If you say in the first act that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the third act it absolutely must go off,” reads one of the many versions of the narrative principle commonly known as “Chekhov’s gun”. Developed by 19th-century Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov, Chekhov’s gun was the playwright’s way of insisting that every element in a story must ultimately be necessary; that there can be no insignificant details, and, therefore, that every detail carries a sense of imminence with it. Through my years of studying, analyzing, and working in politics, I have come to believe that a similar principle applies in real life: the details, often unnoticed at the time of their emergence, have a way of coming back and turning the plot like Chekhov’s gun.

Right now, there is a gun hanging on the backdrop of our national set dressing. There is a cartridge in its chamber. When it goes off, it will change everything. In the United States’ great national drama, where players on both sides are striving to define the nation’s character as we enter the third act and time ticks down, that gun is the takeover of the Supreme Court by far-right and Christian nationalist forces.

The drama around the Supreme Court has been playing out in the background for years at this point. It rises to mainstream attention occasionally – when Nazi-memorabilia-collecting billionaires or controversial flags enter the picture, for instance – but mostly drones on in the background, playing second or third fiddle to the electoral shenanigans beloved by cable news networks, rarely receiving a sustained limelight of its own.

Meanwhile, the main action of the drama has increasingly turned to the preservation of the republic. As we head into the 2024 Presidential election, 82% of American voters report being concerned about the state of American democracy – and understandably so. Between the relentless spread of disinformation about the 2020 election and the violent attempt to overturn it, voters’ apprehension about the state of American democracy is reasonable. According to the same poll, 67% of voters believe that the results of the 2024 election will be “very” or “extremely” important for the future of democracy in America. And though they may very well be right about that, they appear to have all but forgotten the other threat. The one hanging on the backdrop.

By keeping our focus on the main action, assuming the threat must come from there, we have taken our eyes off the gun on the wall. If the end of the republic is on its way, it might not be an event which begins in November. It might be an event which began eight years ago, on a ranch in Presidio County, Texas.

The beginning of the end of the republic may have come in 2016, but it was not on November 8th. It was on February 13th, when Antonin Scalia suffered a complete cessation of blood flow to the myocardium and died. Though we have learned in the intervening years that a number of Supreme Court Justices were already mired in corruption by the time of Scalia’s death, it was his death – and what followed – which set one of the nation’s three co-equal branches of government on a trajectory to being a millstone around our necks.

You probably remember most of what happened next: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell held the vacancy caused by Scalia’s death open for an unprecedented amount of time, taking the long bet that a Republican would win the Presidency and have the opportunity to appoint Scalia’s replacement. The gamble paid off: Donald Trump won, then appointed Colorado-based jurist Neil Gorsuch to Scalia’s seat. Then there was the Kavanaugh fiasco. By the time Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg predictably died, only to be replaced by Amy Coney Barrett, her spiritual inverse – a woman who believes women have too many rights – most Americans were too numb to take much notice. 

For many, that numbness has remained. Activists and active voters who were, understandably, defeated and deflated by Kavanaugh’s confirmation, have refocused their ire on Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans. Congressional Democrats, likewise defeated, have turned their attention to anything and everything except for reforming an institution which Congress has already reformed no fewer than six times in its history, enabling the emergence of a complete vacuum of accountability.

In that vacuum, things have gotten worse. In the past several years, conservative members of the court have been caught in scandal after scandal, facing endless ethics issues and allegations of rulings guided not by impartial observation of the law but by personal political sympathies. A brief refresher:

  • In early 2022, it was revealed that Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife, Ginni Thomas, had been involved in planning the January 6, 2021 Stop the Steal rally which escalated into a deadly insurrection. Those revelations were accompanied by the release of emails and text messages which detailed Ginni Thomas’ involvement in that day’s events, and revealed her own personal belief in a number of conspiracy theories regarding the 2020 presidential election being “stolen” from Donald Trump (it was not). Due to the conflict of interest presented by his wife’s involvement, Justice Thomas was asked to recuse himself from any cases involving the events of the January 6 insurrection. He declined to do so.
  • In January 2023, the New York Times reported that Jane Sullivan Roberts, wife of Chief Justice John Roberts, had been paid millions of dollars by law firms with business before the Supreme Court, ostensibly for her professional services as a legal recruiter. Critics decried the arrangement as an obvious conflict of interest for Roberts.
  • In April 2023, Politico revealed that Justice Neil Gorsuch sold 40 acres of property in the mountains near Granby, CO just nine days after his confirmation as a Supreme Court Justice. Gorsuch had tried unsuccessfully to sell the land for two years. Nine days after his confirmation, the property was purchased by the chief executive for Greenberg Traurig – a law firm which frequently has cases before the Supreme Court. When Gorsuch reported the sale, he conspicuously left the name of the buyer blank. Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-IL) responded to the scandal with a statement which said that “the need for Supreme Court ethics reform is clear,” then proceeded to take no action to reform the Supreme Court’s ethics.
  • In June 2023, ProPublica reported that conservative Justice Samuel Alito also received – and failed to disclose – a private plane flight to Alaska from billionaire Paul Singer, whose hedge fund was then engaged in litigation which wound up in front of the Supreme Court. Alito sided with Singer in the ultimate decision.

In the eight years since Scalia died on that Texas ranch, the Supreme Court has revealed itself not only as a deeply flawed arbiter of the law, but as a lawless entity in its own right; an entity for sale to the highest bidder, and with no real allegiance to impartiality. Given the enormous influence the Court exerts over the lives of Americans, one would expect addressing the rot at its core to be a national priority – but it’s not.

Only one governmental body has any real control over the Supreme Court: Congress, especially the Senate, which can alter the size and composition of the Court, and has done so in the past. The Constitution does not assign a specific number of members to the Court. Congress also has the ability – and, one could argue, the responsibility – to remove Justices from the Court via impeachment and trial. The Constitution does not say that Justices get to serve “for life.” It says Justices may serve “during good behavior.” 

In response to this raft of scandals and intrigues, the Democratic majority in the Senate has done nothing. They have silenced the alarm bells and gone on about their lives.

Simultaneous to the cavalcade of scandals, the Court’s 6-3 conservative majority raised eyebrows with its seeming eagerness to abandon precedent (goodbye, Roe) and employ rogue jurisprudence to enshrine a new status quo in American law. A number of scholars and critics have expressed concern about the Court majority’s embrace of Christian nationalism, and have argued that the Court is consciously granting the Christian nationalist movement legal legitimacy. Now, two new scandals emerging around conservative Justice Samuel Alito are causing those muted klaxons to light up anew, this time about the extent to which the Christian nationalist movement has infiltrated the court. Or, put another way, about which members of the court are already willing and knowing participants in that movement.

Last month, reporters at the Washington Post revealed that Justice Alito’s Fairfax, Virginia home hoisted an upside-down American flag – a symbol of distress which was adopted early on by the Stop the Steal movement and seen in the crowd on January 6 – in January 2021, just weeks after the insurrection. Though Justice Alito attempted to frame the flying of the flag as a decision made by his wife as part of a neighborhood dispute, Martha-Ann Alito told a Post reporter that the flag was, indeed, a symbol of distress. Observers were quick to note the parallels with Ginni Thomas: the wife of another member of the conservative SCOTUS majority who had also fallen into conspiracism around the events of the 2020 election. 

An Appeal to Heaven flag flies at a Ron Hanks MAGA rally in Grand Junction, June 1, 2024.

The following week, it was reported that Martha-Ann Alito had flown yet another controversial flag – this one without much plausible deniability as to its meaning. When the New York Times reported that the Alitos had flown the Appeal to Heaven flag at their beach house for several months last year, the Justice’s conservative defenders were quick to point out that it’s a symbol which dates back to the American Revolution. But the defense does not hold water: as Dr. Matthew D. Taylor’s research has shown, the flag was virtually unknown for 200+ years of American history until 2013, when a radical leader in the Christian nationalist movement launched a campaign to encourage Christian conservatives to adopt it. That leader was a man named Dutch Sheets, and he encouraged the adoption of the flag as “a prophetic sign of another revolution that would spiritually redeem America from liberal tyranny.”

In both purpose and function, if not in ancient origin, the Appeal To Heaven flag is the flag of American Christian nationalism. It was revived from the trash heap of history for that purpose. That it was displayed – for months – by a sitting Supreme Court Justice is a distinct omen of the Court’s direction of travel.

Earlier this week, Justice Alito was caught on a secret audio recording agreeing with the sentiment that “we need to return our country to a place of godliness” and expressing his unwillingness to compromise with the political left: defining beliefs of the Christian nationalist movement.

But the problem is not just Samuel Alito. The problem is not even confined to the Supreme Court. The problem, as I see it, is that there is a powerful, growing movement looking to erode American democracy – a movement led by people explicit about their desires to take over and transform the nation – which, in addition to subsuming most of the conservative movement in the country, has infiltrated the highest court in the land, and no one with the power to do anything about it has shown any inclination to do anything about it.

The problem is that we could defeat Donald Trump and still lose the republic when that gun goes off.

The great gift and curse of the liberal mind is the inexhaustible ability to believe that there is still a way out, no matter how bad a problem may have gotten. It is a trait which has led to great striving and great accomplishment as often as it has led to wasted efforts and strategic blindness. It’s why we convince ourselves that we’re just one piece of legislation away from stopping the scourge of gun violence – because it would hurt too badly to acknowledge we lost that fight years ago. It’s why we imagine we can “fix the border” without ever fixing our foreign policy. It’s why we believe that constant compromise in one direction will someday magically transport us in the other.

It’s why millions of my fellows on the left of the aisle have convinced themselves that defeating Donald Trump will end the threat to democracy. It will not. In fact, the threat to democracy has already metastasized so deep into the nation’s vital organs that it may not even be possible to defeat Donald Trump. Not only are there endless opportunities for election-related challenges to be swung towards Trump by a favorable Supreme Court in the months between now and November, but the Court could decide the election itself. It’s only been 23 years since the last time the Supreme Court decided the outcome of a presidential election. It might only be a few months until the next time. 

Even as millions of voters awaken to the reality that American democracy is in peril, there is a marked tendency to simplify that peril into a threat posed by one man; a threat which can be vanquished by stopping one man. It’s imperative that we realize that it’s not that simple, before it’s too late.

Defeating Donald Trump is a vital part of preserving American democracy – preventing the implementation of Project 2025, which requires control of the executive branch, is a good enough reason to vote against him – but it’s not the only part. It’s not even the most important part. One term in the White House, destructive as it may be, lasts four years. The conservative court majority could last decades.

But it does not have to. If we survive this presidential election, and its aftermath, intact, if Democrats gain or retain any amount of power in Washington, D.C. after January 2025, they must take action to reform the Court. It must be their first priority, their highest priority, their only priority, if that is what it takes. And we, as an electorate, must demand it. Spurring Congress into action is hard work. It will require sustained focus and insistence from millions of people. It will require our eye to remain on the ball – or on the gun on the wall, as the case may be. 

We must not accept excuses or reasons why not. If they say it does not poll well at first, talk about it until it does. If they say they think pushing a court reform bill through Congress will cost them swing seats on the margins in the following midterms, tell them that’s the price of saving the republic. Tell them to do what needs to be done: take the gun down from the wall and unload it, before it goes off.

Because, if it goes off, it could change everything in an instant. Forever.