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The source of America’s political chaos

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Most of America’s current political environment can be traced back to one moment: the election of Donald Trump. The bedlam continues—and, to understand the stakes in 2024, imagine how different the world would look if he’d lost.

First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic:

One Single Day

Regret about “what might have been” is not a particularly productive emotion. Counterfactual history, however, is quite useful. I have used it for years in teaching international relations, to help students see that not everything in history is inevitable, that accidents and sudden turns can change the destiny of nations.

Also, as a science-fiction fan, I’m a sucker for the alternate-history genre, the kind of stuff where the Roman empire never rises or America loses the Revolutionary War. I loved NBC’s show Timeless, in which a team—including an academic historian!—has to run around stopping time-terrorists from messing with great events. I even liked Quantum Leap and the idea of one man traveling through the years to fix individual lives rather than alter the grand march of time.

As I continue to watch the GOP flail about—House Republicans have now chosen the execrable Representative Jim Jordan for speaker, replacing Steve Scalise, whose nomination lasted 48 hours—I have been thinking about an alternate history of a United States where Donald Trump lost the 2016 election. I am convinced that the chaos now overtaking much of the American political system was not inevitable: The source of our ongoing political disorder is because of a razor-thin victory in an election in 2016 decided by a relatively tiny number of voters.

I recognize that others will depict Trump’s victory as the inexorable result of long-term trends. Some, perhaps, would identify 1994, when Newt Gingrich proved that political nastiness was an effective campaign strategy, as the Year of No Return, or the election of 2010, when Americans rewarded the flamboyant jerkitude of the Tea Party with seats in Congress.

There’s a lot of truth to such explanations. Long-term trends matter, because over time, they frame debates and shape the choices available to voters. The Republicans have been moving further and further to the right, but I have always argued that 2016 was a fluke, a perfect storm with epochal consequences: The GOP field was fractured and feckless; Trump was a well-known celebrity; the Democrats ran Hillary Clinton instead of supporting Joe Biden for a shot at what would have been Barack Obama’s third term. And it was close, because of the structure of the Electoral College. (The headline of an article by Tina Nguyen, written a few weeks after Trump’s win, captures it nicely: “You Could Fit All the Voters Who Cost Clinton the Election in a Mid-Size Football Stadium.”)

Trump’s win set up a series of cascading failures. Winning in 2016 turbocharged Trump’s claims of leading a movement. His victory encouraged other Republicans to go into survival mode and adopt the protective coloration of Trumpism just to win their primaries, a process that led directly to the crapstorm deluging the House at this very moment. Most Republicans in Congress, as Mitt Romney has told us, hate Trump, and many of them probably wish that someone could jump into the Time Tunnel, go back to 2016, and persuade a few thousand voters in three or four states to come to their senses.

At the least, a Trump loss would have let other Republicans avoid sinking in the populist swamp. Elise Stefanik might be a relentless political opportunist, but without Trump, she and other GOP leaders could have pronounced Trumpian extremism a failure and stayed in something like a center-right lane. On the Earth Where Trump Lost, Fox-addicted voters might still have sent irresponsible performance artists such as Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz to Congress, but the institutional Republicans would have had every incentive to marginalize them. (Remember, Jordan’s been in the House since 2007, but attaching himself to Trump has helped to put the speaker’s gavel within his reach.)

Had Trump lost, someone might even have bothered to read (and act on) the so-called Republican National Committee “autopsy” of 2013, which argued that the future of the party relies on better appeals to immigrants, women, minorities, and young people. With Trump’s win, that kind of talk went out the window. Instead, the Trump GOP chained itself to the votes of older white Americans—a declining population. Republicans thus had to squeeze more votes out of a shrinking base, and the only way to do that was to build on Trump’s bond with his personality cult and defend him at all costs.

Perhaps most important, a Trump loss would have prevented (or at least delayed) the normalization of violence and authoritarianism in American politics. This is not to say that the Republicans would today be a healthy party, but Trump’s victory confirmed the surrender of the national GOP to a sociopathic autocrat. There’s a difference between a dysfunctional party and a party that has decayed into a mindless countercultural movement, and that rail switch was thrown in November 2016.

An irony in thinking through the 2016 counterfactual case is how many people, including Trump and the herd of sycophants who coalesced around him, would have been better off if Trump had lost. Excellent books by the Washington Post reporter Ben Terris and by my Atlantic colleague Mark Leibovich have described the kind of people who formed up behind Trump, and it is striking how many of them are now facing personal and political ruin. Perhaps someone like Seb Gorka feels that he did well by jumping from academic obscurity to fish-pill sales, but others whose associations with Trump opened the door to greater scrutiny and eventual disaster—think of Matt Schlapp, Peter Navarro, or even the pathetic Rudy Giuliani—would all have been better off had Trump had flamed out.

But no one should wish for the Guardian of Forever to open a gate back to 2016 more than Trump himself. Had he lost, he could have fulfilled what was likely his true wish, to go back to his life in New York as a faux-capitalist fraudster while traveling the country as a pretend president, holding rallies and raking in money from credulous rubes. Instead, he faces humiliation, financial failure, and criminal indictments.

Measures such as impeachment that could have taken Trump out of American political life were destined to fail because of 2016. The 2020 election proved Trump’s toxicity, but by then, too many Republicans had made too many compromises and they could no longer just walk away. Their fates (which for some might include prison) are sealed.

All of this chaos and misery was avoidable—and all of it stemmed from one election and the choices of a tiny number of Americans who could have averted these disasters. As Trump tries to regain his office, voters should remember that nothing is inevitable: Choices matter. Elections matter. A single day can matter.


Today’s News

  1. Palestinians are fleeing northern Gaza after the Israeli military ordered more than 1 million people to evacuate; the United Nations has called the evacuation “impossible … to take place without devastating humanitarian consequences.”
  2. Representative Steve Scalise backed out of the race for speaker of the House yesterday. Jim Jordan has been nominated to succeed him.
  3. Kaiser Permanente has reached a tentative deal with its health-care workers after a three-day walkout.


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Speaking of alternate histories, a year ago, I suggested that you watch Counterpart, which I said then was “the greatest television series that not enough people have seen,” and which I think has been unjustly ignored as one of the greatest series in the history of television.

Counterpart ended its two-season run in 2019 (you can stream it on Apple TV+ and Amazon), so I’ll reveal a bit more of the plot: Scientists in East Germany at the end of the Cold War accidentally open a portal to a parallel universe. It is at first identical to ours in every way, including the people in it, but different choices make them into different people. The show asks disturbing questions about how our lives, and even the fate of the world, can change because of one decision. The lead character, Howard Silk (an amazing performance by J. K. Simmons), often has discussions with his “other,” his counterpart. One Howard is a tough, bitter bastard; the other is a kind and loving husband. When one Howard says that he wonders how things in life could go so wrong, the other Howard says, “Or so right?” Later, Howard says, “We all would like to be the better version of ourselves. I just—I just don’t know if it’s possible.”

The series is full of such moments, along with wonderful little touches of weirdness. (Over in the parallel universe, Prince is still alive.) It might just be a TV series, but even now I still think about it, which is the highest compliment I can pay to good entertainment.

— Tom

Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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