The Authoritarianism Is The Point
Why is the Trump campaign so loudmouthed about its autocratic policy plans?
If elected next year, Donald Trump’s plans for his second term are not a secret. Indeed, for the past six months or so there has been story after story about what he intended to do come January 20, 2025. Back in July the New York Times’ Charlie Savage, Maggie Haberman, and Jonathan Swan wrote, “Trump and Allies Forge Plans to Increase Presidential Power in 2025,” a piece that caused enough ripples for the hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World to comment on it.
At the time I noted how this story was different from a lot of the coverage of Trump’s first term, because the sources were not anonymous:
The piece quotes liberally from Trump loyalists like John McEntee, Russell Vought, Steven Cheung, and Heritage Foundation president Kevin Roberts. Indeed, what is noteworthy is not that Trump wants to enhance presidential power — I was warning about this issue more than a year ago — but the degree to which the vestiges of the GOP establishment, like Heritage, have signed onto the enterprise.
Since July, there has been a cycle of stories like that one. Ten days ago the Times ran another Savage, Swan, and Haberman special, “If Trump Wins, His Allies Want Lawyers Who Will Bless a More Radical Agenda,” with on-the-record quotes from former Trump officials Russell Vought, Mike Davis, and Mark Paoletta about how Federalist Society lawyers are now too squishy for him. It included this paragraph:
People close to the former president say they are seeking out a different type of lawyer committed to his “America First” ideology and willing to endure the personal and professional risks of association with Mr. Trump. They want lawyers in federal agencies and in the White House who are willing to use theories that more establishment lawyers would reject to advance his cause. This new mind-set matches Mr. Trump’s declaration that he is waging a “final battle” against demonic “enemies” populating a “deep state” within the government that is bent on destroying America.
Needless to say this kind of batshit-autocratic perspective caused some consternation among those folks who think, you know, the rule of law is a good idea.
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Last weekend the Washington Post’s Isaac Arnsdorf, Josh Dawsey, and Devlin Barrett wrote, “Trump and allies plot revenge, Justice Department control in a second term,” It was a disturbing read!
Donald Trump and his allies have begun mapping out specific plans for using the federal government to punish critics and opponents should he win a second term, with the former president naming individuals he wants to investigate or prosecute and his associates drafting plans to potentially invoke the Insurrection Act on his first day in office to allow him to deploy the military against civil demonstrations.
In private, Trump has told advisers and friends in recent months that he wants the Justice Department to investigate onetime officials and allies who have become critical of his time in office, including his former chief of staff, John F. Kelly, and former attorney general William P. Barr, as well as his ex-attorney Ty Cobb and former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley, according to people who have talked to him, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. Trump has also talked of prosecuting officials at the FBI and Justice Department, a person familiar with the matter said.
In public, Trump has vowed to appoint a special prosecutor to “go after” President Biden and his family. The former president has frequently made corruption accusations against them that are not supported by available evidence.
To facilitate Trump’s ability to direct Justice Department actions, his associates have been drafting plans to dispense with 50 years of policy and practice intended to shield criminal prosecutions from political considerations….
Much of the planning for a second term has been unofficially outsourced to a partnership of right-wing think tanks in Washington. Dubbed “Project 2025,” the group is developing a plan, to include draft executive orders, that would deploy the military domestically under the Insurrection Act, according to a person involved in those conversations and internal communications reviewed by The Washington Post. The law, last updated in 1871, authorizes the president to deploy the military for domestic law enforcement.
The piece quotes former Trump DOJ official/aspiring coup-plotter/indicted in Georgia Jeffrey Clark saying on the record, “I think that the supposedly independent DOJ is an illusion” and Project 2025 director Paul Dans saying, “We are grateful for Jeff Clark’s willingness to share his insights from having worked at high levels in government during trying times.”
The Post noted, “Critics have called such ideas dangerous and unconstitutional,” and one of those critics is Politico’s Jack Shafer. Having read him for years, Shafer’s brand on this subject has been a guy who does not think much of Trump but also did not think all that much of the hysteria surrounding Trump during his first term. The WaPo story shook him, though:
This new round of bombast and threats is not just a matter of Trump being Trump. What’s different this time is that Trump’s building an extra-legal foundation of declarations and appointments to make his 2017-2021 aspirations, which sounded like off-the-cuff ravings at the time, come true. Recall the scary preview of his ambitions he gave in a March 2023 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, in which he promised his “wronged and betrayed” supporters that he would be their “justice” and “retribution.”
However critically you think of the team Trump assembled in his first administration, he could never convince them to conduct prosecutions of either his political opponents or officials who defied him. The next time around we won’t be lucky if he succeeds in peppering the Department of Justice and other agencies with his yes-men. Can he get away with it? It’s not illegal for a president to instruct an attorney general on how to do his job as long as those instructions are consistent with the law. But lining up presidential critics for prosecution, as Trump appears ready to do, makes a mockery of that consistency — especially when no laws appear to have been broken!
By putting us on notice that he plans to punish his past foes — and presumably his future foes — with the justice system, Trump has given us a head start in blocking his future lawlessness. These promises — call them campaign promises — deserve full scrutiny from the press.
That takes us to the latest Savage, Haberman, and Swan special,1 which was posted today: “Sweeping Raids, Giant Camps and Mass Deportations: Inside Trump’s 2025 Immigration Plans.” Does it warn of bad, brutal stuff happening if Trump is elected? Yes, yes it does:
Former President Donald J. Trump is planning an extreme expansion of his first-term crackdown on immigration if he returns to power in 2025 — including preparing to round up undocumented people already in the United States on a vast scale and detain them in sprawling camps while they wait to be expelled….
He plans to scour the country for unauthorized immigrants and deport people by the millions per year.
To help speed mass deportations, Mr. Trump is preparing an enormous expansion of a form of removal that does not require due process hearings. To help Immigration and Customs Enforcement carry out sweeping raids, he plans to reassign other federal agents and deputize local police officers and National Guard soldiers voluntarily contributed by Republican-run states.
To ease the strain on ICE detention facilities, Mr. Trump wants to build huge camps to detain people while their cases are processed and they await deportation flights. And to get around any refusal by Congress to appropriate the necessary funds, Mr. Trump would redirect money in the military budget, as he did in his first term to spend more on a border wall than Congress had authorized….
And Mr. Trump would try to end birthright citizenship for babies born in the United States to undocumented parents — by proclaiming that policy to be the new position of the government and by ordering agencies to cease issuing citizenship-affirming documents like Social Security cards and passports to them.
Again, what’s striking is that Trump campaign officials are willing and eager to go on the record about their plans:
In interviews with The New York Times, several Trump advisers gave the most expansive and detailed description yet of Mr. Trump’s immigration agenda in a potential second term. In particular, Mr. Trump’s campaign referred questions for this article to Stephen Miller, an architect of Mr. Trump’s first-term immigration policies who remains close to him and is expected to serve in a senior role in a second administration.
All of the steps Trump advisers are preparing, Mr. Miller contended in a wide-ranging interview, rely on existing statutes; while the Trump team would likely seek a revamp of immigration laws, the plan was crafted to need no new substantive legislation. And while acknowledging that lawsuits would arise to challenge nearly every one of them, he portrayed the Trump team’s daunting array of tactics as a “blitz” designed to overwhelm immigrant-rights lawyers.
“Any activists who doubt President Trump’s resolve in the slightest are making a drastic error: Trump will unleash the vast arsenal of federal powers to implement the most spectacular migration crackdown,” Mr. Miller said, adding, “The immigration legal activists won’t know what’s happening.”
Just to get this out of the way: all of the ideas suggested in these stories are horrific. Trump was a God-awful president the first time around, but this agenda would make that term look tame by comparison. If even a fraction of the plans listed above were enacted it would transform the country into a garrison state without much resembling the rule of law. Furthermore, if Trump wins next year — and I’ll just link to the polls freaking out everyone here — it’s extremely likely that he would do so with MAGA-friendly majorities in both houses of Congress as well as a 6-3 conservative majority in the Supreme Court. He would both be able to implement his plans and enact even more draconian laws in his second term.
First, however, Trump has to get elected. I have my doubts about whether that will happen, and the recent polling does not rattle that sentiment too much. What is striking to me is that the first-term versions of all the policies listed above generated considerable legal, political, and public backlash. Advertising these policies seems like a great way of mobilizing Trump’s opponents.
So it’s worth asking: why is the Trump campaign being so loud about all of these plans?
I think it goes back to Adam Serwer’s 2018 observation about the deliberate cruelty of Trump’s first term:
It is not just that the perpetrators of this cruelty enjoy it; it is that they enjoy it with one another. Their shared laughter at the suffering of others is an adhesive that binds them to one another, and to Trump….
Taking joy in that suffering is more human than most would like to admit. Somewhere on the wide spectrum between adolescent teasing and the smiling white men in the lynching photographs are the Trump supporters whose community is built by rejoicing in the anguish of those they see as unlike them, who have found in their shared cruelty an answer to the loneliness and atomization of modern life….
Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.
The Republican Party in the Trump era has done pretty horribly at the ballot box. Republicans lost the House in 2018, the Senate in 2020, badly underperformed in 2022, and just got pasted again in 2023. For Trump to win, he needs to mobilize and broaden his base more than ever before. One way might try to do that is releasing plans that freak out the very people that his base wants to see freaked out.
This time around, however, those GOP losses also help to increase the number of Trump supporters who have soured on the very idea of elections and the rule of law. As the Washington Post’s Philip Bump noted yesterday, “For many Americans, a turn toward authoritarianism isn’t seen as a negative. Many Americans support that idea…. the reason Trump is doing well in the polls at the moment is not simply that people are unfamiliar with his stated authoritarian intentions should he be inaugurated in January 2025. It’s also that a lot of people support those intentions.”
Trump and his campaign believe they have cowed the rest of the GOP into submission. Without any need to moderate his policies to win those Republicans, he can go all out to mobilize his base. In antagonizing his enemies, Trump can show his supporters that he can still drive their enemies crazy. They further conclude that if the libs are worried, that just means Trump is on the right track.
To be clear, I don’t think this will work in the end — Trump always mobilizes his opponents at least as much as his own supporters. The key word in that last sentence, however, is “think.” I don’t know for sure. Which means for the next year, the extremely wide variance of Trump outcomes will be stressing me out.
Side note: I am kinda curious about how the Times rotates the order of their names in the story.