It is a sign of the times, of course, that former President Donald Trump is able to boast that his numerous legal problems, including indictments which link him to the Jan. 6, 2021, attempted coup at the Capitol, have increased his popularity with his base. Recent polls show his supporters continuing to rally behind him, making him the most likely Republican presidential nominee and showing him running even with President Joe Biden. He has declared that all he needs is one more indictment to win.
The elections are 15 months away and anything can happen before votes are cast, especially since Trump faces several court appearances and possibly trial, with more indictments likely forthcoming. None of that will alienate his base and he continues to enjoy strong backing among most Republican Party leaders. But his candidacy may not necessarily resonate with the wider electorate, especially since his party is blamed for ending the right to an abortion, which is a formidable Democratic Party campaign issue. He has not set out any speciﬁc agenda for a second Trump administration on issues such as the economy and foreign policy. What he has done is turn his false claim of being cheated in the 2020 election into a rallying cry to his supporters, telling them that while he is being “prosecuted” and “persecuted,” it is they who are the real victims.
If Trump wins in November 2024, that could mean that Republicans will retain control of the U.S. House of Representatives and take charge of the U.S. Senate. If that happens, and with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 6-3 conservative majority – including three Justices appointed by him – he will have a perfect trifecta of power and he and his top advisors have not been shy about saying how he intends to use it.
They “are planning a sweeping expansion of presidential power over the machinery of government … reshaping the structure of the executive branch to concentrate far greater authority directly in his hands,” The New Tork Times reported last month. “Their plans to centralize more power in the Oval Ofﬁce stretch far beyond the former president’s recent remarks that he would order a criminal investigation into his political rival, President Biden, signaling his intent to end the post-Watergate norm of Justice Department independence from White House political control.”
There is also “a broader goal: to alter the balance of power by increasing the president’s authority over every part of the federal government that now operates, by either law or tradition, with any measure of independence from political interference by the White House, according to a review of his campaign policy proposals and interviews with people close to him,” The Times said. “That means placing under direct presidential control agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission, which makes and enforces rules for television and internet companies, and the Federal Trade Commission, which enforces various antitrust and other consumer protection rules against businesses.”
The plan also calls for reviving “the practice of ‘impounding’ funds, refusing to spend money Congress has appropriated for programs a president doesn’t like — a tactic that lawmakers banned under President Richard Nixon.” Also, career civil servants will lose their job security, “making it easier to replace them if they are deemed obstacles to his agenda,” The Times said. Ofﬁcials in the intelligence agencies, the State Department and the Defense Department whom Trump has dubbed “the sick political class that hates our country” will be ﬁred.
Such changes will be so sweeping that many Americans probably dismiss them as mere campaign rhetoric, including most Republican leaders, who either genuinely support Trump or are scared of antagonizing him. Most of them echo his claim that he is a victim of a “witch hunt” by a “weaponized” Justice Department to frustrate his bid for the presidency while being unwilling to prosecute Hillary Clinton for using a private server when she was Secretary of State and applying the full force of the law to Biden’s son Hunter and even the President himself over alleged corruption involving Ukraine.
Trump’s main Republican rival, Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis, who polls say is now trailing him by 40 points, ﬁnally acknowledged on Sunday on NBC News that he lost in 2020. But, on the indictments, DeSantis chose to question why the former president has to be tried in a Washington, D.C., court. “I do … believe we need to enact reforms so that Americans have the right to remove cases from Washington, D.C., to their home districts,” DeSantis said in a statement. “Washington, D.C., is a ‘swamp’ and it is unfair to have to stand trial before a jury that is reflective of the swamp mentality.” Of course he knows that the “swamp” usually refers to elected ofﬁcials who work in Washington and not the 713,000 permanent residents, from among whom jury pools are drawn, and 45 percent of whom are African Americans.
Flirting with racism is not new for DeSantis. After winning the Republican nomination for Florida governor in 2018, he said on Fox News that voters should not “monkey this up” by backing his Democratic opponent, Andrew Gillum, an African American. To him, moving jury trials from the “swamp” is obviously more important than the fact that his party’s leading presidential candidate has been indicted for what prosecutors say was an attempt to seize power and that he intends to create the American version of an imperial presidency.
Skeptics had better believe Trump means what he says, especially because he is “being very clear” in what he is saying, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University history professor and author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present,” told MSNBC’s Ali Velshi. “Nobody is ever prepared” for an authoritarian takeover of their country, Ben-Ghiat said. “Authoritarians always tell you what they are going to do as a kind of challenge and as a warning and people don’t listen until it’s too late.”
If more convincing is needed, it can be found in the story of the late Martin Niemöller, a prominent Lutheran pastor in Germany who confessed to being an early Nazi sympathizer and supporter of radical rightwing political movements. When he realized what the future held after Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933, Niemöller turned into a harsh critic of the regime and was imprisoned for the last eight years of Nazi rule. In a post-war lament, he said in a speech on Jan. 6, 1946, believed to have been written for the Confessing Church movement in Frankfurt: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Niemöller’s message, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which has it on display, was that “through silence, indifference, and inaction, Germans had been complicit in the Nazi imprisonment, persecution, and murder of millions of people. He felt that it was particularly egregious that he and other German Protestant church leaders, whom he believed had positions of moral authority, chose to remain silent.” It is also a cautionary tale for the fundamentalist Christian right and Catholics in the U.S. who continue to back Trump.
Not all autocrats and would-be autocrats are Hitler wannabes but, in the fractured state of the nation today, when avowed neo-Nazis, who gained notoriety with their “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, have already been allowed to entrench themselves in the political mainstream, it is a politically brave citizen indeed who is willing to gamble with the future of American democracy.