Donald Trump is promising a second presidency that would be an aberration in American history.
The former and possibly future commander in chief aspires to strongman power if he wins back the White House next year. He believes his authority would be absolute. He wants vengeance against his political enemies. He’d pose the greatest challenge to the rule of law and the Constitution in modern times, seek to crush press freedoms and gut the machinery of government.
None of this is speculation. Trump is saying and showing exactly what he would do in his rallies, social media posts, interviews, lawyers’ filings and even appearances in court that he uses to stigmatize the legal system. And Trump’s ambitions should be taken seriously because one year from the election, President Joe Biden’s reelection hopes are far from secure.
Take Trump’s speech in New Hampshire on Saturday, when he chose to rip at national divides rather than foster unity on Veterans Day.
“We will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country,” Trump said, using the demagogic technique of dehumanizing his opponents. He warned that “the real threat is not from the radical right. The real threat is from the radical left, and it’s growing every day.”
At a time of global unrest, as wars rage in Gaza and Ukraine and with US power challenged by foes like China and Russia, Trump also resorted to a classic authoritarian trope. “The threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous and grave than the threat from within,” he said.
Trump, who often praises the world’s tyrants, is using another move from their playbook – venomously targeting outsiders and immigrants with racially charged imagery. This recalls the language of White supremacy and political violence that is increasingly entwined with his brand. He told the right-leaning National Pulse website that undocumented migrants are “poisoning the blood of our country. It’s so bad, and people are coming in with disease.”
Trump’s chilling rhetoric — and use of “vermin” in particular — set off fresh comparisons between the ex-president and the fascist dictators of the 1940s in some media outlets and even from Biden’s camp. “Donald Trump parroted the autocratic language of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, two dictators many US veterans gave their lives fighting, in order to defeat exactly the kind of un-American ideas Trump now champions,” campaign spokesman Ammar Moussa said in a statement.
It’s true that Trump has adopted the rhetorical strategies of some of the most reviled dictators. He dehumanizes his political enemies, has discredited the legal, political and electoral system, has demonized the press and has targeted vulnerable members of society, minorities and immigrants, as scapegoats. Like other strongmen, he presents himself as a persecuted savior of a disenfranchised sector of society that sees its traditional values and mores as under attack. Yet comparisons with fascists of the 1940s also risk caricaturing America’s current political reality that is not comparable to Europe before World War II.
The US legal system that is even now seeking to hold Trump to account would likely be a strong impediment if he’s elected president. And for all the speculation about how Trump would seek to use the military to enforce repression, America has an apolitical officer corps and constitutional and legal guarantees. Trump’s radical goals were often curtailed or moderated by the courts in his first time on issues like immigration. But if he’s reelected he’ll try to restore or expand some of his most populist policies, on immigration for instance. New plans are being drawn up to round up undocumented immigrants and to put them in detention camps to await deportation, a source familiar with the details told CNN. The story was first reported by the New York Times.
With questionable historic comparisons, Trump’s critics only fuel his bid to provoke the outrage that is essential to his political appeal. And inflammatory descriptions of Trump’s movement risk demeaning his supporters whose votes count the same as everyone else’s and who have their own legitimate hopes and grievances.
Even so, what Trump is saying can still be horrifying.
A unique modern demagogue
American political lore is scattered with strongmen, demagogues and extremists. Yet none has been as close to putting into practice an agenda that would so call into question the foundational principles of American democracy. Trump is not some gadfly on the political fringe. He’s the most likely Republican nominee who is trouncing his party two months before the first voters weigh in. Far from being repelled by Trump’s authoritarianism, millions of Republican voters are embracing it and believe his false claims that he won the last election and that his multiple looming criminal trials are a weaponized form of persecution to keep him from power.
Biden’s challenges broaden the implications of Trump’s extremism.
A CNN/SSRS poll released last week showed Trump narrowly leading Biden in a hypothetical rematch, with only a quarter of the country saying the president has the stamina and sharpness to be president — and only half of Democrats. The country is in a bitter mood as high prices squeeze families.
Biden’s campaign and top Democrats might be correct that as soon as voters see the direct comparison between the current president and the chaotic authoritarianism of the previous one their choice will be easy. Others dismiss panic over Trump because the last two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, needed a political rebound to win their second terms, and there’s still a year until the election. But the stakes are far higher in 2024. Republican nominees Bob Dole in 1996 and Mitt Romney in 2012 were institutionalists who respected the Constitution and would have likely practiced presidential self-restraint that is vital to the proper functioning of the political system. Trump, on the other hand, would be certain to put those principles to their most extreme stress test yet.
Trump defenders often decry alarmist accounts of his words by saying he’s taken too literally and that much of his heat is made in jest for his supporters. But this is less convincing after Trump became the first president to deny that he lost an election in which he was rejected by voters and after his call for supporters to “fight like hell” on January 6, 2021, was followed by an invasion of the US Capitol.
Trump hasn’t tempered his violent rhetoric since. His verbal and social media assaults on judges, their staff and prosecutors drip with incitement and have provoked fears for the security of his targets.
And the Republican Party isn’t reining him in. Presidential candidates who criticized Trump’s anti-constitutional rants like former Vice President Mike Pence have either folded their campaigns or are, like former Govs. Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson, nowhere in the polls. More prominent GOP hopefuls like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and ex-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley have only criticized Trump obliquely, understanding there’s no market in the modern Republican Party for confronting Trump’s lawlessness. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who was offering a more optimistic GOP message, ended his campaign on Sunday.
If, by this time next year, Trump is again president-elect, no one can say they are shocked at the kind of administration he may unleash.
Still, Trump’s campaign on Monday downplayed recent reports about plans for a second term that have referenced detailed blueprints drawn up by conservative think tanks for right-wing rule, including on how he’d weaponize the Justice Department and hollow out the civil service. Campaign managers Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita issued a statement saying that such reports were “purely speculative and theoretical” and that no outside groups had authority to speak on behalf of the ex-president.
What Trump says he would do
But the ex-president is leaving no doubt about his desire to use a second White House spell to exact revenge against his political enemies and legal authorities.
“I am your justice. … I am your retribution,” Trump told supporters at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March, creating a narrative that he was being prosecuted because he sought to shield his supporters from government persecution themselves.
Trump is making clear that he’d use the Justice Department to victimize his enemies. For instance, he told Univision in an interview last week that the Biden administration had “released the genie out of the box.” In New Hampshire on Saturday, he warned, “They did it to me, now I can do it to them.”
The ex-president’s challenge to the Constitution is already evident in his effort to overturn his 2020 election loss and the events that led up to the Capitol insurrection. But almost every week, Trump adds new evidence on how he’d threaten constitutional order and the rule of law. In a Truth Social post in September, he complained that then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who’s now retired, was guilty of a “treasonous act” by speaking to a Chinese general in the final days of his administration that was “so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH!” Accusing political opponents of treason is another tactic of tyrants. Trump used it again recently, this time foreshadowing possible second-term efforts to suppress press freedoms. In a September Truth Social post he warned that NBC News and MSNBC should be investigated for “Country Threatening Treason.”
Trump has long believed, erroneously, that presidents have unlimited power, which can be seen in his behavior after the last election. Such a view would no doubt inform any second term. Last December, he called for the termination of the Constitution so he could be restored to office. And while still president, Trump repeatedly claimed that Article II of the Constitution gave him the power to do “anything I wanted.”
The argument that, as president, Trump was entitled to exercise power just as he wanted and should be immune from accountability is laced through many of the legal filings in the run-up to his criminal trials. Last month, for instance, the ex-president and his lawyers asked the judge who will preside over next year’s federal election interference trial to throw out the charges against him on the grounds of presidential immunity. “Breaking 234 years of precedent, the incumbent administration has charged President Trump for acts … at the heart of his official responsibilities as President,” read the filing, which also argued that presidential immunity stretched to post-presidential life.
The idea that using executive authority to seek to overturn an election is a legitimate use of such power is highly contentious and would potentially destroy the bedrock principle that everyone in America, even presidents, is equal under the law. Special counsel Jack Smith’s team replied to Trump’s request last month, arguing – in language that could apply to much of the ex-president’s political actions and rhetoric – that he was an historic outlier.
“In staking his claim, he purports to draw a parallel between his fraudulent efforts to overturn the results of an election that he lost and the likes of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and George Washington’s Farewell Address,” Smith wrote. “These things are not alike.”