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Aiming for Dictatorship, Part II
The Republicans and their leading candidate are making it more than clear what's at stake this year and beyond
Next November voters will decide if they want the American democratic project to continue or not. It’s that simple and that stark.
I’d like to tell you that the coup attempt tried on January 6, 2021, ended that day, or at least once Donald Trump was evicted and Joe Biden arrived at the White House two weeks later. But the fact is there continues to be an aggressive, methodical effort to put in place the plan and the machinery to execute a successful takeover of the U.S. government. If the plotters have their way, that would likely mean the end of elections once they’ve taken control of the White House, as well as the end of an independent judiciary, civil service and other federal agencies that have been largely protected (by law or tradition) from political interference by a president.
In “Aiming for Dictatorship,” published in July, I explored this plan based on reporting by The New York Times—the open hostility to liberal government and the will of the people, the arrogant conviction to pursue it, and the scale of dark ambition required to concentrate the power of the presidency in the hands of someone like Trump and enable him to act out his every grievance-filled impulse with abandon.
“What we’re trying to do is identify the pockets of independence and seize them,” Russell T. Vought, a chief architect of this dangerous enterprise, proudly told the Times. That would include impounding funds appropriated by Congress if the president opposed their approved purpose. Vought and other members of this dictator model, part of the so-called Project 2025 transition plan, are focused on “dismantling” what they see as America’s “rogue administrative state.”
This week The Washington Post further reported on this planning, describing the ways in which their dark plot would fulfill Trump’s desire to seek revenge against his enemies, real or imagined. This would include empowering the Justice Department to investigate critics and opponents he despises: Think former staffers such as Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley, Attorney General William Barr and Chief of Staff John Kelly, as well as journalists and political opponents including President Biden.
As the Post explains, “To facilitate Trump’s ability to direct Justice Department actions, his associates have been drafting plans to dispense with 50 years of policy and practice intended to shield criminal prosecutions from political considerations.”
Recall how Trump justifies such behavior by claiming the 91 felony charges and four federal and state indictments against him are just political persecution and intended to undermine his march to the White House in 2024. “This is third-world-country stuff, ‘arrest your opponent,’” Trump said at a campaign rally last month in New Hampshire. “And that means I can do that, too.”
To help make that happen, Trump and his allies are bent on replacing Justice Department lawyers who they deem too weak to pursue Trump’s bidding—and that includes conservative Federalist Society lawyers. “Their aim,” notes The New York Times, “is to reduce the chances that politically appointed lawyers would frustrate a more radical White House agenda—as they sometimes did when Mr. Trump was in office, by raising objections to his desires for certain harsher immigration policies or for greater personal control over the Justice Department, among others.”
For many of us, it can seem unfathomable that Trump continues to get support from his cultist base, but even more from Republican leadership, lawyers and policy professionals. Consider my explanation in July when grappling with this Project 2025 plan.
They don’t care that he’s a criminal. They don’t care if he’s a convicted sexual abuser or rapist. They don’t care if he’s never read the Bible or espouses violence. They don’t believe in government to make lives better. They reject democracy and the principles of equality.
They want power and they’ll pursue it by any means necessary to get it and keep it. Their plan for 2025 and another term makes clear why so many Republicans have looked away from every desecration and degradation and violation committed by Trump.
When you hear Trump say chilling things to his sycophants and other rally-goers like “I am your retribution,” he’s telling the rest of us to take him seriously and literally. Also on the agenda to punish perceived enemies: Invoke the Insurrection Act on day one so Trump can deploy the military domestically against demonstrations. (Does anyone doubt there’d be massive protests if he were—heaven forbid—to be inaugurated again?)
Asked by the Post about this plotting to prosecute, Barr laughed it off: “I’m quivering in my boots.” John Kelly was less amused about a Trump second term: “There is no question in my mind he is going to go after people that have turned on him.” Former Trump lawyer and critic Ty Cobb predicts a different fate: “Trump himself is more likely to rot in jail than anyone on his alleged list.”
The election results on Tuesday provided reason to rejoice as a strong majority (nearly 57 percent) of Ohio voters backed embedding abortion rights into their state constitution and Virginia voters returned both chambers of that state’s legislature to a Democratic majority after Gov. Glenn Youngkin tried to push a 15-week federal ban. This is democracy at work; the will of the people still has the power to overcome an extremist minority bent on stripping away basic rights and shoving its brutal, backward visions down our throats.
But let’s not doubt that the anti-democratic push is still in full swing—to limit access to the ballot box, to undermine vote counting, to deny the will of the people in order to regain the levers of power. Nor should we assume that this campaign and the fascistic mindset and plotting demonstrated by Project 2025 depends on Trump. Even if he failed to win the nomination or keeled over tomorrow, they would keep going and work to install a more capable version of Trump.
Note the response to Tuesday night’s democratic success by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. “Thank goodness that most of the states in this country don’t allow you to put everything on the ballot, because pure democracies are not the way to run a country,” he said on Newsmax.
Because, of course, the last thing Republicans like Santorum want to do is let the voters decide the kind of country they want. “You put very sexy things like abortion and marijuana on the ballot, and a lot of young people come out and vote,” Santorum complained.
Tuesday night might quiet for awhile the panic caused by the New York Times/Sienna Poll published Sunday claiming that Trump is leading Biden in five battleground states. A year out, such a poll should not be taken seriously. And we learned Tuesday, once again, that the ending of Roe v. Wade is a serious motivator to stop the tyranny of the minority.
That fervor is likely to carry right through to November 2024 (and beyond). So will the danger that hostile efforts like Project 2025 make clear. Either Americans vote for the survival of the American democratic experiment—now 247 years old—or they can watch the Republican autocrats toss it all away. Count me among the optimistic ones who believe that—as this year unfolds—most Americans will understand the choice they must make.
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