Stopping the next insurrection

In a week focused on the 2021 attacks on the U.S. Capitol, I’ve moved on. I’m not dwelling on the past but on the next insurrection — the one I suspect is coming after the 2024 presidential election. If my suspicions are correct, it won’t be yet another weakening of democracy, but the finale. It won’t be waged with improvised spears and clubs, but by a singular instrument, blunt and powerful: the speaker’s gavel.

Here’s my prediction. 

It begins with the 2022 midterm elections, in less than 11 months. Today’s grim punditry for Democrats turns out to be exactly right: a perfect storm of low presidential approval ratings, alienated independents, red-hot Republican intensity and a complacent Democratic base wipes out House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse leaders unveil bill to boost chip industry, science competitiveness with China Pelosi says she will run for reelection in 2022 Hoyer says 'significant' version of Build Back Better will pass this year MORE’s (D-Calif.) majority. 

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Almost immediately, a race for speaker of the House takes form in the Republican Conference. Rep. Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyPress: Newt says lock 'em up – for doing their job!  The Hill's Morning Report - Biden, NATO eye 'all scenarios' with Russia On The Money — Support for new COVID-19 relief grows MORE (R-Calif.) should be a shoo-in. (Wasn’t he before his mediocre public performances in October 2015 forced him to bow out?

But in 2022 the Republicans have elected a freshman class that makes the 2010 Tea Party class look like, well, a tea party. They are hardline, rejectionist, absolutist. McCarthy becomes the “institutional” candidate in a group that reviles institutions. His clumsy walking of the Trump tightrope becomes a failed sobriety test.

Didn’t he claim that Trump bore responsibility for the Jan. 6 attack (before hightailing it to Mar-a-Lago only weeks later to seek forgiveness)? Didn’t he oppose overturning the 2020 election before supporting its overturn? Didn’t Trump criticize McCarthy for failing to protect and defend the lunatic and anti-Semitic ravings of Rep. Marjorie Taylor GreeneMarjorie Taylor GreeneGOP efforts to downplay danger of Capitol riot increase The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene says she's meeting with Trump 'soon' in Florida MORE (R-Ga.)? Quickly, inexorably, McCarthy feels the gavel slipping from his grasp — just like John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerDemocrats eager to fill power vacuum after Pelosi exit Stopping the next insurrection Biden, lawmakers mourn Harry Reid MORE; just like Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHow Kevin McCarthy sold his soul to Donald Trump On The Trail: Retirements offer window into House Democratic mood Stopping the next insurrection MORE

McCarthy studies a deflated whip count and realizes that in order to lead his rebellious conference, he must follow it in extremis. Pledges are extracted; promises made. He wins and his speakership is sustained by a two-year blitzkrieg against the Biden administration. Subpoenas, oversight and investigatory committees pile on top of one another like I-95 traffic during this week’s snowstorm. 

Committee chairs are awarded to Taylor Greene and even Rep. Paul GosarPaul Anthony GosarJan. 6 committee subpoenas leaders of 'America First' movement Lawmakers coming under increased threats — sometimes from one another McCarthy says he'll strip Dems of committee slots if GOP wins House MORE (R-Ariz.) who, last November, tweeted a depiction of himself assassinating Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezNew Mexico Democrat tests positive for COVID-19 breakthrough case Warner tests positive for breakthrough COVID-19 case Hispanics sour on Biden and Democrats' agenda as midterms loom MORE (D-N.Y.).

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Still, in the 2024 presidential election, voters are so frozen in their tribalism, so unpersuaded by dissenting views, that 45 percent automatically vote for a Democrat and 45 percent vote Republican. But somehow (at least in my scenario), the outcome in the Electoral College is clearer and the Democrat narrowly wins. Trump and his proxies call in the cavalry: The trumpets sound on Fox News, calling on Speaker McCarthy to convene the House and certify Trump’s victory; demanding that the electors in various states be changed; testing McCarthy’s fealty not to the Constitution but to a Trump presidency. 

But even before this election is decided, there is another one. Going into January 2025, Speaker McCarthy faces a leadership election in the new Congress. Now the stakes are higher. Now the existential question by McCarthy’s electorate – the Republican members of the incoming 119th Congress – is: “Will you or will you not certify Donald TrumpDonald TrumpDeputy AG: DOJ investigating fake Trump electors Former Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz elected to Baseball Hall of Fame Overnight Health Care — Senators unveil pandemic prep overhaul MORE’s election?” 

It’s Jan. 6, 2025. Another mass of protestors rings the Capitol, wrongly convinced, as they were in 2021, that Donald Trump won the election. The images burn on the multitude of television screens in McCarthy’s office. He realizes that certifying a Democratic victor is executing his own political death warrant. He must weigh his survival as speaker against the survival of democracy.

What would Kevin do in this scenario? I think I know the answer. A speaker beholden to his Trumpian majority in the House cannot, will not, let facts get in the way. No matter the popular and Electoral College vote, the presidency will be decided as part of a political calculation by one man to retain a gavel given by a few hundred other men and women. At which point the gavel will be a tool not to enforce the rules of democracy, but to bludgeon them.

Partisan paranoia, you say? A thinly stretched and dreary plot for a Netflix show? We’ll see. In the meanwhile, Democrats and moderate Republicans shouldn’t be obsessed with the last insurrection. They need to focus, clear-eyed and strategically, on preventing the next one.  

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.