How bad could it be?
In recent weeks, I’ve had several people tell me they are not overly worried about Donald Trump possibly returning to power, noting the republic survived his four years in the White House. These are folks who do not want to vote to reelect President Joe Biden because of his support of Israel’s brutal bombing campaign in Gaza and others who just feel meh about the current occupant of the White House. It’s clear they have not been paying attention, for Trump himself and others have been outlining the alarming abuses of power that could ensue if he gets another shot at this. These projections ought to frighten anyone who gives a damn about American democracy. Moreover, it’s not hard to imagine potential Trump excesses that go beyond those he has already teased.
Let’s start with Trump’s own forecasts. He has promised the MAGA right that he will be its force of vengeance against liberals, Democrats, the supposed Deep State, the media, and other political opponents, whom he routinely casts as depraved commies and radicals out to destroy him and America (particularly its white suburban neighborhoods). “I am your retribution,” he proclaimed at a gathering of right-wingers in March. At a Fox News event on Wednesday night, he claimed that if he wins the 2024 election, “I’m not going to have time for retribution.” Yet Trump, who in September suggested that the top US military commander should be executed, has repeatedly indicated that he’s out for revenge against all his detractors (real and imagined) and that he will consider using the Justice Department to prosecute his enemies. In fact, a group of conservative think tanks under the auspices of what they benignly call Project 2025, has been drawing up plans for how Trump could do this.
Trump has also half-jokingly said that he will only be a “dictator” on “day one,” in order to implement key policy objectives. But in federal court this week, his lawyers, trying to dismiss special counsel Jack Smith’s election interference case against Trump, sort of made this official. They presented their boss’ view that once back in the White House he would be able to order a SEAL team to assassinate a political rival and be beyond criminal prosecution, unless he were convicted in an impeachment proceeding. That legal argument was absurd, but the fact that Trump would allow his attorneys to advance this contention ought to be a DEFCON-1 warning. (It was reminiscent of his worrisome 2016 quip that he could shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue and “wouldn’t lose any voters.”)
So Trump 45 envisions a possible Trump 47 as a force unrestrained by rules or laws. He would literally be above the law—able to do anything, as long as 35 senators do not convict.
In a filing submitted on December 30 that challenged Trump’s over-the-top position on presidential immunity, Smith outlined several nightmarish scenarios that could occur with a chief executive who has such power: “a President who instructs the FBI Director to plant incriminating evidence on a political enemy; a President who orders the National Guard to murder his most prominent critics; or a President who sells nuclear secrets to a foreign adversary.”
Smith added that under Trump’s framework, “the Nation would have no recourse to deter a President from inciting his supporters during a State of the Union address to kill opposing lawmakers—thereby hamstringing any impeachment proceeding—to ensure that he remains in office unlawfully.”
There are many less dramatic—but still troubling—abuses that can be easily imagined transpiring during a second Trump term. We only need to look back to Richard Nixon for two obvious examples. Trump could order the Internal Revenue Service to pursue his critics, demanding that the agency audit his foes and challenge the tax-exempt status of organizations, such as think tanks, policy advocacy shops, and media outlets, that oppose or denigrate his actions. (One of the charges in the House impeachment resolution against Nixon was that he attempted to weaponize the IRS against his enemies.) And Trump has repeatedly threatened to go after the broadcast licenses of media companies that he considers antagonistic to him—a move Nixon allies tried with the Washington Post during Watergate. (And don’t forget Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia.)
Trump and his henchmen foresee a second term in which he would have ironclad control of the federal bureaucracy. The Project 2025 gang has been cooking up a scheme that would allow the White House to replace tens of thousands of federal civil servants with Trump devotees. Part of that process includes devising a questionnaire for thousands of appointees that is designed to assess how devoted they are to Trump. In essence, Trumpists are aiming to impose a pro-Trump loyalty throughout the government. Under this plan, workers and officials at various agencies who are not Trump supporters—perhaps those who do not contribute to his campaign—could be summarily dismissed. Picture the atmosphere of fear—and snitching—that would infect the federal government. Might there be anonymous tip lines set up so employees could rat out a colleague who muttered something derogatory about the commander in chief? This would create an environment of intimidation and, no doubt, result in a brain drain across the executive branch.
With such control, Trump could order agencies beyond the Justice Department to investigate his opponents or shut down probes that target his pals. If a foreign government he favors—maybe one with which he has done business—is illegally lobbying in the United States, he could nix an inquiry. He could instruct EPA attorneys not to follow environmental laws. He could force the SEC to cut his buddies a break. He could demand agencies hand out contracts to his political supporters or withhold them from critics. (Recall how he threatened during the Covid pandemic to not send ventilators to states led by governors who criticized him.) He could tell officials in government agencies to suppress or alter research and reports and to phony up statistics to make his administration look great. Who knows what covert stuff he would order the CIA and the Defense Department to do? And if a career employee does not do Trump’s bidding—within this Trump World Order—he or she could be fired.
Some of these actions might well be illegal—not just for Trump, but for the government worker who follow his orders. Here’s the kicker: Trump could pardon any offender. At the end of his presidency, he exhibited his willingness to pardon or commute the sentences of his felonious cronies (such as Roger Stone, Steve Bannon, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and others). In a second term, if any of his underlings get nabbed for breaking the law on Trump’s say-so, they could be handed a get-out-of-jail-free card by the boss. Not only would Trump (in his mind) be above the law, so would his lieutenants and foot soldiers.
Of course, Congress and the courts could try to counter Trump’s abuses of power. But a president does possess much leeway in how he or she runs the government. And there’s no telling how one or multiple constitutional crises will play out. Trump has already called for suspending the Constitution (so he could return to power) and declared that he would use the Insurrection Act to turn the military into a domestic police force at his command. He has vowed to pardon the January 6 rioters—he now calls them “hostages”—a move signaling his support for political violence. This week, he threatened “bedlam” if he loses the 2024 election, and he did not respond when a reporter asked if he would urge his supporters to eschew violence. During the Fox News event, he agreed with host Bret Baier that political violence is not acceptable, but he insisted that when he was president there was “very little of it”—obviously downplaying the seditious January 6 riot he incited.
Given what Trump has already told us, we can expect Tump II to be a demagogic president bent on revenge who believes that there are no constraints on his power and that he need not abide by the law. Putting aside the policies he says he intends to pursue—more tax cuts for the well-off, removing health care insurance from tens of millions, ending climate change action, bombing Mexican cartels, restoring a Muslim travel ban, deporting millions—Trump has made it clear he yearns to be a ruthless autocrat. So how bad could it be? With Trump, we have learned, the bottom has no bottom. Our imaginations cannot conceive all the anti-democratic horrors that will likely occur. But to comprehend the depth of this immense threat, voters need only do one thing: listen to Trump and take him seriously.