Trump Is Running for Dictator
The press should say that, not euphemize an ugly truth
During the attempt to steal the 2020 presidential election, Department of Justice official Jeffrey Clark was pressed by White House Deputy Counsel Patrick Philbin about the inevitability of mass unrest if President Donald Trump somehow clung to power. Clark’s answer, as recounted in Special Counsel Jack Smith’s indictment of Trump, was chilling: “Well, ... that’s why there’s an Insurrection Act.”
The Insurrection Act allows a president to deploy the U.S. military on American soil to enforce state and federal law. In this case, however, the idea was to use the military to overturn laws and the Constitution, not to enforce them. In short, Clark was proposing nothing less than a military dictatorship. If the American people would not accept the overthrow of the Constitution, then the armed forces would be ordered to forcibly suppress dissent. American soldiers shooting citizens in the streets: a bloodbath at best, a full-blown civil war at worst.
Alarmingly, in recent weeks, Trump and his allies have made increasingly clear they intend to pick up right where they left off in the waning days of his presidency—only this time, the effort won’t be thrown together ineffectually by a lame duck president with only a few diehard loyalists like Clark in positions of power. The ex-president’s rhetoric about a potential second term has veered radically and overtly authoritarian, and his plans are more systematic. Effective opposition requires that we recognize this vision of dictatorship for what it is—and that the press do so, too.
From Defeat to Retribution
Clark’s comment about the Insurrection Act was not merely idle speculation from an irrelevant bit player. Clark was then the acting head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Division, and he sought to have Trump appoint him as acting attorney general. He very nearly succeeded. His pitch was to use the Department of Justice and its control over federal law enforcement to block the peaceful transfer of power, beginning with sending Department of Justice letters to state governments falsely asserting there were ongoing federal suspicions of election fraud. Trump only backed down when the DOJ’s existing leadership threatened to resign en masse, which would have paralyzed the department.
Luckily, Trump’s coup attempt failed. His schemes were blocked not just by state and federal courts, governors, state legislatures, Congress and his own vice president: They were effectively resisted even within the executive branch. Such institutional resistance is the hallmark of a failed coup attempt, as I wrote previously for The UnPopulist.
But defeating Trump’s efforts to seize unconstitutional powers won’t be as easy if he wins a second term. This time, he, along with organizations and genuine experts in his orbit, are openly laying the groundwork for:
using the U.S. military to take over the normal functions of civilian law enforcement in times of purported civil unrest
arresting and prosecuting his opponents through Justice Department investigations targeting prominent critics and politicians, including former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, whose actions, Trump argues, would once have merited “DEATH!”
purging the civil service by making tens of thousands of them “at-will” employees no longer subject to traditional civil service protections against political employment decisions—a dramatic departure from past norms
suppressing dissent, suggesting even that those who compare Trump to past authoritarians like Mussolini and Hitler “will be crushed”
preparing to staff the government with thousands of enablers willing and eager to assist his plans without regard to their professional qualifications or expertise
Also troubling is the exterminationist rhetoric that’s been featured proudly in Trump’s recent campaign speeches, where he’s said he will “will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists, and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.” Authoritarian populism always creates divisions between a country’s “true people” and their “illegitimate,” other-ized enemies, who aren’t really part of the nation at all. It aims to destroy any shared civic identity and transform domestic politics into an existential war. In the process, extreme, previously unthinkable measures become justified.
It’s easy to dismiss this as nothing new, and the reactions have been relatively muted. Trump has always said outlandish things, demonstrated authoritarian impulses, talked admiringly of foreign autocrats, and fumed about taking revenge on his critics. He was, after all, impeached twice for abusing the powers of his office with the goal of rigging his own re-election.
Something, however, has changed. In contrast to the collection of fringe figures who came together to support him after the 2020 election, Trump now has a serious, organized effort behind him, including the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025. This initiative, under the aegis of Heritage, a longstanding pillar of mainstream conservative policy work, explicitly aims to help the next administration quickly demolish any internal executive branch opposition to Trump’s new agenda. And unlike last time, this plan would be set in motion from Day 1, not in the desperate waning days of a lame duck presidency. More than before, Trump is campaigning on an outright promise of dictatorship.
It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that these efforts would fall short of complete success. The courts, Congress, law enforcement agencies and the military may resist in ways that prevent complete collapse of the federal government into unchecked one-man rule. The Constitution may be resilient enough in the end, as it was in the 2020 election. But this doesn’t make it any less serious that dictatorship is the goal of our potential president. These best-case scenarios would still plunge the country into an unprecedented constitutional crisis.
The situation would be especially dire if we come to the point where senior military officers openly refused a president’s orders to implement, for instance, the Insurrection Act. This defiance would be its own kind of breakdown in a bedrock constitutional principle. One way or another, constitutional processes would be coming unglued and put into untenable contradictions. A president trying to make himself a dictator would impose immense costs on American democracy even if he failed—and failure is by no means guaranteed.
Speaking Truth About Power—and Dictatorship
It is crucial to recognize this for what it is, and to use the correct label for it. Media coverage must accurately convey to the American people what is at stake—what Trump is actually saying. And the term for that is not “populism,” or “radicalism,” or “extremism,” or even just “authoritarianism.” Trump’s 2024 campaign platform is to make himself a dictator.
Unfortunately, media coverage has shied away from stating this obvious implication. Even in strongly negative coverage, the prospect is laundered through euphemism and watered-down descriptions.
“Trump and allies plot revenge” read the headline on an otherwise important and well-reported article in The Washington Post about how Trump plans to use the powers of the presidency to punish his critics and use the military to curb public protests. “Trump hints at expanded role for the military within the US” was another recent headline from the Associated Press in an article about Trump’s desire to invoke the Insurrection Act and use “the military to quell violence in primarily Democratic cities and states.” “How Trump and His Allies Plan to Wield Power in 2025” was the prosaic formulation from The New York Times about Trump’s plans to “upend core elements of … the rule of law.” In none of these articles did the word dictator or any similar term appear, even as reporters relayed the details of a textbook dictatorship. And while the articles were all still highly damning, the anemia of those headlines matters more than ever in the age of social media.
Perhaps these outlets feel reluctant to seem hyperbolic or hysterical; perhaps they are misapplying their efforts at partisan neutrality. They probably also have concerns about further undermining their credibility with voters who have already written them off as biased leftists. But at some point, neutrality must give way to accuracy, especially when the critical audience is persuadable swing voters, not diehard partisans. And the message needs to be heard plainly by Democrats, too, as a reminder that the times call for welcoming—not alienating—people who haven’t traditionally voted Democratic and now want to join the Democratic coalition.
Accusing a leading candidate for president of aspiring to dictatorship would normally be in the realm of political rhetoric, not straight reporting. But it’s not a rhetorical accusation when the man himself is proudly boasting of his plans for unchecked authoritarian power. And some outlets have at times gotten it right, as the Post did when it ran the headline “Trump calls political enemies ‘vermin,’ echoing dictators Hitler, Mussolini.” It’s an example the Post itself and other major outlets should follow more often.
Trump is putting dictatorship on the ballot in 2024—and doing so in a much more extreme and explicit manner than in 2016 or 2020. We should talk about that with the same terms we’d apply if it were happening in any other country. Journalists and editors should report what he is saying and planning in plain language.
To use the word dictator consistently in mainstream media coverage, without hedging or qualification, would be shocking and controversial. But that’s exactly the conversation we need to be having—the conversation that should be at the center of the discussion in the 2024 election. It’s a word that still holds immense power in the American imagination, as well it should. It strikes a chord in a way other terms do not. It evokes the defining element of our most evil enemies, today and in the past. Dictatorship is profoundly un-American, the very antithesis of our national identity.
When the prospect is staring us in the face, we need that reaction. But our deep-seated cultural aversion to dictatorship will be of little use if we do not call it out by its recognizable name.
Trump is not running for president. He is running for dictator.
© The UnPopulist 2023