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Donald Trump is very likely to be the Republican nominee for the presidential election due on 5 November.

This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 25 January 2023.

  • We assess that widespread civil upheaval ahead of the poll is unlikely, given that Trump is currently eligible to run for public office
  • The main trigger for unrest over the coming months is the Supreme Court prohibiting Trump from being on primary and general election ballots

There is little doubt that Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate in the 2024 US presidential election. Trump won 54% of votes at the New Hampshire caucuses on 23 January, 11 percentage points more than Nikki Haley, his only remaining rival. A Trump candidacy would almost certainly contribute to a highly politically-charged atmosphere during the campaign, not least because of fears about the ramifications of a Trump victory; his critics claim that he would endanger American democracy.

On current indications, we assess that there is a low likelihood of widespread upheaval in the US ahead of the poll scheduled for 5 November. Trump is facing 91 felony counts across five different state and federal cases, including one that alleges he acted to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election. Citing this particular case, Trump’s critics claim that he is unfit to hold public office again. But based on our understanding of US law, none of these cases alone can prevent him from contesting the election.

The main trigger for political turmoil in the coming months is the Supreme Court prohibiting Trump from contesting any state primary or the general election. Specifically, the justices will rule whether to uphold the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision to remove him from their primary ballot. We would anticipate such a ruling to prompt major protests and incidents of political violence in major cities. Nevertheless, given the Court’s recent ruling record and that such a decision would be unprecedented – not to mention highly controversial – we assess the Supreme Court is unlikely to do this.

Trump very likely to be Republican presidential nominee

Nikki Haley is highly unlikely to make ground in the Republican nomination contest. Trump has won each of the Republican primaries so far, and polling data suggests that he is best placed to win more than a dozen of the polls on ‘Super Tuesday’ (5 March), when primary elections are scheduled in 16 states. Rather than damaging his standing among Republican voters, the legal cases introduced against him over the past several years appear to have so far galvanised support for him.

Potential legal obstacles to Trump holding office

The majority of Trump’s ongoing legal issues are unlikely to impact his ability to seek or hold the presidency. Even if Trump is convicted of any of the charges he is facing before the general election, he would remain eligible to hold office. The US constitution only requires candidates to be US citizens and at least 35 years old; there is no legal impediment to someone with a criminal conviction holding the presidency. Despite his critics claiming that he would use his power as President to pardon himself of any convictions, Trump has said it is ‘very unlikely’ he would do so.

As the highest judicial body in the country, the Supreme Court could rule on whether Trump is eligible to appear on primary and general election ballots over the coming months. In December 2023, officials in Maine and Colorado removed Trump from their primary ballots citing Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which bars individuals who have ‘engaged in insurrection or rebellion’ from holding federal office. These officials claim that Trump’s role in the events leading up to the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol fulfils this.

Fundamentally, the Supreme Court’s ruling on the case will probably seek to determine whether Trump is eligible to stand on primary and general election ballots. Legal scholars have pointed out that if the Supreme Court narrowly rules on his eligibility on primary ballots, then there are likely to be subsequent legal challenges to bar him from being on general election ballots. And this in turn would probably lead to legal efforts to block him from being sworn into office if he wins the election.

Either way, we assess that the Supreme Court is likely to rule in Trump’s favour. The primary reason for this is because of the ambiguity around the scope of Section 3 of the 14th Amendment. Most legal scholars agree that the text was written to stop Confederates who fought in the Civil War from holding public office. Given that the sitting Supreme Court justices have used literalist interpretations of the constitution in several major cases in recent years, we suspect that they will do so again in this case.

The Supreme Court will probably rule on the matter over the next two months. The justices have enacted an expedited timetable for the case proceedings and opening arguments are scheduled for 8 February. And in a sign that state electoral officials are eager to resolve the matter quickly, the Colorado Republican Party has urged the justices to rule by 5 March (Super Tuesday). Some state officials have said that a swift ruling would provide millions of voters with certainty around Trump’s eligibility at an early stage of the election process.

Security implications of Supreme Court ruling

If the Supreme Court rules that Trump is barred from primary and general election ballots, this would almost certainly prompt very large demonstrations in major cities, with isolated incidents of violence. Trump would very likely point to the decision to justify his repeated claims that the election is ‘rigged’ and that the ‘deep state’ is working to disenfranchise his supporters. Indeed, in their opening brief to the Supreme Court on this case, Trump’s lawyers said that the challenges to his candidacy ‘promise to unleash chaos and bedlam’.

In this scenario, Trump would almost certainly incite his supporters to take to the streets to oppose the decision. The largest demonstrations would very likely take place in downtown Washington DC, given that the Supreme Court building is located there. As seen in the graphic, we anticipate that protest activity would most likely occur at state capitals in states that have either removed Trump from their ballot or where challenges remain unresolved. We assess that protest activity is likely to occur for several days after a ruling is issued.

There is a high likelihood that right-wing extremists would mobilise around the former president’s potential disqualification in the immediate weeks after the ruling. We have not seen specific calls for violence from Trump sympathisers on the extremist online channels and forums we monitor. Most of the posts we have seen consist of users sharing conspiracy theories around the election being ‘rigged’ and Democrats ‘cheating’. But we have seen a very small number of users comment that Trump’s removal from the ballot could potentially lead to ‘civil war’.

This scenario would make violence by right-wing extremists likely. Rather than an organised campaign of attacks, we would anticipate individuals to carry out isolated attacks, mainly against federal and state judicial buildings, including offices and courthouses. Illustrating this, a lone gunman tried to attack an FBI office in Ohio following an FBI raid of Trump’s residence in Florida in August 2022. A Reuters investigation in November 2023 suggests that there have been at least six incidents of political violence carried out by Trump supporters since the attack on the Capitol in January 2021.

Image: People protest against the passage of a mail-in voting bill during a Nevada Republican Party demonstration at the Grant Sawyer State Office Building in Las Vegas, Nevada, on 4 August 2020. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.