May 30, 2024

During every modern presidential election cycle, pundits and experts have claimed the current election is “the most consequential” — whether it be “in my lifetime,” “in this century” or “since World War II.”

Thankfully, America survived all of those contests and often thrived after a course correction or pendulum swing away from the loser. Looking back, those “most consequential” presidential elections have always seemed tame compared to the next one.

But today, when it comes to 2024, “most consequential” may be tragically understated. The extreme polarization in today’s body politic rivals that of the 1860 presidential election won by Abraham Lincoln, whose inauguration was followed by the start of the Civil War just five weeks later.

Like 1860, the 2024 presidential election is fraught with explosive constitutional and institutional issues potentially threatening America’s founding principles. Millions of Americans believe that the preservation of democracy is indirectly on the ballot. So, too, is the potential consolidation of power in an executive branch poised to unbalance tri-equal power shared with the legislative and judicial branches of government.

The perception of an existential crisis for the U.S. is only enhanced by the blockbuster movie “Civil War” and a recent poll that inspired the screaming Drudge Report headline: “41 percent see Civil War ll on the horizon.”

Last month, a Pew Research Center survey found that half of registered voters would prefer replacing both Trump and Biden on the ballot. Pew’s data reinforced a March YouGov/ Yahoo News poll, in which 53 percent of voters chose a combination of dread, exhaustion or depression to describe their feelings about the 2024 rematch.

This unpopular historic Biden-Trump rematch unnerves most Americans paying attention, even many of their supporters. Whoever wins, half the nation will be disgusted, angry, pessimistic and fearful of the future, wondering how America can endure with “that guy” as president for a second term.

And four additional “minefield” issues could explode during the campaign’s final six months or before the 2025 inauguration, further exacerbating that pessimism.

1. The first pertains to whether the loser will accept the outcome. Trump has continually planted seeds for potential unrest, even predicting the end of democracy if he loses. On CNN in May 2023, Trump qualified his acceptance of the 2024 results by saying, “If I think it’s an honest election, I would be honored to.”

Recently, Trump doubled down on that qualifier. During a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel interview, he said, “If everything’s honest, I’d gladly accept the results,” adding, “If it’s not, you have to fight for the right of the country.” Trump has yet to explain that “fight” statement — perceived as a “dog whistle” for encouraging political violence — nor defined his criteria for “everything’s honest.” This is a warning.

After numerous court decisions and recounts, Trump still believes the 2020 election was stolen, making it a test of loyalty. Now, it appears not committing to accepting the 2024 results is a litmus test for his vice-presidential nominee.

If Trump loses on Nov. 5, will he again try to subvert democracy as he allegedly did on Jan. 6, 2021, for which he has been indicted? A potential minefield surrounds your voting booth.

2. America’s smooth presidential transition has always shown the world why we are a beacon of freedom and democracy, even after contentious or close elections. This is why the events of Jan. 6, 2021, unnerved our allies and delighted our enemies. That means on Jan. 20, 2025, America must prove the last transition was an aberration. A repeat of such violence could create a national security situation for our enemies to exploit.

3. In 2024, several courtrooms sit atop political minefields.

Trump’s Jan. 6 trial and the Mar-a-Lago documents case are now on hold. America’s judicial system is built on faith and trust that “no person is above the law.” Nonetheless, what could be construed as a double travesty of delayed federal justice has been orchestrated by (some would say) a Trump-friendly Supreme Court and Trump-appointed Florida U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon. Delays by both courts could ensure that neither Trump’s Jan. 6-related trial nor the Mar-a-Lago documents case trial are held before Election Day.

Sixty-four percent of Americans want the Jan. 6 trial to occur sooner. But several conservative Supreme Court justices appear much more interested in how their ruling would affect future presidents’ claims of immunity than they are about Trump’s specific claims about his actions Jan. 6. If voters are denied a verdict on whether Trump is guilty of trying to overturn the 2020 election to remain in power, there could be a voter backlash.

This week, Cannon postponed indefinitely Trump’s 37-count indictment for refusing to return top secret government documents allegedly removed from the White House. Reacting to that news, former Trump White House attorney Ty Cobb called Cannon’s decision “really inexplicable” and “tragic.”

4. The “battleground states presidential election” has reached a tipping point: A 2023 Pew Research Study found that 65 percent of American adults favor a nationwide popular vote to elect the president. Six battleground states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona, and North Carolina) will totally dominate Biden’s and Trump’s campaign to win 270 Electoral College votes, severely warping where they spend time and money. An angry sentiment that “my vote doesn’t count” has long been growing among Americans who live outside of presidentially relevant states.

If Trump or Biden wins only the unpopular Electoral College but loses the popular vote — as Trump did in 2016 — Civil War-level outrage could result.

Myra Adams served on the creative team of two GOP presidential campaigns, in 2004 and 2008.

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