Former President Donald Trump’s plans to reshape the federal government to give himself vast personal powers if he returns to the White House in 2025 would make the United States similar to authoritarian systems in which the executive branch wields outsized power with respect to the judiciary and legislature.
Those plans, as reported by The New York Times on Monday, are consistent with a 21st century playbook for authoritarians: Tell the public how you will set up an authoritarian state well before you get into office. Frame your intended expansion of executive powers as a mere streamlining of government. Don’t forget to repeatedly praise dictators as “brilliant” and “top of the line” people so there’ll be no surprises when you act in a similar manner. And whet your followers’ appetites for destruction of existing norms by advertising how you will purge “the sick political class that hates our country” from government.
Many Americans have become habituated to Republicans normalizing exceptional events: the violent Jan. 6, 2021, coup attempt being a glaring example. Even so, as a scholar of authoritarianism, I was chilled by Trump associates’ casual descriptions in the Times' report of how he and they intend to destroy the independence of democratic institutions and make them serve Republican, and more specifically Trumpian, ends. The destruction of democracy is being marketed to Americans as a kind of equalizer, a “correction” of a system currently skewed to liberal priorities.
The plan is for Trump to finish the devastating work he started during his first term of rooting out any civil servant attached to professional ethics. To take the State Department as an example, retired Ambassador Nancy McEldowney likened what already happened there under Trump's tenure to a “hostile takeover and occupation,” with nearly half of career ministers retiring or pushed out in just the first two years of his presidency.
Remember that executive order that implemented the travel ban from Muslim-majority countries? It was part of a planned blitzkrieg on our democratic system. “Get used to it. @POTUS is a man of action and impact … Shock to the system,” Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway tweeted a week after his inauguration. “And he’s just getting started.”
As for how they might accomplish this takeover, given that Trump has talked about terminating the Constitution — and incited an insurrection to stay in power illegally — nothing is off the table. There’s a reason that the Protecting Our Democracy Act, passed by the House in 2021, would have limited “abuses of presidential power,” including misuse of states of emergency. At the very least, stripping employment protections for potentially tens of thousands of civil servants, who could be replaced with Trump ideologues, offers a quick way to remake the profile of the federal bureaucracy.
When former Trump White House aide John McEntee talks about a “complete system overhaul,” he wants us to believe that the U.S. government is broken and that Trump, who touts himself as a successful businessman, will make it work efficiently. That was the context for Trump’s claim as he accepted the Republican nomination for president in 2016: “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.“
McEntee’s relatively bland language doesn’t hint at the chaos and dysfunction that would follow a purge of civil servants who aren’t loyal to Trump and, thus, would be seen as standing in the way of Trump’s use of public office for private ends.
Even more alarming is a statement from Russell T. Vought, who directed the Office of Management and Budget under Trump, that “what we’re trying to do is identify the pockets of independence and seize them.” The word “seize” is telling, as it connotes coups and revolutions and not democratic reform.
Vought also provides a good working definition of “autocratic capture,” that is, when illiberal leaders remodel institutions and agencies so they become pliant tools of the executive, his party and his cronies.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in office since 2012, has captured Hungary’s government enough to establish a parallel court system that has cemented executive control over judges on matters of electoral law, corruption and the right to protest. These are all areas of great personal interest to Trump, which is why it shouldn’t be surprising that during their 2019 White House meeting, Trump praised Orban for doing “a tremendous job in so many different ways.”
While Orban has taken his time to domesticate the media, judiciary and other institutions, Trump will likely seek to act quickly. Assigning advisors to cook up plans for an autocratic takeover, two years in advance of any return to the Oval Office — the idea of restoring his "Schedule F" executive order that would enable mass purges of bureaucrats has been in circulation for months — is intended to allow Trump to hit the ground running in 2025.
Neutralizing the power of the media to expose his well-documented corruption would be a top priority. That’s why Trump advisers want to bring the Federal Communications Commission under direct presidential control. Exerting control over media outlets is a hallmark of autocrats. Orban got Hungarian media luminaries to “donate” almost 500 media properties to a government-allied foundation in 2018. That year, according to Gábo Polyak of Mérték Media Monitor, “opposition views could not even reach significant portions of the electorate,” and the situation has only deteriorated since then.
Gautam Adani (the world’s third-richest man) and a close associate of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has become the majority shareholder of the Indian news network NDTV. While Adani says that NDTV will retain its independence, such arrangements are never propitious to democratic freedoms. Indeed, the point of such arrangements is to let the leader curtail criticism of him and his government so his personality cult can flourish and any corruption will not be revealed.
During his term, Trump enjoyed a parallel situation with the billionaire Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch. Fox News served as a de facto state propaganda channel. A formidable feedback loop among Trump and Fox hosts meant that many Trump tweets on policy issues echoed ideas aired by Fox moments earlier, and some Trump White House aides considered Fox host Sean Hannity to be a shadow chief of staff for Trump.
History teaches us that would-be autocrats who lose power and regain it are vengeful. And if plagued by legal proceedings that threaten them, they are doubly intent on remaking government so that they are never haunted by investigations, impeachments or indictments again. Look at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been charged with corruption and has become laser focused on “reforming” the judicial system. The dream of every authoritarian leader, and the endgame of “autocratic capture,” is a justice system that has been domesticated sufficiently to make the leader untouchable.
As Trump faces more indictments, and the presidential race proceeds, look for his army of operatives to respond to Trump’s legal predicaments by speaking even louder of his plans to effectively end our democracy.