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There Are Four Postelection Scenarios, and Not One Is Good

It’s not too early to start gaming out scenarios. They range from bleak to hideous.

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Last weekend Donald Trump told crowds at his Dayton rally, “Now if I don’t get elected, it’s gonna be a bloodbath for the whole—that’s gonna be the least of it. It’s going to be a bloodbath for the country, that will be the least of it.” This was at first blush a reference to auto industry sales, but a closer examination of the audio and the speech suggests he did intend it in a broader sense. It would certainly fit with the apocalyptic tone of his speeches and, previous, thinly veiled calls for violence before the January 6 insurrection. To me, it was simply confirmation that the 2024 election is going to come to a bad end, no matter the results at the polls.

I have something of a track record of predicting the outcomes of elections involving Trump. In 2016 immediately following the election, I predicted that Trump’s policies would lead to mass unrest, which happened in 2020, and state legislatures passing waves of anti-trans legislation, making much of the United States a no-go zone for trans people. In 2020, I not only correctly called that the aftermath of the election would be chaotic, but I also described what Trump would do to cause that chaos. With the candidates locked in for the 2024 election, the possible outcomes have snapped clearly into focus (and there are really only three or four, depending how you count them).

In December 2022, I published an article in The New Republic detailing four basic outcomes for the U.S. after the 2024 election: Descent Into Two Americas, Balkanization, Civil War, or Quiet Descent into Fascist Dictatorship. With the stage now set, we can more clearly see how we get to each based on the results at the ballot box. In the coming election, there are four realistic outcomes that depend on who ends up in the White House and how they get there:

1.     Biden wins the popular vote and Electoral College, and Democrats win the House.
2.     Biden wins the popular vote and Electoral College, and Republicans win the House.
3.     Trump loses the popular vote but wins the Electoral College.
4.     Trump wins the popular vote and the Electoral College.

There are other permutations of this, but their odds are remote enough that they do not merit discussion (e.g., Biden loses the popular vote and wins the Electoral College, or Democrats in the House refuse to certify an election that Donald Trump legitimately wins). So let’s look at each of these four and what sort of postelection horrors they’re likely to inflict on us.

Biden wins the popular vote and Electoral College, and Democrats win the House.

This is the best-case scenario for Democrats, and probably the country, and it looks like a repeat of 2020. Trump and Republicans will allege fraud and rigged elections. They’ll try to block certification at the county, state, and federal levels, resulting in court cases that generally go nowhere. Trump followers will be incited to violence, which is likely to be more successfully put down than January 6, 2021 (which had the element of surprise and a supportive president). Even if the Senate is controlled by Republicans, there are still enough institutionalists who will vote to certify when Congress meets in joint session on January 6, 2025, to certify the results. Minority Leader Mike Johnson may try to stop the incoming Democratic majority from being seated on January 3, but he probably won’t be able to because the Constitution doesn’t allow for him to refuse to do that.

Thus, after chaos that looks a lot like 2020 (only more intense, widespread, and gaining more support from state-level Republicans), Biden gets sworn in on January 20, 2025, to govern a nation where over half the states don’t accept his legitimacy. Red states will flout federal authority at every turn, daring a crackdown, much as Texas has done over Eagle Pass and immigration. The Supreme Court won’t do much to thwart Christian nationalists, who are increasingly calling for “dual sovereignty” and implementation of “a Scripture-based system of government whereby Christ-ordained ‘civil magistrates’ exercise authority over the American public.” Even if the Supreme Court rules against states that resist the federal government, they are likely to dare the Biden administration to actually enforce those rulings. Right-wing violence, like that described by Stephen Marche and Barbara F. Walter, is likely. The result is a United States that is one country in name only.

Biden wins the popular vote and Electoral College, and Republicans win the House.

If Biden wins the election but Republicans maintain control of the House of Representatives, it is very likely that Speaker Mike Johnson will refuse to certify the election, invoking the Twelfth Amendment to decide the election. This lets the House of Representatives—the one elected in November—determine the outcome, and each state gets one vote. That vote is decided by which party controls the majority of House seats elected by that state. Using that method, Republicans are virtually guaranteed to have 26 votes, and Trump becomes president. The only thing that might stop this is a few moderate Republicans in the House being unwilling to go along with such a plan, but most of them have already left. Remember: Two-thirds of Republicans in the House refused to vote to certify the election in 2020.

It’s also unlikely that the Supreme Court (which is already seen as illegitimate by a large percentage of the public after the shenanigans Republicans used to get a 6–3 majority, and after the Dobbs decision) will overturn this scheme, since it technically follows the rules. As a result, most people in blue states are likely to reject the legitimacy of the (gerrymandered) House Republican majority, the president, and the Supreme Court. Governors in blue states will be under intense pressure from their constituents, particularly those who fear for their lives if Trump takes power again, to reject the legitimacy of a Trump administration, much less give in to its extreme agenda.

This outcome results in the most intense “antibodies” being generated at the fastest rate possible. The immune system generates antibodies in response to a perceived viral or bacterial threat, and the greater the threat it perceives, the more vigorous the response is. So it is with political resistance: The more people perceive a second Trump administration to be an existential threat to their lives, the more they will resist.

Trump’s response will likely be to invoke the Insurrection Act and put down any resistance to his administration with the military. If this results in fatalities and mass detentions, it will probably only exacerbate the situation, leading to many people on both the left and right concluding that violence is the only viable option for change, resistance, or as a response to resistance. Right-wing elements have long been itching to use violence to put “those people” in their place. But the missing ingredient for a civil war is people on the left concluding that the only possible way to preserve themselves is violence. The outcome tilts toward the civil war scenario more than any of the other election outcomes.

Trump loses the popular vote but wins the Electoral College.

This is a repeat of the 2016 election. It will highlight the ongoing weaknesses of the Electoral College, having put Republicans who lost the popular vote in office again for the third time in three out of the last seven elections, and three out of the four total times that a Republican has won in that span. But it is a win without cheating or deliberately breaking the system. This will blunt the resistance to Trump, along with the belief that the government is illegitimate. There will be protests, to be sure, but so long as Trump doesn’t choose to have protesters massacred, they will fizzle out as they did in 2017.

This outcome is the hardest to predict. Trump will absolutely let his team attempt to implement Christian nationalism across the U.S. and use every means available to achieve its vision of an America with no immigrants, no trans people, no Muslims, no abortion, no birth control, Russian-style “Don’t Say Gay laws,” license to discriminate based on religion, and all government education funding going to religious schools. Blue states will try to resist this and invoke the same states’ rights and “dual sovereignty” arguments as red staters in scenario one, but it’s unlikely they will succeed due to conservative bias on the Supreme Court and the Trump administration’s willingness to blow off court rulings it doesn’t like.

If Trump goes straight to a massacre via the Insurrection Act, civil war is on the table. It’s highly unlikely that Trump and his Christian nationalist allies will allow a “soft secession,” but it’s possible that the U.S. balkanizes along many of the same lines that happen in scenario one, if blue state resistance is sufficiently strong and the federal government is unwilling to take steps that lead to the civil war outcome. If Trump manages to bring blue states to heel via legal means, and resistance is insufficient to compel blue state governors to refuse to comply, then we end up with option four: fascist, theocratic, hereditary dictatorship.

Trump wins the popular vote and the Electoral College.

If Trump wins the popular vote, he will also almost inevitably win the Electoral College, given how much it favors Republican candidates. If he wins this way, it will remove most discussion of whether his presidency is legitimate, when it clearly is based on the rules set forth by law and the Constitution. Certainly, his actions will be highly unpopular, but this outcome minimizes the antibodies raised against his administration. Certainly there will be protests, but as long as he doesn’t massacre protesters, it will be hard to convince anyone in Democratic leadership to reject the legitimacy of the federal government. Even most Democratic voters are likely to grudgingly admit the legitimacy of his second term, and this will dampen willingness to resist, even as Christian nationalism seeps in and democracy dies.

Perhaps the best modern example of a dictator riding out postelection protests is Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, who arrested only protest leaders and just waited for the anger to subside. Trump would be wise to follow this model. Given Trump’s ties to Russia and respect for all things in the Russkiy Mir, he might be convinced to ignore his first instincts to crush protesters violently.

Trump will almost certainly do the things he promises regarding women’s rights, immigrants, LGBTQ people, the environment, and weaponizing the Department of Justice and FBI against Muslims, Dreamers, and anyone else against whom he’s promised vengeance. His government will absolutely spread this to all 50 states, but the perceived legitimacy of the regime, and the belief that “we’ll get ’em in 2028,” will prevent any real resistance. Republicans will pretend that free and fair elections in 2028 will absolutely happen, until they don’t. The government functionally becomes a competitive autocracy, much the same as Russia’s or Hungary’s. Elections are meaningless, other than serving as an anesthetic to public grievances.

For most people, life will be boring and tolerable. For the people targeted by the regime, it will not be easy to survive in the U.S. It will also lead to a wave of people (particularly trans individuals) attempting to flee to other countries. Corruption and graft will run rampant. The government will primarily serve the interests of Christian nationalists, and a tiered system of justice will become more and more apparent. Most people will decide that getting ahead in life (or keeping your head down) is better than asking pesky questions about where your transgender neighbor went. The result is a mix of the modern Hungarian political system, Russia-like apathy, and Nazi-esque zeal for creating a pure culture. As happened in all three of those countries, democracy dies with barely a whimper in this scenario.


No matter how I map it out, the election cycle either ends in chaos and violence, balkanization, or a descent into a modern theocratic fascist dystopia. There is no scenario in which everything turns out “just fine.” Even in my first scenario, the best case for Democrats (and democrats), nullification of Biden policies by red states is rampant, and the union slowly dissolves. The only scenario that results in a peaceful transfer of power is the one that leads almost inevitably toward the worst possible long-term outcome: a fascist nation, allied with the globe’s worst dictators, governed by religious fundamentalists yearning for Armageddon, while armed with enough strategic nuclear weapons to give God a run for his money.