As part of his campaign for a second term as U.S. president, Donald Trump and his allies say the former president — if he wins — would use federal law enforcement to punish his political enemies and restructure the federal government to streamline implementation of his policies.
While Democrats have been virtually unanimous in their concerns about a second Trump presidency, warning that it would be tantamount to a “dictatorship,” the reaction among Republicans has been sharply divergent. Some in the Republican Party are raising an alarm, while others downplay Trump’s rhetoric, suggesting that concerns about it are overblown.
A key distinction, though, is that most of the Republicans expressing concerns about Trump’s authoritarian tendencies are either no longer in office or have announced their retirement, which suggests that resistance to the former president’s expressed preferences may not be a tenable position in the modern-day Republican Party.
Revenge and retribution
In recent weeks, Trump has promised his supporters that he will be their “retribution” if he retakes the White House, and has used language reminiscent of the worst of European fascism in the 1930s and 1940s, calling his political opponents “vermin” and warning that immigrants are “poisoning the blood” of the United States.
Trump has also expressed interest in reclassifying broad swaths of the federal workforce — tens of thousands of career civil servants — as “Schedule F” employees whom he could fire at will. A coalition of conservative think tanks, spearheaded by the Heritage Foundation, is currently “vetting” thousands of Trump supporters who are interested in serving in a second Trump administration and who could be expected to faithfully carry out his wishes.
Trump has also promised to take specific steps, including “going after” President Joe Biden and his family with a “special prosecutor,” and has suggested that news outlets critical of him should be silenced.
Trump’s closest supporters have echoed his threats. In an interview with former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon this week, Kash Patel, a former Defense Department official during the Trump administration, said that in a second Trump term, “We will go out and find the conspirators, not just in government but in the media …
“Yes, we’re going to come after the people in the media who lied about American citizens, who helped Joe Biden rig presidential elections — we’re going to come after you. Whether it’s criminally or civilly, we’ll figure that out.”
“This is just not rhetoric,” Bannon added. “We’re absolutely dead serious.”
A one-day dictator?
As recently as Tuesday in a Fox News interview with Sean Hannity, Trump was given the opportunity to allay concerns that he would behave like a dictator if reelected.
“To be clear, do you in any way have any plans whatsoever if reelected president, to abuse power, to break the law, to use the government to go after people?” Hannity asked.
“You mean like they’re using right now?” Trump replied, and did not answer the question.
A few minutes later, Hannity tried again, “Under no circumstances, you are promising America tonight, you would never abuse power as retribution against anybody?”
“We love this guy,” Trump replied. “He says, ‘You’re not going to be a dictator, are you?’ I said, ‘No, no, no. Other than Day One. We’re closing the border, and we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I’m not a dictator. OK?”
The Trump campaign did not respond to an emailed request asking for clarification of his remarks.
Republicans issue warnings
In the Republican presidential primary debate on Wednesday, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie painted a dire picture of what he thinks another Trump presidency would look like.
“This is an angry, bitter man who now wants to be back as president because he wants to exact retribution on anyone who has disagreed with him, anyone who has tried to hold him to account for his own conduct, and every one of these policies that he’s talking about are about pursuing a plan of retribution,” Christie said.
“Do I think he was kidding when he said he was a dictator?” Christie continued. “All you have to do is look at the history, and that’s why failing to speak out against him, making excuses for him, pretending that somehow he’s a victim empowers him. …
“Let me make it clear: His conduct is unacceptable. He’s unfit. And be careful of what you’re going to get if you ever got another Donald Trump term. He’s letting you know, ‘I am your retribution.'”
Trump was not on the stage, having declined to participate in any of the primary debates. The other three Republicans on the debate stage, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, avoided any sharp criticism of the former president, who retains a commanding lead in polls of likely primary voters.
‘Sleepwalking into a dictatorship’
Christie’s concerns have been echoed by other Republicans such as Utah Senator and 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who told The Washington Post this week that Trump’s base seems to want him to behave like an authoritarian.
“His base loves the authoritarian streak,” Romney said. “I think they love the idea that he may use the military in domestic matters, and that he will seek revenge and retribution. That’s why he’s saying it and has the lock, nearly, on the Republican nomination.” In September, Romney announced that he will not be running for reelection next year.
Former Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, who has been a vocal critic of Trump and served on the House panel that investigated the January 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol, told CBS News last weekend that she has no doubts about what a second Trump presidency would look like.
“One of the things that we see happening today is sort of sleepwalking into a dictatorship in the United States,” she said.
Not a serious threat
Current Republican officeholders who are supportive of the former president often downplay his suggestion that he will use the levers of governmental power to punish his critics.
During Wednesday’s debate, for example, DeSantis dismissed concerns about Trump behaving as an authoritarian during a second term.
“Look, the media’s making a big deal about what he said about some of these comments,” he said. “I would just remind people that is not how he governed.”
Senator Lindsey Graham has said publicly he believes Trump’s comments to Hannity were meant to be “funny.” In an interview with CNN on Sunday, Graham disputed Cheney’s assertions about how Trump will behave in office, saying they stem from her personal animosity toward the former president.
“I think a continuation of the Biden presidency would be a disaster for peace and prosperity at home and abroad,” Graham said. “Our border is broken. The only person who is really going to fix a broken border is Donald Trump. When he was president, none of this stuff was going on in Ukraine. Hamas and all these other terrorist groups were afraid of Trump.”
Asked to comment on Trump’s statement that he would be a one-day dictator, Republican Senator Thom Tillis said, “He said he would do two things: He would close the border and drill. Everybody could say that’s abusing power. I think that’s a righteous use of power, and President Biden’s failed on it.”
‘Autocrats always tell you who they are’
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor at New York University and author of “Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present,” warned against the danger of dismissing Trump’s rhetoric as unserious or flippant.
“Everything Donald Trump says should be taken seriously,” she wrote in an email exchange with VOA. “Autocrats always tell you who they are and what they are going to do. In this case, Trump is saying clearly he has aspirations to be a dictator, which is unsurprising given his incitement of a coup to stay in office illegally and given his open adulation of others of his tribe such as [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping].”
Kurt Braddock, an assistant professor of Communications at American University who studies the connection between political language and violence, said that downplaying Trump’s rhetoric allows much of what the former president says to become “normalized” with the general public.
“They’ve been saying he’s ‘just joking’ for seven years now,” Braddock told VOA. “And whether he’s just joking or not is immaterial as far as I’m concerned. People interpret it, or some segment of the population interprets it, as being truthful.”
“When there’s a population that admires somebody as much as some individuals admire Trump, the normalization of this kind of language promotes positive attitudes about the kinds of things it implies,” Braddock said.
“So if he jokes about being a dictator, or jokes about implied violence against political enemies, the more he does that the more it kind of becomes part of our normal vocabulary.”