People forget just how awful the Trump presidency was: daily chaos, naked power grabs, corruption, pandering to religious extremists, weaponization of government for personal vendettas, degradation of our democracy, and the constant assault on the rights of women, persons of color, and LGBTQ people. In the past week both The New York Times and The Economist have helpfully reminded us that the next Trump administration will be even worse, because this time they’re coming in with a plan.
The first iteration of his administration was embarrassingly unprepared because he never expected to win. He and his people blew off most of the normal transition-related activities expected of a president. Michael Lewis’s book The Fifth Risk described how the comically inept Trump crew held meetings in the dark at the White House because they literally didn’t know how the lights worked. As a result of this incompetence, Trump’s administration was somewhat limited in how much damage it could do.
Next time will be different.
He’s coming back with the entire conservative apparatus at his back, having spent four years in the wilderness methodically planning how to permanently alter the political and legal landscape of the country to favor an anti-democratic minority. As Claremont Institute President Ryan Williams told The Atlantic, their goal is to “effect a realignment of our politics and take control of all three branches of government for a generation or two.”
Central to this is the plan to reinstitute Schedule F for federal employees, which would allow the administration to fire any federal employee with policy-making authority. In practice this means that a Trump administration would replace vast swathes of the federal government bureaucracy with sycophants and ideological fellow travelers bent on implementing pro-corporate, pro-religious, and anti-minority agendas. This weaponizes the entire federal bureaucracy against women and LGBTQ people.
Imagine an FDA filled with far-right Catholic appointees looking for every imaginable way to end access to birth control, abortion, and gender affirming care—and likely succeeding. Other agencies, like Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs, and the Pentagon, would also be looking for ways to ban or severely limit access. Odds are that all three services will be effectively unavailable in the country before the end of Trump’s next term.
Or imagine the Department of Justice investigating internet service providers and websites for hosting or disseminating information about abortion or LGBTQ people under the Comstock Laws. Or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigating discrimination only against whites, men, and Christians. The possibilities are endless. The right intends to use every power of the government to eradicate anything it considers woke, particularly transgender people. The result will likely be many transgender individuals seeking to leave the country.
There’s also Trump’s belief in unitary executive theory, which basically holds that the president is a sort of elected king who has authority over everything but can be prosecuted for nothing. He, and his backers at conservative think tanks like Heritage and Claremont, are banking on this theory being green-lighted by a Supreme Court bought and paid for by the Federalist Society. Regardless, Trump intends to fully weaponize government against his enemies, both personal and political.
In practice, this could mean, for example, the president personally instructing the Department of Justice and the IRS to investigate and prosecute anyone he directs them to. According to people who study how democracies die, this would serve as a big, flashing, neon light that says the democracy is either dead or dying. But the American public doesn’t seem to notice, or care.
Trump also possesses the power as commander in chief to fire and replace literally any officer in the military. One of the biggest lessons he learned from his last term was that even conservative flag officers who served in high positions in his administration (like John Kelly, James Mattis, Mark Milley, and H.R. McMaster) are still at their core institutionalists. The military is generally good enough at promoting competence that individuals like Michael Flynn are the rare exception rather than the rule. Trump’s solution is obvious: get officers who say yes to anything he demands.
Section 2 of the Constitution grants the president authority over the military and the right to commission officers. The president has the right to fire, or commission, anyone he wants. And Trump is going to want better “Yes Men” when he announces he’s withdrawing support for Ukraine and pulling out of NATO. Democrats in the Senate see this coming and are trying to prevent it, but most Republicans are ready to let him do it if he chooses (lest they, too, be investigated by the DoJ, presumably).
On a smaller scale, conservatives love the idea of a military that looks like Russia’s: namely, no gays or women. Trump doesn’t care about such things, but the social conservatives behind his 2017 ban on transgender service members are the same ones who previously opposed women in combat roles as well as opposing the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” During a second term, Trump or his newly appointed brass will almost certainly ban transgender people from the military again, and they will likely at least try to bring back bans on gays in the military and women in combat positions.
Trump and the GOP are also likely to take their cues from Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orban. When he was invited to the Conservative Political Action Conference as a keynote speaker in 2022, he advised the audience that the path to permanent power is to “have your own media.” In Hungary, virtually no opposition media remains: it is all owned by the government, or privately by allies of Orban. With Trump in power and weaponizing the government against “enemies of the people,” he will likely use the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), FBI, IRS, and DoJ to silence critics and end investigative journalism as we know it.
You might ask why the Round Two Trumpies would do things that they know are hideously unpopular with the public. The answer has already been stated: Trump, and Republicans, plan on never leaving power again, and they will use every instrument of the government they’re corrupting to ensure their permanent place in power.
It’s also worth pointing out that Trump is not willingly going to leave office ever again. He’s already under several felony indictments for stolen classified materials, and more appear to be coming for his role in attempting to steal the 2020 election and for the January 6 insurrection. Given the typical timelines of such trials, he’s unlikely to be in prison by the 2024 election. He’s smart enough to know that as long as he’s in the White House, he can’t be prosecuted for anything. The moment he leaves office, he’s going right back to trial and maybe to jail.
The conclusion is clear: fire everyone who might prosecute him, and never leave office again to ensure that his Heritage-approved stooges never get replaced by a future president. In the run up to the 2020 election Trump repeatedly talked about third and fourth terms. He wasn’t joking; he was testing the waters to see how much backlash ignoring the Constitution would draw.
Almost none came, and his answer was clear: Trump will leave the White House only in a hearse, and he will use every power he has to see that it happens. It’s not impossible either: pack the court with people who do whatever the administration wants, and anything can be constitutional. The fact that they’re starting this term in office with a 6-3 conservative court doesn’t hurt their chances of success either.
Certainly, there will be resistance from blue state governors. However, they’re not capable of doing much about it without breaking the union. Trump and the GOP won’t hesitate to use the full power of the federal government to bring them to heel, starting by withholding federal funding for things like education. All of this doesn’t even begin to describe the full, unrelenting cascade of horror that will be a Trump second term for people who are unwelcome in a country reshaped by a religious right minority. And the worst part is, I believe this is currently the most likely outcome. Because of the Electoral College, in order to have a 50-50 chance of winning the election, Biden needs to win the popular vote by about 4 percent. He barely won a handful of swing states last time with a 4.5 percent national advantage. Most polls show his lead to be something closer to 2-3 percent this time around.
Biden’s popularity has waned, and the American public has a short memory. They forget how chaotic and radicalized Trump’s first term was. We collectively cannot grasp how bad a second term will be, in the same way that we cannot grasp how big the universe is, or what infinity looks like. White Americans have never lived in a country where democracy has collapsed. Black people come closest, the older ones among them having collective generational memory of Jim Crow and slavery.
The United States is probably about to have a “fuck around and find out” moment that’s lethal to our form of government as we know it. The rapidity of the collapse is going to be terrifying. It will rival the end of the Weimar Republic in terms of its swiftness, and how far it swings away from democracy and human rights. It will come like a tidal wave. So much so fast that civil rights organizations won’t have the resources to fight more than a fraction of it, and the result will be like sandcastle walls trying to hold back a tsunami.
I just hope we get to 2026, and don’t look back at this article as prophetic.