed him. Joe Biden was sworn in as president on schedule. The system worked—more or less.
Subsequent revelations, particularly in the wake of the Capitol insurrection, have suggested that Trump came much closer to overturning the 2020 election than previously thought. Rioters nearly intercepted lawmakers in the building and could have easily prompted a constitutional crisis had they successfully delayed the certification of electoral votes. The January 6 committee has shown that Trump’s efforts to subvert the election were more involved than previously thought: Despite being told over and over again by allies and government officials that the election was legitimate, he nevertheless proceeded to try to undo the result, welcomed armed supporters into the rally that he held before the assault on the Capitol, and told allies that Vice President Mike Pence “deserved” to be hanged. It was a clown coup, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have succeeded.
Nor does it mean he won’t try it again—perhaps with a more catastrophic outcome. Though he is still deeply incompetent, Trump has learned where the levers of power are, both in government and the legal system. And he has turned the Republican Party into an army of election deniers, some of whom are running for the very offices that oversee elections. It is nearly certain that, should he win the Republican nomination in 2024 and lose the general election, he will attempt once again to overturn the results.
The latest evidence comes from Rolling Stone, which reported on Sunday that Trump plans on using Pennsylvania’s upcoming Senate election between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz. “In recent months, Trump has convened a series of in-person meetings and conference calls to discuss laying the groundwork to challenge the 2022 midterm election results,” wrote Asawin Suebsaeng and Adam Rawnsley, later adding, “If the Republican does not win by a wide enough margin to trigger a speedy concession from Fetterman—or if the vote tally is close on or after Election Night in November—Trump and other Republicans are already preparing to wage a legal and activist crusade against the ‘election integrity’ of Democratic strongholds such as the Philly area.”
Trump is using Pennsylvania’s election as a kind of test case for 2024, to see whether he and his allies can successfully challenge a legitimate result. Fetterman has consistently polled ahead of Oz since the general election campaign, but the election is expected to be close: Republicans have regained momentum in recent weeks, and many suspect that the polls are once again overstating a Democratic advantage. If Fetterman wins outright or the election is close enough to prompt a recount, Trump will swoop in and declare it illegitimate, claiming widespread corruption in Philadelphia involving voting machines and mail-in ballots.
Trump only cares about how these midterm elections reflect on him. That’s why it’s likely he’ll challenge the legitimacy of any results that damage his status as the GOP’s preeminent kingmaker, which recently has been in doubt. Oz, whose nomination Trump helped secure earlier this year, has struggled throughout the campaign, as have several of Trump’s other hand-picked nominees, like Georgia’s Herschel Walker and Ohio’s J.D. Vance. (Walker is trailing and Vance is leading, per FiveThirtyEight’s polling aggregate, but both are underperforming.) Challenging elections in which his candidates lose, on the grounds that the Democrat won thanks to voter fraud, allows him to pretend he still has the magic touch ahead of his own campaign for president next summer.
But it is, above all else, a way for Trump to lay the groundwork for challenging his own potential loss in 2024—and doing so in a way that learns the lessons of past mistakes. It is similar, in many ways, to his reported plans for a second presidential term, in which hundreds of long-standing government employees (or members of the “deep state”) in places like the Department of Justice, the State Department, and the Internal Revenue Service would be purged and replaced by loyalists. Trump’s last coup almost worked—and it was inept at almost every level. Many of the same vulnerabilities remain, and Trump is gearing up to exploit them.