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The Danger Ahead

Donald Trump
Thought Leader: David Frum
December 4, 2023
Written by: David Frum

For all its marvelous creativity, the human imagination often fails when turned to the future. It is blunted, perhaps, by a craving for the familiar. We all appreciate that the past includes many moments of severe instability, crisis, even radical revolutionary upheaval. We know that such things happened years or decades or centuries ago. We cannot believe they might happen tomorrow.

When Donald Trump is the subject, imagination falters further. Trump operates so far outside the normal bounds of human behavior—never mind normal political behavior—that it is difficult to accept what he may actually do, even when he declares his intentions openly. What’s more, we have experienced one Trump presidency already. We can take false comfort from that previous experience: We’ve lived through it once. American democracy survived. Maybe the danger is less than feared?

In his first term, Trump’s corruption and brutality were mitigated by his ignorance and laziness. In a second, Trump would arrive with a much better understanding of the system’s vulnerabilities, more willing enablers in tow, and a much more focused agenda of retaliation against his adversaries and impunity for himself. When people wonder what another Trump term might hold, their minds underestimate the chaos that would lie ahead.

By Election Day 2024, Donald Trump will be in the thick of multiple criminal trials. It’s not impossible that he may already have been convicted in at least one of them. If he wins the election, Trump will commit the first crime of his second term at noon on Inauguration Day: His oath to defend the Constitution of the United States will be a perjury.

A second Trump term would instantly plunge the country into a constitutional crisis more terrible than anything seen since the Civil War. Even in the turmoil of the 1960s, even during the Great Depression, the country had a functional government with the president as its head. But the government cannot function with an indicted or convicted criminal as its head. The president would be an outlaw, or on his way to becoming an outlaw. For his own survival, he would have to destroy the rule of law.

From Trump himself and the people around him, we have a fair idea of a second Trump administration’s immediate priorities: (1) Stop all federal and state cases against Trump, criminal and civil. (2) Pardon and protect those who tried to overturn the 2020 election on Trump’s behalf. (3) Send the Department of Justice into action against Trump adversaries and critics. (4) End the independence of the civil service and fire federal officials who refuse to carry out Trump’s commands. (5) If these lawless actions ignite protests in American cities, order the military to crush them.

A restored Trump would lead the United States into a landscape of unthinkable scenarios. Will the Senate confirm Trump nominees who were chosen because of their willingness to help the president lead a coup against the U.S. government? Will the staff of the Justice Department resign? Will people march in the streets? Will the military obey or refuse orders to suppress demonstrations?

The existing constitutional system has no room for the subversive legal maneuvers of a criminal in chief. If a president can pardon himself for federal crimes—as Trump would likely try to do—then he could write his pardon in advance and shoot visitors to the White House. (For that matter, the vice president could murder the president in the Oval Office and then immediately pardon herself.) If a president can order the attorney general to stop a federal case against him—as Trump would surely do—then obstruction of justice becomes a normal prerogative of the presidency. If Trump can be president, then the United States owes a huge retrospective apology to Richard Nixon. Under the rules of a second Trump presidency, Nixon would have been well within his rights to order the Department of Justice to stop investigating Watergate and then pardon himself and all the burglars for the break-in and cover-up.

After Trump was elected in 2016, he was quickly surrounded by prominent and influential people who recognized that he was a lawless menace. They found ways to restrain a man they regarded as, to quote the reported words of Trump’s first secretary of state, “a fucking moron” and, to quote his second chief of staff, “the most flawed person I’ve ever met in my life,” whose “dishonesty is just astounding.” But there would be no Rex Tillerson in a second Trump term; no John Kelly; no Jeff Sessions, who as attorney general recused himself from the investigation into the president’s connections to Russia, leading to the appointment of an independent special counsel.

Since 2021, Trump-skeptical Republicans have been pushed out of politics. Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger forfeited their seats in the House for defending election integrity. Representative Tom Emmer withdrew his bid for House speaker over the same offense. The Republican Senate caucus is less hospitable to Trump-style authoritarianism—but notice that the younger and newer Republican senators (Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, J. D. Vance) tend to support Trump’s schemes, while his opponents in the Senate belong to the outgoing generation. Trump’s leading rivals for the 2024 nomination seldom dare criticize his abuse of power.

Most of the people who would staff a second Trump term would be servile tools who have absorbed the brutal realities of contemporary Republicanism: defend democracy; forfeit your career. Already, an array of technically competent opportunists has assembled itself—from within right-wing think tanks and elsewhere—and has begun to plan out exactly how to dismantle the institutional safeguards against Trump’s corrupt and vengeful impulses. Trump’s likely second-term advisers have made clear that they would share his agenda of legal impunity and the use of law enforcement against his perceived opponents—not only the Biden family, but Trump’s own former attorney general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

If trump wins the presidency again, the whole world will become a theater for his politics of revenge and reward. Ukraine will be abandoned to Vladimir Putin; Saudi Arabia will collect its dividends for its investments in the Trump family.

First-term Trump told aides that he wanted to withdraw from NATO. Second-term Trump would choose aides who would not talk him out of it. Other partners, too, would have to adjust to the authoritarianism and corruption of a second Trump term. Liberals in Israel and India would find themselves isolated as the U.S. turned toward reaction and authoritarianism at home; East Asian democracies would have to adjust to Trump protectionism and trade wars; Mexico’s antidemocratic Morena party would have scope to snuff out free institutions provided that it suppressed migration flows to the United States.

Anyway, the United States would be too paralyzed by troubles at home to help friends abroad.

If Trump is elected, it very likely won’t be with a majority of the popular vote. Imagine the scenario: Trump has won the Electoral College with 46 percent of the vote because third-party candidates funded by Republican donors successfully splintered the anti-Trump coalition. Having failed to win the popular vote in each of the past three elections, Trump has become president for the second time. On that thin basis, his supporters would try to execute his schemes of personal impunity and political vengeance.

In this scenario, Trump opponents would have to face a harsh reality: The U.S. electoral system has privileged a strategically located minority, led by a lawbreaking president, over the democratic majority. One side outvoted the other. The outvoted nonetheless won the power to govern.

The outvoted would happily justify the twist of events in their favor. “We are a republic, not a democracy,” many said in 2016. Since that time, the outvoted have become more outspoken against democracy. As Senator Mike Lee tweeted a month before the 2020 election: “Democracy isn’t the objective.”

So long as minority rule seems an occasional or accidental result, the majority might go along. But once aware that the minority intends to engineer its power to last forever—and to use it to subvert the larger legal and constitutional system—the majority may cease to be so accepting. One outcome of a second Trump term may be an American version of the massive demonstrations that filled Tel Aviv streets in 2023, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to remake Israel’s court system.

And what might follow that? In 2020, Trump’s advisers speculated about the possibility of using the Army to crush protests against Trump’s plans to overturn that year’s election. Now those in Trump’s circle are apparently thinking further ahead. Some reportedly want to prepare in advance to use the Insurrection Act to convert the military into a tool of Trump’s authoritarian project. It’s an astonishing possibility. But Trump is thinking about it, so everybody else must—including the senior command of the U.S. military.

If a president can summon an investigation of his opponents, or summon the military to put down protests, then suddenly our society would no longer be free. There would be no more law, only legalized persecution of political opponents. It has always been Trump’s supreme political wish to wield both the law and institutional violence as personal weapons of power—a wish that many in his party now seem determined to help him achieve.

That grim negative ideal is the core ballot question in 2024. If Trump is defeated, the United States can proceed in its familiar imperfect way to deal with the many big problems of our time: the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine, climate change, educational standards and equal opportunity, economic growth and individual living standards, and so on. Stopping Trump would not represent progress on any of those agenda items. But stopping Trump would preserve the possibility of progress, by keeping alive the constitutional-democratic structure of the United States.

A second Trump presidency, however, is the kind of shock that would overwhelm all other issues. It would mark the turn onto a dark path, one of these rips between “before” and “after” that a society can never reverse. Even if the harm is contained, it can never be fully undone, as the harm of January 6, 2021, can never be undone. The long tradition of peaceful transitions of power was broken that day, and even though the attempt to stop the transition by violence was defeated, the violence itself was not expunged. The schemes and plots of a second Trump term may be defeated too. Yet every future would-be dictator will know: A president can attempt a coup and, if stopped, still return to office to try again.

As we now understand from memoirs and on-the-record comments, many of Trump’s own Cabinet appointees and senior staff were horrified by the president they served. The leaders of his own party in Congress feared and hated him. The GOP’s deepest-pocketed donors have worked for three years to nominate somebody, anybody, else. Yet even so, Trump’s co-partisans are converging upon him. They are convincing themselves that something can justify forgiving Trump’s first attempted coup and enabling a second: taxes, border control, stupid comments by “woke” college students.

For democracy to continue, however, the democratic system itself must be the supreme commitment of all major participants. Rules must matter more than outcomes. If not, the system careens toward breakdown—as it is careening now.

When Benjamin Franklin famously said of the then-new Constitution, “A republic, if you can keep it,” he was not suggesting that the republic might be misplaced absentmindedly. He foresaw that ambitious, ruthless characters would arise to try to break the republic, and that weak, venal characters might assist them. Americans have faced Franklin’s challenge since 2016, in a story that has so far had some villains, many heroes—and just enough good luck to tip the balance. It would be dangerous to continue to count on luck to do the job.

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