Will 2024 be the most important US presidential election in history?

The 2024 US presidential election looks set to be a rematch of the 2020 election between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Credit: AP

It is a cliché of reporting American politics to say that the upcoming election is one of the most consequential of all time. But 2024 really has many wondering if the very foundation of the Republic is on the line. 

It’s not just Democrats saying that. Former Republicans are sounding the alarm too.

Jeff Timmer now works for the pro-democracy group the Lincoln Project, but was a stalwart of the GOP for thirty years. The former Republican strategist is bleak in his assessment.

"We are standing at a very precarious point and perhaps looking into a pretty dire abyss", he tells me.

"If Trump wins, from a federal government perspective, we could very well be looking at the last free and fair election that the United States has and it’s not hyperbole to say that."

"We have one side who has said that they will try to achieve power by any means necessary: suspend the constitution, use the military. They have said all these things since 2020", he added.

Donald Trump is almost certain to win the Republican nomination for the 2024 US election. Credit: AP

Jeff fears even if Trump secures the presidency by winning the most electoral college votes, he is unlikely to win the popular vote. That could set up a scenario where a majority of Americans distrust the elected president to uphold democracy, leading to violence on both sides of the political divide. 

"In my darkest scenario, a repeat of January 6th could include radical protesters from the left and the right… the clash could become much more violent and much more destructive.", Jeff Timmer - who is from Michigan's state capital of Lansing - said.

When I asked him if America was heading for another civil war, he paused and said: "You could say we are in a cold civil war right now…with a deeply divided nation, not just partisan labels, but culturally.

"The way people view political violence as a justifiable outcome if achieves their ends.

"We’ve seen a tremendous, alarming growth of people on the political right willing to accept violence as justifiable and that;’s really scary", he said.

"I don’t know how it could play out with armed people…it’s frightening."

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The prospect of Donald Trump regaining power is all too real. The consequences could be grave, not just for America but also for the world. A succession of national polls has him pretty much tied with Joe Biden. In battleground states like Pennsylvania - which is the biggest swing state prize with 20 electoral college votes - and Michigan - which carries a weighty 16 - the polls are similarly tight.

In some states, like Arizona and Wisconsin, Trump is ahead by a few points. In Nevada, Joe Biden has a tiny lead and in Georgia, Trump is comfortably ahead. Of course the election is still a year away and some of these polls will reflect dissatisfaction with the Biden administration and the economy, more than a desire to put Donald J. Trump back in the White House. 

But it’s not a distant prospect that a man who should be dead in the water politically, still might be elected. Despite multiple indictments, being accused of attempting to overturn the results of the last election, he may still win the next. If that happens, there are plans in place to radically overhaul many of the institutions of state.

Project 2025 is one conservative scheme which involves the think tank the Heritage Foundation to recruit thousands of like-minded ideologues to replace many of the career civil servants who are disparagingly described as the "Deep State" by Trump.

The Heritage Foundation says it hasn’t been explicitly endorsed by Trump and says it is "candidate agnostic", but the two visions of a transition seem closely aligned. The Heritage Foundation is trying to recruit 20,000 people as part of a "transition in waiting".

It says it already has thousands on its books, ready to replace federal workers who have spent decades in post. 

Spencer Chretien, associate director  told me Project 2025 is an "unparalleled effort" to deconstruct the administrative state and "restore the power to the people on day one of the next conservative presidential administration."

This upending of the status quo is a theme Trump has repeatedly hammered in stump speeches. In 2018, he said the "unelected deep state operatives who defy the voters to push their own secret agendas are truly a threat to democracy itself." In 2020, he joked that Mike Pompeo, then Secretary of State, was the "head of the deep state department".

This year speaking in Waco, where the FBI was involved in a siege against an anti-establishment cult, he said: "Either the deep state destroys America, or we destroy the deep state." 

He also added that if he wins the election: "You will be vindicated and proud, and the thugs and criminals who are corrupting our justice system will be defeated, discredited and totally disgraced."

It encapsulates Donald Trump’s desire to go after those who tried to prosecute him, and you can begin to imagine the turmoil which may ensue inside institutions like the Department of Justice and the FBI. 

"They've talked about how [Trump] first of all, would certainly put in his own loyalist people", former federal prosecutor Shan Wu told ITV News.

"There's this talk of like gutting the FBI because he feels completely ready to go. He feels that they're a corrupt institution.

"The key to that is really that he would install his own people who are loyalists there like he tried to do previously", Shan - a former white collar prosecutor - added.

Shan also expressed concerns over the prospect of a Trump administration making it easier to fire civil servants who weren't loyal to a future Trump administration.

"That would really change the notion of being a career government employee", Shan said.

Former federal prosecutor Shan Wu told ITV News Donald Trump may 'gut' the FBI if he was to win in 2024, to install his 'own people' who are loyalists.

Trump's stranglehold on the Republican party will also tighten further, possibly forcing out any moderates who voice their dissent. 

Republican strategist Jeff Timmer left the party in 2017 after Trump suggested there were "very fine people both sides" during a march by White Supremacists through Charlottesville, Virginia.

"I had always been opposed to Trump but then I realised he had subsumed the party…it was a lost cause." he told me. 

I asked what he thought of Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell. He didn't hold back.

"The monster that has been unleashed, the cancer, the virus…has been enabled because of their unwillingness to tackle it", Jeff Timmer said.

"They thought they could control it and they were sadly mistaken. Now they are subservient to it".

Then there is the potential for Trump to pull America out of Nato, or withdraw support for Ukraine. The Westphalian rules-based order, which has defined the post-war world for decades, could crumble with a capricious American president, willing to abruptly turn his back on traditional allies and forge new alliances based on his self-interest. 

The Founding Fathers crafted the US Constitution to ensure checks on executive power. Congress was one, but so was the Judiciary. At its apex, the Supreme Court is loaded with a majority of right-wing justices, thanks to Donald Trump appointing three of them. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell blocked President Obama’s choice for replacing Antonin Scalia in 2016, saying the new incoming president should choose.

He then went on to choose two others, after the deaths of two elderly justices.

But legal experts say even with that majority in place, Trump can’t count on the acquiescence of or lenient treatment by the Supreme Court.

"[Trump] likes to think that these are his personal judges, and that really has not happened. But what is in his favor is that they are conservatives and that they tend to lean in favour of giving the executive, the president, a lot of authority", Shan said.

"There's a theory called the unitary executive theory, where they really treat the president as a pretty powerful, insulated figure.

"So that would help him a lot", Shan added.

Trump sees the three conservative Supreme Court justices he appointed as his 'personal judges', says former federal prosecutor Shan Wu.

Jeff Timmer says the Supreme Court has traditionally been an "impartial, reasonable backstop to radicalism and chaos".

But if people lose faith in the judiciary, it may over time be seen as being just as partisan as the rest of the political landscape, further eroding democracy in America.

The controversy concerning Justice Clarence Thomas’ the undeclared trips paid for by right wing billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch hasn’t helped. Nor has the fact his wife Ginni campaigned to question the 2020 election result and attended a rally near the Capitol on January 6th 2021 (although her lawyers pointed out to the January 6th Committee she “abhors violence on any side of the aisle” and wasn’t present when protesters stormed the building). 

ITV News Correspondent Robert Moore and his team reported from inside the Capitol during the January 6th 2021 riots.

Even if the Supreme Court justices are beyond reproach, Donald Trump has repeatedly appealed for them to intervene in what he declares is election interference.

Most analysts agree some of the cases Donald Trump is fighting may end up being decided by the Supreme Court and pressure on the judicial impartiality will be tested like never before.

Their decision, either way, could not only decide the fate of the country, but will be seized on by the losing side as evidence the court is biased and corrupt. 

Some have even suggested Donald Trump may seek to stay in office longer than the four years allowed. It is unlikely he could overturn the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution limiting him to serving only two terms in office - that would require a two-thirds majority in Congress and 38 of the 50 state legislatures to agree.

But if threats from the hardline right are to be believed the Constitution might be suspended. Even if things don’t go that far, a Trump second term may erode many of the bulwarks to autocracy we currently take for granted.

One overriding motive will govern many of Trump’s instincts: revenge. He will be hellbent on removing and punishing those who have sought to hold him to account. From the Department of Justice's Jack Smith, to Georgia’s district attorney Fani Willis, he will pursue those who have pursued him, with vigour.

But look further ahead and what would a Trump second term mean for the more distant American future? Would it encourage others to attempt to challenge election results they disagree with? Would it embolden extremists to take the law into their own hands? The answer surely would be yes.

If President Trump is seen to "get away with it", others will be tempted to follow suit. And don’t forget Trump has sons with political ambitions. He might be unable to run again in 2028, but Eric or Donald Junior could, even if they lack his charisma and electoral appeal.

It sets the scene for decades of bitter partisan discord, with election results repeatedly disputed and violence becoming the new currency of political legitimacy.

So this election matters in a way few previous ones have. Consequential not just for America, but for all of us.