Democracy advocates were planning for vigilantes and military coups — long before the 2020 election
Donald Trump January 6, 2021 (Screen Grab)

The Washington Post revealed Tuesday that a full year ahead of the 2020 election, democracy advocates and constitutional scholars anticipated that President Donald Trump might turn his "little regard for the democratic traditions and constitutional norms" and act in conflict with the U.S. laws to maintain power.

"So the group considered a slew of hypothetical catastrophes," the report said about the 2019 conversations. "What do we do if a vigilante group takes over a major county tabulation facility and burns it to the ground? What do we do if there is a military coup?"

Oddly, the experts "were too quick" to "dismiss the outrageous and unlikely," the Post said, citing Democracy Fund's senior adviser Tammy Patrick. She previously served as an elections official in Maricopa County, Arizona.

"Either we were not creative enough or the norms of civility our nation has seen over centuries were not reliable enough," she said.

As Trump looks to consider running in the 2024 election, it raises concerns about the stability of democracy and the extent to which he could move to put further restrictions on it.

Over the past several weeks, Trump has continued his attacks on Republicans who refused to falsify the election or "find" votes that would hand him victory. He's now endeavoring to elect loyalists who would consider manipulating the election to hand him power.

"We're not forgetting 2020," Trump told his rally crowd at one rally. "The most corrupt election in the history of our country. Most corrupt election in the history of most countries, to be followed by an even more glorious victory in November of 2024."

The concern among the experts is that Trump will behave one way while his supporters will do the rest for him, as they did on Jan. 6 in the attempt to violently overthrow the U.S. Capitol and stop the certification of the electoral college vote.

"The threats to democracy that Trump critics envision are largely twofold," said the piece. "One real risk, they say, is that four years after the failed Jan. 6 insurrection, Trump and his supporters emerge in 2024 more sophisticated and successful in their efforts to steal an election."

"For me, the scary part is, in 2020, this was not a particularly sophisticated misinformation or disinformation campaign," said Homeland Security's election chief from 2018-2020. "We're talking about bamboo ballots and Italian satellites and dead dictators."

Masterson assumes that in the future, these campaigns will be far more detailed and strategic. He cited the California election in which the Republican candidate was already alleging the election was fraudulent before votes were even cast. The allegations erode trust in elections and he anticipates that it will continue to be a big part of elections. He called election disinformation is a growing "cottage industry of election delegitimization and pre-delegitimization."

The two-page memo from Trump lawyer John Eastman outlined a written plan that was shopped around the White House and ultimately presented to the president, vice president and staff in the Oval Office ahead of the Jan. 6 electoral college submissions. The plot anticipated that Mike Pence would then gavel Trump back into power.

"The second possible scenario experts envision is more insidious, they say, a sort of slow-boiling frog of American democracy. In this case, Trump — or an acolyte with similarly anti-democratic sensibilities — runs and wins legitimately in 2024, emerging newly emboldened and focused on retribution," said the report. "Then, the new president, intent on strengthening his own position and punishing critics, begins remaking the political and electoral system, using legal means to consolidate power and erode democratic institutions."

Harvard University professor Daniel Ziblatt, who co-authored "How Democracies Die," explained "that what we should be waiting for is fascists and communists marching in the streets, but nowadays, the ways democracies often die is through legal things at the ballot box — so things that can be both legal and antidemocratic at the same time."

The report also cited media personalities like Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who traveled to Hungary to prop up a leader who "has steadily chipped away at the linchpins of a liberal democratic system," characterized Freedom House president Michael Abramowitz.

The report also noted that Trump installed a set of Cabinet secretaries who the U.S. Senate didn't confirm and an attorney general Trump assumed would work for him and not the American people. He further anticipated that installing Supreme Court members also meant intervening and delivering him the presidency using the judiciary.

"These are soft guardrails that have constrained politicians in the past, and what the Trump administration has made clear is that we need to harden those guardrails," Ziblatt said. "If you look at how democracies get in trouble in other places, it's how executives once in office abuse their office, and I think people just don't want to think that Trump could get back into the presidency. There's a way in which we're not trying to think of the worst-case scenario, which is Trump gets reelected, but I think what we've learned is you have to prepare for the worst-case scenario."

Read the full report at the Washington Post.