The scenarios are … grim.
The twice-impeached president’s tenure in office was a festival of democratic norm-breaking, culminating in the “big lie” about the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 insurrection. A second term would likely bring more of the same — only this time Trump would have four years of practice under his belt.
To help game out the consequences of another Trump administration, I turned to 21 experts in the presidency, political science, public administration, the military, intelligence, foreign affairs, economics and civil rights. They sketched chillingly plausible chains of potential actions and reactions that could unravel the nation. “I think it would be the end of the republic,” says Princeton University professor Sean Wilentz, one of the historians President Biden consulted in August about America’s teetering democracy. “It would be a kind of overthrow from within. … It would be a coup of the way we’ve always understood America.”
Based on what these experts described, here’s a portrait of a democratic crackup in three phases.
Phase 1: Trump seizes control of the government …
… And installs super loyalists.
“Among the first things he would do, in the initial hours of his presidency, would be to fire [FBI Director] Christopher Wray and purge the FBI,” says Larry Diamond, senior fellow in global democracy at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. Diamond’s research has focused on the plight of democracy in other countries, but lately he’s been thinking and writing about its ailments in America. Trump “would then set about trying to politicize the FBI, the intelligence agencies and as much of the government as possible,” Diamond continues. “He has complete authority to appoint the senior ranks of the National Security Council. So you could see [retired Lt. Gen.] Michael Flynn” — who was pardoned by Trump after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI — “as the national security adviser again, or somebody else who would not represent any of the prudence and restraints and efforts to rein in Trump’s more authoritarian and impulsive instincts.”
FBI directors serve 10-year terms across presidential terms to depoliticize the job. Wray, who was appointed by Trump but lost his favor, ascended to the post in 2017 after Trump fired his predecessor, James Comey, partly to undermine the bureau’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Comey’s firing caused an uproar and helped lead to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller to oversee the Russia probe. It’s doubtful firing Wray would cause much backlash from Trump’s allies in Congress and his base, given widespread Republican criticism of the search of Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida home, to retrieve classified documents. But even if his allies did balk, Trump might not care; he wouldn’t have to face voters again. Trump made his own view of federal law enforcement clear at a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in September: “The FBI and the Justice Department have become vicious monsters controlled by radical-left scoundrels, lawyers and the media who tell them what to do.”
“I think certainly in the power ministries — State, CIA, Defense, Justice — he will look to put true loyalists in,” a senior Pentagon official in the Trump administration, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told me by email. “When I say loyalist, I mean somebody who places their loyalty to him above their oath of office.”
In his first term, Trump burned through Cabinet members at a high rate because they kept failing the loyalty test: Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper objected to using the military to put down racial justice protests. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly called Trump a “f—ing moron.”
Trump supporters chalk up the churn to a chaotic transition that failed to elevate the right talent to key positions. Now, a number of outside groups formed by supporters and former Trump administration officials are aiming to fix that problem by identifying and vetting a government-in-waiting that will be ready to serve Trump or a Trump-like president right away. “We just have to be more organized and more purposeful and more strategic, and ensure that we have the right team of people from the very top … and then ensuring that we’ve got a structure in place that allows us to move forward our agenda,” says Brooke Rollins, director of the Domestic Policy Council during the Trump administration, now president and CEO of the America First Policy Institute.
If Trump installed loyalists at the FBI and Justice Department — picture as the next attorney general Jeffrey Clark, the Justice official who tried to get the department to help overturn the 2020 election — then any lingering federal investigations of Trump could be dropped. An endless series of investigations of Hunter Biden, Liz Cheney, Merrick Garland, Brad Raffensperger, Letitia James and other perceived enemies could begin. “This is a guy for whom political revenge is pretty front and center,” says Steven Levitsky, a professor of government at Harvard University and co-author of the book “How Democracies Die.” “He’s going to come in and use the state to go after his enemies. He has a long list of grievances against people. … He’s going to come in like an authoritarian autocrat on steroids.”
Loyalists would lead other departments as well. While in office, Trump futilely tweeted at the Federal Reserve, seeking a monetary policy that would benefit him politically, and compared Chairman Jerome Powell to an “enemy” like China’s Xi Jinping. Powell’s term is up in 2026. If Trump could get a loyalist through the Senate, interest rates could be manipulated to juice the economy ahead of elections, says Stanford political scientist Francis Fukuyama, author of “The End of History and the Last Man” and, most recently, “Liberalism and Its Discontents.” Meanwhile, a politicized Bureau of Labor Statistics could lead to monthly jobs reports suddenly becoming suspect. Or how about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention? Says Fukuyama: “Do you want people who believe in hydroxychloroquine making these decisions?”
He governs without Senate advice and consent.
Democrats hope to retain control of the Senate in the 2022 midterm elections. But even if they do, a Trump victory in 2024 presupposes that he will have strong coattails to sweep in down-ballot candidates — and a Trumpified Senate could reasonably be expected to approve his nominees for top jobs in his administration.
What if, however, a few Republicans balk at nominees who are just too beyond the pale? Or what if the Democrats hold a majority? Not a problem. By the end of his first term, Trump had mastered the art of governing without the advice and consent of the Senate. In part he was forced to do so by Democratic obstruction and by the terrible dysfunction of the appointments process — an already damaged corner of our democracy. But Trump, more than any other president in memory, relied on “acting” Cabinet secretaries and unconfirmed agency chiefs who wielded delegated authority. “I sort of like ‘acting,’ ” Trump told reporters in 2019. “It gives me more flexibility.”
It can also create chaos. In the last year of Trump’s term, the Government Accountability Office found that his acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and the acting DHS deputy were serving unlawfully, calling into question the legitimacy of their policy decisions. But there’s little to stop a president willing to skirt the rules and run out the clock on his term. It would take both houses of Congress to stand up to him, perhaps wielding the power of the purse as a cudgel, says Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group focused on effective government and smooth presidential transitions. And what if a gridlocked Congress failed to check an out-of-control chief executive? Stier told me: “If the president decides they’re going to install a secretary of defense that isn’t actually confirmed, and Congress isn’t going to try to respond with their powers and try to stop that, I think the reality is that there’s not much that you can do.”
He creates a MAGA civil service.
Installing loyalists at the top of government won’t be enough. As for populating the rank and file with those who echo the former president’s slogan of Make America Great Again, Trump tipped his hand near the end of his term, when he signed an executive order designed to strip as many as tens of thousands of federal employees of their civil service protections. The order created a new category of employees, dubbed Schedule F, targeting those whose jobs arguably include a degree of policymaking. Top officials would be able to fire them almost at will. President Biden rescinded the order shortly after he was inaugurated. If Trump were reelected, he’d reinstate the policy, Axios reported in July.
“They are using the language of good government to justify this, saying that this is the only way that you can discipline poorly performing workers,” Fukuyama says. “But obviously their real intention is to basically politicize the whole civil service. … Because Trump personalizes everything to such an extent, he’s going to be super looking out for revenge and therefore going after, for example, anybody that denied that he won the 2020 election. And this is going to go down to a really low, granular level of American government.”
The approach would restore a patronage system that hasn’t existed in the United States since reforms were enacted in the late 19th century, says Stier. “It is fundamentally this notion that the president should be able to decide, not on the basis of merit, but on the basis of political or personal interest, a larger segment of the workforce,” he says.
The country already has far more politically appointed civil servants — some 4,000 — than most, or all, liberal democracies, Stier explains. We need fewer consigned to that status, not more, he says. As an example of the potential impact, Stier notes that Trump’s Office of Management and Budget reportedly identified nearly 90 percent of its employees as fitting into the new category. The OMB is the nerve center of the government, making vital decisions on budgets and regulations for all the agencies, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Internal Revenue Service to the Defense Department to the intelligence community. Political actors from OMB could reach into all the scattered engine rooms of democracy; other corners of the government could undergo similar transformations. (A Democratic bill to block initiatives like Schedule F is currently before the Senate. But even if it passes, it could always be repealed.)
Rollins, of the America First Policy Institute, rejects the charge that a measure such as Schedule F would harm government. “It’s not really about us-versus-them, or ‘they’re the bad guys in the federal government and we’re the good guys going to put in some draconian new measures that allow us to come in and clear everybody out,’ ” she says. “But what I do believe we have to put in place is a system where those who agree with the agenda of more freedom and less government have people working in those positions that also align and agree with that. It’s okay if you don’t, but maybe you should not necessarily be part of a policymaking process.”
Fukuyama maintains it would mark the death knell of expertise in the U.S. government. “It’s ridiculous when you can’t run a modern government without expertise,” he says, “and they want to try to undo that system because of these right-wing ideas about the ‘deep state’ and the need to root it out.”
Phase 2: Trump deploys the military aggressively at home, while retreating abroad.
Once Trump has centralized power through cadres of vetted loyalists across government, what will he do with it? As The Post has previously chronicled, he’s already told us, in speeches over the past several months, some of his proposals if he decides to run: Execute drug dealers. Move homeless people to tent cities. Eliminate the Education Department. Restrict voting to one day using paper ballots. But there could be much more — including profound shifts in military and foreign policy.
He uses the military to promote his own political power.
After Trump led Secretary of Defense Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley and other officials across Lafayette Square for a photo op in June 2020 amid racial justice protests, Milley apologized to the public for participating in a staged politicized event, enraging Trump. In a second term, such cautionary voices will be fewer, says Peter Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University and a leading expert on civilian-military relations.
“President Trump and his team of loyalists … are going to seek to magnify the president’s already extraordinary power in this area and remove the safeguards … sometimes mockingly called the ‘adults in the room.’ ” Feaver predicts. “Those safeguards don’t prevent the president from doing what he wants to do. They slow the system down from responding to the whim that the president expresses and make sure the president has heard all sides and is willing to own the consequences.”
Some of the ramifications would be small: During a Trump presidency, for instance, expect to see armored troop carriers, soldiers with flashing bayonets and enormous missile launchers stream down Pennsylvania Avenue on Veterans Day as Trump finally gets a military parade. He yearned for one during his first term but was talked out of it by advisers and military officials. It’s “the kind of thing that would probably happen,” Feaver told me.
More substantively, Trump — taking up items listed in an aide’s memo near the end of his term on why he should fire Esper — could restore Confederate symbols to military bases, reinstitute an effective ban on transgender people serving, and dismantle ongoing diversity and inclusion efforts that his Senate allies already lampoon as “woke.” “These would be a series of dumb, dumb moves done for political stunts and Twitter troll point-scoring rather than because this is a sincere effort to improve national security,” Feaver says.
A dramatic and potentially deadly breach with tradition could come if widespread street protests erupt against Trump and his policies, or if disputes over future elections turn violent. When the murder of George Floyd sparked demonstrations for racial justice in 2020, Trump wanted to call in federal troops. Esper and other national security officials opposed the move and Trump never gave the order. But in a second term with a team of loyalists, who would tell Trump no? “This time Trump’s got a hack Defense Department and moves to repress,” says Levitsky, the Harvard professor. “We know that repression of protest very often triggers the escalation of protests; it could get very ugly, very quickly, under Trump.”
In such a scenario, the response of other elements of the federal government and federal law enforcement could be unpredictable. “What that order does is that it fractures the American federal government, because you give an order like that to fire on American civilians and then maybe some agencies will pick it up and some won’t,” says Timothy Snyder, a historian at Yale University who writes about freedom and tyranny. “There’s a very real possibility that giving an order like that leads not to protest being put down, but it leads to some Americans in uniform firing on other Americans in uniform, with the people on both sides being convinced that they are doing the lawful and correct thing.”
American global leadership is finished — much to Putin’s delight.
As for the use of military power abroad, Trump mostly favored withdrawals during his term (though he did authorize a drone strike to kill a key Iranian commander in Iraq in 2020 and, according to the Associated Press, considered an invasion of Venezuela in 2017). Trump wanted to pull U.S. troops out of South Korea, Germany and Somalia, but critics warned that those moves would be devastating to global security and alliances. A second term might see them come to pass, Feaver says: “There’s a higher likelihood that the president would take risky action, but they would be risky actions of retreat, or abandonment of allies … rather than invasions of countries, although downstream they could result in that.”
“One might argue that’s the starting point,” the former senior Pentagon official told me. “Withdraw all U.S. forces and diplomats from Africa, withdraw all U.S. forces from Germany. … And depending on his views of Putin and the conflict in Ukraine, he might just stop the flow of arms, ammunition and material to Kyiv.”
If in 2025 Ukraine still depends on American aid for survival, halting it would hand Vladimir Putin the victory that he was denied in 2022. Recent work to restore America’s leadership and ability to coordinate allies against rogue actors would be undone. “You’ll see a Putin summit,” predicts Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who worked in the State Department for Republican and Democratic secretaries of state. NATO would be undermined if not abandoned. “Trump’s election,” says Wilentz, the Princeton historian, “means the end of the Western alliance.”
American foreign policy would not only be upended vis-a-vis Russia and NATO. “The overriding interest in the Gulf isn’t going to have anything to do with national security,” Miller says. “It’s going to have to do with the security of the Trump Organization.”
Beyond an issue-by-issue restoration of Trump’s isolationist version of an “America First” foreign policy, Miller foresees a ruinous blow to the country’s stature in the eyes of friends and foes. “The Europeans understand that the bloom is off the rose on our capacity to tell and lecture others about what freedom and democracy mean. But never before have they looked into a window where the basic concept of America, the stability of our political system … has been now replaced with one party essentially no longer being willing to respect norms and institutions that are essential to good governance. … Another four years of Donald Trump, and what that could do to faith in government, our institutions, our political stability and our values, would fundamentally open … a more permanent set of questions about America. What does this country stand for now? Is it so deeply divided and polarized that it can’t create a coherent image to the world?”
Intelligence work is harmed.
Up the Potomac River from the Pentagon, at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., a Trump loyalist ensconced in the director’s chair could damage intelligence efforts at the most basic levels, retired Gen. Michael Hayden, who served as CIA director under President George W. Bush, told me over lunch at a diner. “Seasoned people will leave,” he said.
Worse, key allies may be loath to share top secrets. Hayden recalled being able to hop on the phone with spy chiefs around the world to supplement the intelligence-sharing that happens through other channels. But after seeing how Trump handled top secrets at Mar-a-Lago, “Do you want to say something secret to the Americans or not?” Hayden said. “If Trump is in power again, after four years, many of those people won’t ever trust us again.”
In spy work, as in so many professions essential to democracy, respect for facts and the objective search for truth are vital, Hayden added. He said Trump’s reelection would be another sign the country is “spiraling down” into a “post-truth” era.
Phase 3: Political violence and democratic collapse? It’s possible.
Trump did not cause the fissures slowly pulling the country apart. He’s a symptom — but he’s also an accelerant, one whose return to the White House could provoke the final breakdown. “Trump has been able to add to the narrative that if democracy doesn’t deliver what I want, then it must be a flaw in the democracy,” says Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, executive vice president of Freedom House, a nonpartisan democratic advocacy and research group, which has recorded a decade-long decline in political and civil rights in the United States that accelerated during Trump’s term, putting us on par with Romania and Panama.
Ideological, racial and ethnic tensions ramp up.
America is already gripped by an unprecedented level of what political scientists call “pernicious polarization” — stoked and exploited by Trump — and a second Trump term could make it dangerously worse, says Jennifer McCoy, a political science professor at Georgia State University who co-authored a study of the phenomenon for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. No other established democracy since at least 1950 has been so polarized for so long. In nearly half of the dozens of countries McCoy studied, the next step after pernicious polarization was either “electoral autocracy” — where votes are cast but don’t necessarily confer power — or outright “democratic collapse.” “It’s extremely worrisome; we’re in uncharted territory,” McCoy told me. “If Trump does come back, I think it would severely deepen the crisis that we face.”
Racism, including violent racism, is likely to increase. “The most immediate concern of Trump returning to the presidency is it would provide the greatest domestic terrorist threat of our time — violent white supremacist organizations — the ability to rebuild and spread and engage in even more violence and terror,” says Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University and author of “How to Be an Antiracist.” At the same time, “I don’t think the people who are opposed to what Trump would try to build would just go lightly into the night. The ideological collision, potentially violent collision, political collision would just be unlike anything we’ve seen since the Reconstruction era.”
Trump would almost certainly return to the issue that first built his following in the GOP and still animates the party: harsh measures to counter illegal immigration. “America will not be known as the place of the Statue of Liberty but rather as the place where there’s a big wall at the border,” says Vanessa Cárdenas, deputy director of America’s Voice, an immigrant advocacy group. She predicts he’ll find another domestic use for the military: deployment to the border with Mexico. Dehumanizing rhetoric and conspiracy theories about White people losing their status will lead to more mass shootings targeting immigrants, like the one in El Paso in 2019, she adds. “He will just continue to create these really hard moments, terrifying moments, for communities.”
The bonds that bind the Union loosen.
How Trump gets reelected matters. Is it a close but legitimate victory where he loses the popular vote but takes the electoral college, as he did in 2016? Or do the insurrectionist schemes that failed in 2020 — getting state officials to block certification and substitute slates of electors — work in 2024? Perhaps by 2024 such shenanigans will have been made legal in certain swing states. Ultimately, does the GOP-appointed Supreme Court majority or the gerrymandered House of Representatives pick the winner?
The intensity and immediacy of the backlash would vary depending on those circumstances, but serious damage to the democracy may be inevitable either way if Trump is on the ballot, says David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research. “We have a significant percentage of the American electorate right now who have been lied to about the integrity of our elections, who believe that elections … are rigged unless their candidate wins,” he told me. “Yet it’s nowhere close to 50 percent of America overall. But if Trump were to win a narrow victory again, I could see [election denial] ideas … infecting a larger percentage of the electorate. And if a large segment of a democracy’s electorate loses confidence in elections, that democracy probably is unsustainable.”
Differences between states could deepen. “You’d be looking at states — Democratic states — which would be taking over Republican arguments about states’ rights and applying them in a different way to try to limit the reach of the federal government,” says Snyder, the Yale historian. “And then you’d also be seeing something which I think has already started to happen as a result of the overturning of Roe v. Wade: You’re going to see people moving. It might be a peaceful process at first. But I think you’re going to see populations sorting themselves out according to where people feel safe and at home, which will mean red states becoming more red and blue states becoming more blue. And that makes some kind of secession or breakup scenario in the medium term more likely.”
The message of prophets of democratic doom can sound over-the-top, but to dismiss it, experts say, would be naive.
Becker, who with journalist Major Garrett recently published “The Big Truth: Upholding Democracy in the Age of the Big Lie,” says he can foresee increasingly nightmarish scenarios of democratic dominoes falling in the wake of a Trump reelection. “It would be very hard for him to keep the Union together as it is now,” Becker says. That doesn’t necessarily mean civil war; short of armed conflict, there are things “that could weaken the bonds between the states.” An example we’re already seeing is the governors of Texas and Florida sending migrants to D.C. and Massachusetts, based on “the idea that states are competitors rather than collaborators and partners,” Becker says. Actions like that to score points against blue states on any number of issues will multiply, and blue states will retaliate.
“If Trump won reelection in 2024, how long until California says, ‘Why are we sending [more in taxes] for every federal dollar we’re getting back?’ ” Becker says. “ ‘Why aren’t we requiring the federal government to pay for its use of the naval bases in San Diego and Camp Pendleton and other places?’ … There are a lot of people who would say, ‘Oh, that would never happen.’ [But] what we’ve seen in the last two years we thought would never happen.”
“What if the ties that bind us have become so weak that even that can’t result in the enforcement of federal court rulings?” Becker continues. “A democracy that must by definition rely upon the rule of law … is built upon an agreement that these paper or parchment documents have meaning and we will abide by them. … If someone like Trump … comes into office with a clear contempt for the rule of law, which I think time and again he has demonstrated, at what point does the rule of law evaporate? At what point does that agreement evaporate? At what point do the people who oppose him say, ‘Okay, are we going to fight him with one arm tied behind our back, even though he won’t do that?’ ”
The chances of civil war increase.
That’s when the potential for violent conflict is real. For those studying the implications of these trends, “there’s no scenario that worries us more than that the wheels just come off completely from the restraints against violence in the United States,” says Diamond, of Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute. “My biggest concern is what citizens would do to citizens, and what citizens might do to legitimately constituted government authority.”
Some of the preconditions for civil war — a weakening democracy with hindrances to popular participation and divisions along identity lines — are brewing in the United States, says Barbara Walter, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego and the author of “How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them.” Those dynamics could intensify with Trump or a similar figure in the White House, she says. It wouldn’t be an 1860s-style civil war of states vs. states; if it did come to pass, she says, “the type of war we’re going to see is an insurgency. … [Participants] are going to fight a type of guerrilla war, a siege of terror that’s going to be targeted very specifically at certain individuals and certain groups of people, all civilians.”
The election of Trump would not necessarily cause the kinds of people who stormed the Capitol to stand down, just because their goal of elevating their leader has been achieved four years later. “There’s a scenario by which [their aggression] accelerates because they’ve won and they’re emboldened and they have a president who, with a wink and a nod, encourages them not to allow ‘cheating’ and disloyalty at lower levels of authority,” Diamond says. The already commonplace threats and intimidation of public officials, civic volunteers and civil servants — election workers, teachers, health-care workers, librarians — could spread and strengthen, egged on by Trump, driving more from their jobs to be replaced by MAGA loyalists.
Activated rage would not be limited to Trump supporters. A narrow or dubious Trump victory would inspire massive, potentially violent protests on the left. “Then the MAGA, violent, January 6th-style extremists would take that as the signal to rise up,” Diamond says.
“This is not going to be something that’s just done by one side; that’s why the risk of political violence is so severe,” Becker says. “Oftentimes we talk about the passage of [anti-democratic] laws and the taking of power as if that’s the finish line. It’s just the starting line of a really violent and vicious race.”
Snyder — whose books include “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century” and “The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America” — elaborates on what could ensue: “I think there’s a very important miscalculation going on, on the right, which is that ‘if anyone makes a ruckus, it’s going to be us,’ ” he says. “Folks on the right think that chaos is a button that they push. … Another assumption that the right makes which is erroneous is that they’re the only ones who have guns. … They may be carrying more weapons than the other side, but there are so many weapons in the United States, and there are plenty of people who are not on the right who have weapons, and there could be many more very quickly.”
The spiral of violence, response and counter-response would create the kind of disorder that Trump — no longer constrained by his secretary of defense and attorney general — could use to justify invoking the Insurrection Act. Then federal troops would flood the streets of American cities — and this time, not for a parade.
Could it happen here? Would it be that bad? The message of prophets of democratic doom can sound over-the-top — “crackpot, practically,” acknowledges Wilentz, the Princeton historian. But to dismiss it, they say, would be naive — and they urge vigilance and civic engagement to prevent the nightmare from coming true.
A spokesman for Trump did not return my emails seeking the former president’s reaction to claims that his reelection could wreck democracy. A few days after Biden’s recent democracy speech in Philadelphia — in which the current president said, “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic” — Trump responded at a rally: “As you know, this week, Joe Biden came to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to give the most vicious, hateful and divisive speech ever delivered by an American president, vilifying 75 million citizens … as threats to democracy and as enemies of the state. … He’s an enemy of the state, you want to know the truth. … We are the ones trying to save our democracy.”
After four more years of nihilistic energy like that, the experience of being American could well have been transformed into something unrecognizable. “If Trump wins, I don’t imagine some kind of normal inauguration in ’29,” Snyder says. “If we want a normal inauguration in ’29, we need one in ’25 which involves somebody else.”