Trump Said Too Much Too Soon
He and his allies cemented the dictator narrative, and it will backfire.
DONALD TRUMP HAS CHOSEN to make “dictator” his brand. No one made him do it. But the fact that he did, eleven months before the election, is a good thing.
Trump’s plans to destroy our foundational checks and balances and rule as a king hadn’t penetrated much beyond political insiders and Washington think tanks until the last few weeks—when a front-page story in the New York Times, a collection of articles in the Atlantic, and an essay by Robert Kagan in the Washington Post all warned of the specific plans that allies of the former president are hatching to enable Trump to concentrate power in the executive branch, illustrating how the nation can “drift toward dictatorship,” as Kagan wrote.
The initial response from Trump was, naturally, So what? Asked by Sean Hannity on Fox News last week whether he would promise “never” to abuse his power by seeking retribution against his enemies, Trump said “except for day one,” adding that he wanted to close the border and “drill, drill, drill.”
Republicans, on cue, said Trump was joking. Donald Trump Jr. and his dad’s new favorite front man, Senator J.D. Vance, sent out tweets seven minutes apart explaining Trump’s genius sense of humor as a superpower no one else possesses.
Axios reported the following day that Vance is on the short list of potential running mates for Trump, and that the rest of his possible White House team and cabinet could be a dystopian nightmare. The possibility of Stephen Miller as attorney general, Kash Patel as CIA director, Steve Bannon as chief of staff, Ric Grenell as secretary of state, John Ratcliffe as secretary of defense, and Jeffrey Clark in a top Justice Department position suggest that there will also be a place for Michael Flynn—and that we’re screwed. These were no background musings from bit players: Tucker Carlson was an on-the-record source for the story.
Imagine someone with the secretive and awesome powers of the entire CIA using them to “come after the people in the media who lied about American citizens, who helped Joe Biden rig presidential elections,” which Patel promised on Bannon’s podcast last week. “We’re going to come after you,” he said.
Patel and Bannon may sound like maniacs, but they are in the inner circle. And what Trump is saying about personnel picks to Carlson—someone he talks with frequently and himself a veep shortlister—is valuable information for the public to have.
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So is the long list of authoritarian goals Trump and his allies have articulated already: invoking the Insurrection Act on his first day in office, pardoning the insurrectionists who sacked the capitol on January 6th in the deadly riot he incited, creating immigrant detention camps, prosecuting political enemies and members of the media, overhauling the civil service to fill as many positions as possible with political appointees who will carry out any order out of loyalty to him rather than fealty to the Constitution and the rule of law, and perhaps investigating MSNBC for what Trump called “its ‘Country Threatening Treason.’”
The aspiring tyrant has spared no detail or deranged desire. Recently, Trump promised a religious test for immigrants and asserted that if anyone doesn’t “like our religion,” then he doesn’t want them in America.
Trump made clear in a November interview with Univision that he would feel no compunction about using the justice system to persecute his political opponents: “If I happen to be president, and I see somebody who’s doing well and beating me very badly, I say, ‘Go down and indict them,’” he said. “They’d be out of business. They’d be out of the election.” Could those remarks be taken to mean that he’s reconsidering his previous denial about wanting to run for an unconstitutional third term should he win a second one? Would anyone be surprised if he tried?
APPARENTLY THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN finds all of these extreme threats, potential hires, and affirmative responses from Trump about his new dictator label a bit unseemly.
It’s actually disqualifying. And they know it.
The Washington Post has reported that the campaign “asked allies on Capitol Hill in recent days to publicly counter criticism that the former president would govern like a dictator in a second term,” and that Trump campaign staffer Susie Wiles recently let Paul Dans of the Heritage Foundation know that reports about Project 25—the group of organizations drawing up the plans for a new Republican administration, which Dans heads—were a problem.
In a statement to the media, Wiles and fellow Trump campaign staffer Chris LaCivita wrote that “unless a message is coming directly from President Trump or an authorized member of his campaign team, no aspect of presidential staffing or policy announcements should be deemed official,” and that “people publicly discussing potential administration jobs for themselves or their friends are, in fact, hurting president Trump.”
Sen. Kevin Cramer doesn’t think so. He told the Post that Trump is being funny and is only promising to undo Biden’s executive orders. “The people who have concerns aren’t people who would ever vote for him,” he said.
This is both deeply cynical and false. There are plenty of new voters, young voters, and independents Trump will need to win the general election who don’t fall into the Never Trump category. The word “dictator” is not likely to land well with the median swing voter who is disengaged from politics but will not be able to miss this characterization next year—with the accompanying sound bites to prove it.
And no matter how many memos or meetings the Trump campaign puts together, Trump won’t stop amplifying his autocratic fantasies because he can’t. They consume him. There is no quiet part. Everything is out loud.
As Bannon likes to say, the storm is coming. At least by next summer, more swing voters will know it.