Why are so many US analysts warning a 2024 Trump presidency would be different?

The former president has always had an authoritarian streak, but the next election could be when it comes to fruition

Experts have called Trump's choice of language 'war rhetoric'. AP
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Over the past week, a small whirlwind of articles in the US media have sounded the same dire warning: that Donald Trump could easily be re-elected president next November and, if he is, he will attempt to establish the first-ever authoritarian regime in American history. Interestingly, these articles are all entirely based on the words of the candidate himself. Mr Trump is running on an explicit programme of authoritarianism, and, these analyses lament, the news media is not adequately communicating this to the public, instead indulging in and allowing a false sense of normality.

It is unclear why all of these articles appeared at essentially the same time. Whether by happenstance, collaboration or some deeper calculation buried within the arcane reckonings of polling and election campaigns, there has suddenly been an intentional or unintentional chorus of panic worthy of a town crier in Pompeii. And rightly so. This is legitimate alarm, not alarmism.

Yet it's not clear, precisely, who these articles are intended to reach, and what reaction they are hoping to provoke. Unquestionably Mr Trump now poses, in a way unlike in 2016 or 2020, a well-articulated and obvious authoritarian assault on the US constitutional order. Ringing the alarm bells, therefore, is an obvious task for civic-minded analysts, even though their work typically does not reach the general public.

The most dramatic and accomplished of these interventions are Robert Kagan's lengthy, thoughtful and unsparing essay in The Washington Post, titled "A Trump dictatorship is increasingly inevitable. We should stop pretending," along with a full issue of excellent Atlantic magazine essays devoted to the same theme. The Kagan headline is, predictably enough, a little more overwrought than the article. He does not forecast "a Trump dictatorship" as inevitable, but merely a distinct possibility which he assesses at approximately a 50/50 possibility.

Yet Mr Kagan painstakingly peels apart all of the practical steps required to translate a Trump electoral college victory into a growing and serious Trump personalised dictatorship in Washington. He, and all the others, note that Mr Trump's recent campaign speeches have been increasingly promising "retribution" against his real or perceived enemies, or those of his movement and his supporters. He makes no bones about his desire to weaponise the Justice Department and other arms of the federal law enforcement system, claiming that it has been already unfairly used against him, so why not? Still, all of the cases that have been brought against the former president are solidly based in fact and law and are not political, directed by the White House, or in any sense representative of a political vendetta. But to many Americans, it may sound like equitable payback.

Ringing the alarm bells is an obvious task for civic-minded analysts

Mr Trump has always specialised in casting himself as a persecuted victim, besieged on all sides by political hacks and "weaponised” courts and law enforcement. So it would be easy enough for him to vow to do the same thing to his own enemies as soon as possible. "The gloves are off," he has declared in several recent speeches, vowing to persecute perceived enemies, especially from within his first administration, including his former attorneys general Jeff Sessions and William Barr, former Chief of Staff John Kelly and former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Gen Mark Milley, as well as countless Democrats, particularly President Joe Biden and possibly his family.

Indeed, the Democrats in general, he insists, are “a sick nest of people that needs to be cleaned out, and cleaned out immediately”, without specifying what that would specifically entail. He has also taken to calling his political opponents "vermin", an authoritarian buzzword that has been used throughout history to persecute and even massacre opponents. This language has been identified by numerous experts as "war rhetoric", historically reserved by US presidents for opponents overseas. This is the first time, they attest, that a national leader has tried to turn such rage and hatred inward.

The scholars and commentators sounding the alarm bells all note that, during his first term after his surprise (even to himself) victory in 2016, Mr Trump and his acolytes did not know how to manage the power of government effectively or transform it to match their authoritarian sensibilities. This time, Americans are being loudly warned, Mr Trump comes with a detailed plan, which I have outlined previously in these pages, to arbitrarily dismiss vast numbers of experienced, professional civil servants and replace them with thousands of ideologues and personal loyalists gathered from around the country.

The Trump campaign's Project 2025 has developed an ideological purity questionnaire to be filled out by any citizen seeking employment in the next Donald Trump administration that is designed to promote his followers and weed out all who do not march in lockstep. This is a unique effort in US history, which has never before seen a calculated effort to fill the federal bureaucracy with ideologues at the expense of actual professionals.

What Mr Kagan and the others are pointing out is that the supposed "guardrails" both in the Republican Party and in the federal government often barely or even failed to restrain Mr Trump the first time around, when he was essentially clueless, and they are likely to be even more powerless next time.

But one of the most interesting questions is, again, who are these latter-day Cassandras trying to reach? They don't have real access to the mainstream public, although there is almost always reference in their articles to the fact that most Americans have no idea their constitutional system is in the crosshairs of a hyper-empowered would-be dictator, or that a horrifying percentage of those voters who do understand that warmly welcome it.

The effort, instead, is plainly to reach the rest of the political press and urge them to start foregrounding this deeper and more painful truth in everyday news coverage, and especially to stop pretending that everything is normal. All these analyses cite the political media's (read television news’) failure to sufficiently and forcefully communicate that something deeply abnormal and dangerous is afoot. Instead, most political reportage still seems to be limping along with a both-sides and horserace version of reality that fails to adequately acknowledge that one of the two major parties in the US has become a personality cult led by someone determined to impose a kind of American authoritarianism.

Readers of this column, however, were warned back in October 2016 that "this is American fascism”. The threat to US democracy posed by Mr Trump and his movement has only grown darker and more menacing over the past eight years.

Published: December 04, 2023, 4:15 PM