The Authoritarian Playbook: 2025
A chilling new report from Protect Democracy
Of course. Trump Moves to Quash Hopes of Ukraine, Border Deal - Bloomberg
Sounds like a threat. Trump warns Supreme Court of ‘chaos and bedlam’ in ballot removal case - The Independent
So thirsty. Trump eyes Rep. Elise Stefanik as a potential VP pick: 'She's a killer' — NBC
Death march continues. Shake-Up by a Desperate DeSantis Opens Wider Path for Haley in New Hampshire - The New York Times
Heartbreaking and enraging. DOJ report on Uvalde shooting calls police response a ‘significant failure’ - The Washington Post
Scandal watch: Judge in Trump Georgia case orders hearing on Fani Willis misconduct claims - Reuters
Cue the chaos: Congress Averts Government Shutdown as Conservatives Steam Over Border, Spending - WSJ/ Plus: Alarm Bells for Johnson - Punchbowl News
Knives out. Steve Bannon Calls For Speaker Johnson's Ouster Over CR - Mediaite
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What an authoritarian president could do
It’s that important.
“The Authoritarian Playbook for 2025” warns that:
“As damaging as Trump’s first term was to American systems of constitutional government, culminating in his efforts to overturn an election and violently halt the counting of electoral votes by Congress, what he has promised in his own words to do if returned to office would be even more destructive to our Republic.”
Trump has already told us repeatedly what he plans to do, the authors write, but this time, he has the backing of “groups working to support those promises in preparation for a second Trump term.”
The playbook includes:
Pardons to License Lawbreaking: During Trump’s first term, he discovered that he could leverage the pardon power to induce witnesses against him into silence. In a second term, he has indicated he would further abuse pardons to incite political violence, incentivize lawbreaking for his benefit, and render himself above the law.
Directing Investigations Against Critics and Rivals: Retribution is the dominant theme of Trump’s 2024 campaign, and his allies are making plans to eliminate the Department of Justice’s traditional prosecutorial independence to give Trump greater personal control to direct law enforcement against his perceived opponents and insulate himself from accountability.
Regulatory Retaliation: In addition to steering prosecutorial discretion via the Department of Justice, Trump has vowed to consolidate and wield federal regulatory power to reward political loyalty and punish his critics, particularly those associated with the media. There are numerous reports of this regulatory retaliation happening during Trump’s first term, and plans for a second include ways of removing those obstacles that limited opportunities for more.
Federal Law Enforcement Overreach: Trump’s declaration that immigration is “poisoning the blood of our country” is a grim foreshadowing of how he will invoke the Alien Enemies Act, a wartime provision dating back to 1798. Once Trump has that power, he has also expressed his will to expand the footprint of federal law enforcement to police cities and shut down lawful protests.
Domestic Deployment of the Military: A central hallmark of American democracy is that the U.S. military not be used against American citizens. But Trump plans to abuse the Insurrection Act to order military force to quash dissent and target vulnerable communities.
“This report is not all doom and gloom, though,” the authors write. “Although Trump’s first term battered our constitutional guardrails and the lives of many Americans, our democracy ultimately survived. As the report explains, that was no accident but the result of the courageous actions of a broad array of Americans and public leaders who stood up for our democracy. That work can provide both instruction and inspiration going forward.”
But they warn us against a false sense of complacency and a failure of imagination about how bad it could actually be.
“Time and again,” they write, “predictions that Trump was not serious have proved disastrously incorrect. And yet pundits and officials, mainly on the political right, continue to make them, having failed to internalize lessons from these past errors.”
Why is this? David Frum has suggested in The Atlantic that it stems from an ordinary human failure: “For all its marvelous creativity, the human imagination often fails when turned to the future,” Frum wrote. “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.”
This report attempts to help overcome that failure of imagination, from which we all suffer to some degree. In this report, Protect Democracy adds to the respectable body of reporting regarding the stakes of the 2024 election by explaining how a second Trump administration will go about consolidating power at the federal policy level in service of an agenda of retribution.
Complete and Total Immunity
In the latest episode of the Trump Trials, Lawfare’s Ben Wittes and I discuss all the thing we don’t care about… and what we care about very much: Trump’s attack on the justice system, his antics in the courtroom, and his 1 a.m. rants about ABSOLUTE IMMUNITY.
You can listen to the whole thing here. Or watch us on YouTube.
On Deadline White House yesterday, I had some thoughts on Trump’s latest courtroom strategy:
MSNBC host Alicia Menendez began the second hour of "Deadline White House" by asking Sykes about the political strategy of courtroom drama. On Wednesday, there was a debate about whether Trump's throwing a fit was to intentionally antagonize the judge. At one point, Judge Lewis Kaplan called Trump out on it.
"He's not only not deterred, he's continuing to defame her in view of the jury," said Sykes. "In answer to your question, there's not enough money that's going to compensate her. Ten million dollars is not going to restore her reputation; $150 million was awarded to [Ruby Freeman and] Shaye Moss. Dominion Voting Systems got $787 million from Fox News for defamation. No amount of money is going to deter Donald Trump from continuing to lie."
“He's showing absolute contempt, not just for the judge and the prosecution, he's showing contempt for the woman that he actually raped," Sykes said. "This is extraordinary. Donald Trump has a lizard P.R. instinct to distract attention from bad stories. Yet what he's doing is shining a spotlight on this particular trial. I'm not a lawyer, but heckling a rape victim — or heckling the judge — doesn't seem like a great legal strategy or a good political strategy for swing voters."
He speculated that it might bring his base to be more dedicated or give more money, but it won't win him the race.
"This is an extraordinary moment that Donald Trump has internalized this idea that it's 'locker room talk' or he can shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and there are no consequences," explained Sykes. "There he is in the courtroom acting out. Attacking this woman in full view of the jury and the country, and I'm a little skeptical about the political genius he's displaying here."
You can watch our conversation here:
1. How Can Biden Win?
(Donald Trump is a small, tiny, weak, victim-of-a-man. But this article addresses his perception, not his reality. Its important for us to understand this to determine the best way to undermine his appeal. Read with an open mind, while remembering he is just the worst human to ever occupy the White House.)
But then he lays out his case:
The reality is that when Trump is described as “big and scary,” that actually feeds his peoples admiration. They love that he scares the left, they love his authoritarian tendencies. Instead, maybe he should be attacked for the weak, small, self absorbed weiner he really is.
Biden should also create an image of physical, mental, political, and temperamental strength and reinforce it continuously. How does he do this? Here’s my humble ideas. First, he can board Air Force One, and start to barnstorm a little. Like Trump in 2020, he should use the big plane, a symbol of presidential power, as a backdrop for some rallies. At others, he should appear on stages decorated with American flags and his aides should get the crowd fired up with some rock and roll music. (Bill Clinton made good use of Fleetwood Mac). It might be a good idea to show the crowd a five-minute film featuring Biden as vigorous and engaged. When the film ends, he should be introduced by a popular local pol, and take the stage with energy, flashing the grin that has become a trademark….
Biden cannot win if he fails to show himself as a genuinely strong leader who won’t crumble under pressure. He must also create enemies that Americans recognize – MAGA’s threat to democracy and Trump himself – and promise to defeat them. He did this in 2020. He must do it again now.
2. Jamie Dimon Joins the Trump Normalizers
JAMIE DIMON ISSUED WHAT CNN characterized as a “warning to Democrats” this week. During a CNBC interview on Wednesday at the World Economic Forum at Davos, the JPMorgan Chase CEO said that “Donald Trump was right about some critical issues,” so Democrats should not too quickly dismiss Trump’s base as a cult of personality.
The danger in Dimon’s remark lies as much in what he did not say as in what he did. Such a statement from such a powerful and influential business leader is just what a mad doctor ordered to normalize Trump.
Trump—having already inspired an insurrection, already promised to be a “dictator on day one” should he be re-elected, and already called for the “termination . . . of the Constitution”—on January 9 had his lawyer argue before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals that, as president, he could direct Navy SEAL Team Six to assassinate his political rivals and still be immune from prosecution.
Notably, Dimon mentioned none of that Wednesday as he praised Trump “policies.” In going out of his way to say Trump was “right about some critical issues,” Dimon didn’t bother to note that Trump continues to reject the results of the 2020 election and has convinced the vast majority of Republicans that President Joe Biden was not legitimately elected.
Guess Dimon—who, days after the 2020 election, said “We must respect the results of the U.S. presidential election and . . . honor the decision of the voters”—no longer thinks the integrity of our elections is a “critical issue” for our entire democracy.
We’ve been warned.
The report is authored by our former colleague Amanda Carpenter (who will our guest on today’s Bulwark podcast), along with Erica Newland, Genevieve Nadeau, Aisha Woodward, Deana El-Mallawany, and Justin Florence