The Contract With Authoritarianism
What would a second Trump term look like? Listen to what he says.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is expected to announce his run for president this week, becoming the top alternative among Republicans to take on former President Donald Trump. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence have already announced their runs, and more candidates are expected to make announcements in coming days and weeks, including South Carolina Senator Tim Scott. All of these candidates, however, are far behind Trump in the polls, who is running on a different sort of platform.
Trump shares many right-wing policy ideas with the other candidates, but unlike them, he is running on a contract with authoritarianism. In exchange for their vote, he is promising his supporters a second term of authoritarian policy ideas. In December, he called for the "termination" of the Constitution. In March, he said to his supporters that he was their "retribution." (He said "I am your retribution" twice for emphasis.) Earlier this month at a CNN town hall, he refused to say whether he wanted Ukraine to win against the unprovoked invasion from autocratic Russia; he suggested he would revive the policy of separating migrant children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border; he continued to falsely assert that the 2020 election was stolen and declined to say that he would abide by the results of the 2024 presidential election; and backed pardons for many of his supporters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, who were trying to overturn the results of a free and fair election in his favor. "It was a beautiful day," he said of the Capitol riots.
With the power of the presidency, Trump could do many of the things he has said he will do if re-elected. While terminating the Constitution would prove difficult, he could easily stop the flow of weapons to Ukraine. He could reinstate the policy of separating children from their families. He could pardon hundreds of Capitol rioters, signaling impunity for right-wing violence.
Until 2020, Trump was talked out of some of his more radical ideas by veteran national security hands, or the so-called adults in the room. However, these people were fired and replaced with acting cabinet heads perceived as being more indulgent to him, and ultimately disposable if they tried to cross him. In 2025, it's likely that his administration would be staffed with loyalists.
Behind the scenes, his advisors have outlined plans for "retribution." According to Axios, Trump's top allies have plans for "purging potentially thousands of civil servants and filling career posts with loyalists" in the State Department, Pentagon, and F.B.I. Trump's constant railing against the "deep state" may seem almost boilerplate at this point, but the plans to do away with career officials in the United States intelligence and national security apparatus are very real.
While many of the things he has called for -- such as the "termination" of the Constitution or building a wall paid for by Mexico -- are impractical, dangerous, and anti-democratic, many of the other things he has promised are literal and achievable. Indeed, Trump did fulfill many of his first-term promises. According to the fact-checking organization PolitiFact, Trump fulfilled or partly fulfilled 45 percent of his promises and broke 55 percent of them. One 2016 campaign promise that Trump delivered fulsomely on was appointing Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision guaranteeing a constitutional right to a legal abortion. Trump appointed three Supreme Court justices, who overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022. In an interview with Newsmax this week, he took credit for it: "I’m the one who got rid of Roe v. Wade and everyone said that was an impossible thing to do."
To his supporters, statements like these are proof positive that he can deliver on the things he sets out to do. According to the Washington Post fact-checker, Trump made over 30,000 false or misleading statements as president. However, when it comes to talking to his supporters, he is entering into a contract -- a contract for authoritarianism.
Trump is a departure from other presidential candidates in his refusal to adhere to the rule of law, lack of respect for democratic norms, and embrace of autocrats in Russia, China, and North Korea. Unlike DeSantis or the other contenders, he has the power and shamelessness to threaten the constitutional order. Trump may not literally be able to terminate the Constitution, but on Jan. 6, he showed that he was serious about doing everything he could to try.
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