Public opinions regarding former US president Donald Trump by now are virtually set in stone. Yet he has consistently proven still capable of shocking, if not surprising. The January 6 insurrection and his broader failed efforts to overturn the 2020 election are an obvious example. Another is his apparent purloining and retaining of classified government documents.
This element of surprise is also reflected in radical advance planning by the Trump campaign and allied groups for a second term, including an unprecedented ideological purge of the federal workforce. Few Americans have heard about this extraordinary agenda, which bears all the hallmarks of what political extremists typically attempt when seizing power. Supporters and critics agree that Mr Trump and camp were simply unprepared after his surprise 2016 victory and are determined to attempt a sweeping reconstruction of the American state from day one of any second chance.
A recent Associated Press-NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research poll found that the two words Americans most associate with Mr Biden are "old" and "confused", and with Mr Trump “corrupt” and "dishonest". It would appear the former president's criminal indictments have been taking their toll.
Mr Biden is indeed showing his age more than Mr Trump, who’s only three years his junior, and has at times appeared confused or said inexplicable things – although I know two people who are in no way connected to the administration, the Democratic Party or the political process, and have had lengthy meetings with him, in both cases in excess of one hour, discussing highly complex policy questions, and both highly credible sources insist he is well-informed, alert and sharp.
The negative views of Mr Trump among most Americans would hardly be enhanced by a detailed understanding of what his camp is planning. Not that he's making a secret of his intentions. On the contrary, Mr Trump has been regaling audiences with the vows that "I am your retribution", and "your justice". There’s little doubt whom he intends to target with such vengeance.
The Republican fixation on condemning Mr Biden's supposed "weaponisation" of the federal government and justice system to attack his presumed enemies is not only a fact-free defence of Mr Trump from federal indictments, but also a rather obvious and crude, although effective, characteristic piece of political projection. In the Trump era, Republicans have perfected the art of accusing their opponents of precisely what they are doing or intend to do.
Mr Trump has promised to investigate and prosecute the "Biden crime family", alleging that Mr Biden and his son made millions overseas by leveraging government roles (which his son has never had). There is no evidence Mr Biden did this despite intensive investigations by House Republicans, though his son evidently and disgracefully did try to profit from the family name. And, of course, Mr Trump and his immediate family – all of whom had official government positions despite nominal and ineffective rules against such nepotism – made that a virtual art form.
Moreover, hardline House Republicans appear to be making significant progress in coercing Speaker Kevin McCarthy to open impeachment hearings against Mr Biden, although potential charges have never been specified and are hard to imagine.
While all of that could be dismissed as simply politics, although not by any means as usual, plans by Trump-aligned groups such as the Heritage Foundation envision a huge purge of the federal workforce, dishonestly billed as "dismantling the deep state" (which does not exist in the US). It's also likely to be sold as a libertarian effort to "shrink the size of government", although the up to 50,000 civil servants facing ouster aren't going to be rendered redundant but instead replaced by sympathetic, and possibly often unqualified, ideologues from around the country.
The almost 1,000-page “Project 2025” campaign blueprint calls for an "army" of Trump-supporting hardliners from around the country to, as one of its architects, Paul Dans, puts it, "flood the zone [of the federal workforce] with conservatives". Following the example of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has mobilised the power of his state's government to attack secondary and higher education and major corporations such as Disney, this agenda is about taking over and, indeed, weaponising, the federal government and its vast administrative authority rather than shrinking it.
Nothing like this has ever been attempted or contemplated. Franklin Roosevelt, the 32nd US president, hugely expanded the size of the federal government to combat the depression and fight the Second World War, and he recruited mainly liberals to the new positions. And every president routinely replaces about 4,000 senior officials. But none has planned or attempted to purge tens of thousands of civil servants on ideological grounds.
This would be accomplished by attempting to revive Mr Trump's last-ditch 2020 executive order that created a new "Schedule F" category for federal workers, which Mr Biden immediately rescinded. It would allow any civil servant with even the most tenuous connection to policy formation and implementation to effectively be subject to instantaneous dismissal without cause.
The plans also range from the legally dubious such as deploying the military to suppress crime and dissent, to forcing politically correct and ideologically purified "patriotic education" on public schools and universities, and even an absurd proposal to create 10 new major "freedom cities" by government fiat. Mr Trump has even made it clear that he wants to use federal authority to insist on certain architectural styles in existing cities and ensure that schools and streets are named "not after communists but patriots". So much for smaller government.
Even a vast government is, of course, incapable of magically creating 10 large new American cities, and there are significant obstacles facing many of these alarming ideas. Even if "Schedule F" is implemented and legally upheld, a re-elected Mr Trump might find getting rid of thousands, much less tens of thousands, of qualified civil servants on ideological grounds isn't all that simple.
While his base, yearning for "retribution", might applaud a political purge, the rest of the country would surely react with shock and horror. Mr Trump isn't giving the swing voters who decide national elections any reason to come back to him after a decisive break in 2020 and, more dramatically, the 2022 midterms. The less most Americans hear about “Project 2025”, the better it will be for its authors, not to mention Mr Trump.