How it could happen here
The authoritarian playbook for 2025 (and what to do about it)
This week, Donald Trump won the Iowa caucuses by 30 points. He is solidly on track to be the Republican nominee for president in November.
His win underscores a reality that — let’s face it — we have known deep down for a long time. There is a very real chance that at noon on January 20 of next year, an aspiring autocrat could again be president of the United States.
This time, the autocratic faction has a comprehensive plan
In 2016, Donald Trump was as surprised as anyone that he won. That’s part of why his first-term agenda was halting and improvised, but after years of on-the-job training he learned how to power-engineer the federal government to his liking.
This time around, he and his supporters are prepared to quickly implement a program that pushes the levers of executive power far beyond the constraints encountered by past presidents. This is the central conclusion of an extensive new report released today by six of my colleagues taking stock of Trump’s pledges and promises, along with hefty policy and legal analysis.
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Before I dig into their findings, I want to stress the diverse backgrounds and technical expertise of the authors: Amanda Carpenter was communications director for Sen. Ted Cruz. Erica Newland was an attorney for the Department of Justice under Trump and Obama. Genevieve Nadeau was a lawyer for the Department of Homeland Security under Obama. Aisha Woodward was chief of staff to a Democrat holding one of the most competitive districts in the House. Deana El-Mallawany was an Assistant U.S. Attorney. Justin Florence was Associate White House Counsel.
Together, they understand the intricacies of executive power, institutional checks on that power, and how inter-branch balances affect our democracy. And they are, it’s fair to say, very worried.
Six ways our democracy dies
In the report, which is 60+ pages and still worth reading in full (and, honestly, bookmarking for future reference), the authors focus on six specific threats. These are the likely centerpoints of a second Trump term. None of these are speculative — all of them are plans that Trump and/or his supporters have openly discussed. And most of them stem directly from the authoritarian faction’s experience straining against our democracy’s guardrails the last time around.
Pardons to license lawbreaking: During Trump’s first term, he discovered that he could leverage the pardon power to induce witnesses against him into silence. In a second term, he has indicated he would further abuse pardons to incite political violence, incentivize lawbreaking for his benefit, and render himself above the law.
Directing investigations against critics and rivals: Retribution is the dominant theme of Trump’s 2024 campaign, and his allies are making plans to eliminate the Department of Justice’s traditional prosecutorial independence to give Trump greater personal control to direct law enforcement against his perceived opponents and insulate himself from accountability.
Regulatory retaliation: In addition to steering prosecutorial discretion via the Department of Justice, Trump has vowed to consolidate and wield federal regulatory power to reward political loyalty and punish his critics, particularly those associated with the media. There are numerous reports of this regulatory retaliation happening during Trump’s first term, and plans for a second include removing those obstacles that limited him before.
Federal law enforcement overreach: Trump’s declaration that immigration is “poisoning the blood of our country” is a grim foreshadowing of how he will invoke the Alien Enemies Act, a wartime provision dating back to the Alien and Sedition Acts. Once Trump has that power, he has also expressed his will to expand the footprint of federal law enforcement to police cities and shut down lawful protests.
Domestic deployment of the military: A central hallmark of American democracy is that the U.S. military may not be used against American citizens. But Trump plans to abuse the Insurrection Act to order military forces to quash dissent and target vulnerable communities.
The sections above not only detail the evidence to suggest why the threat appears to be genuine, but also discuss the extensive legal, administrative, and practical issues surrounding each scenario.
Finally, the report considers the elephant in the room: Trump’s repeated flirtation with staying in office beyond a second term. Obviously, the 22nd Amendment makes that scenario patently unconstitutional.
But that may not be the rock-solid reassurance that we’d all hope.
We are not powerless against the authoritarian agenda
I won’t lie — this is a dark read. In some ways, that darkness is also part of the agenda. A key component of how autocrats win is by demoralizing their opposers, sapping them of the energy to push back.
But we are not powerless, even if Trump wins the election. The authors detail ten critical steps that all of us can take, starting now, to protect our democracy from this darkness:
Create pro-democracy coalitions before the crisis arrives.
Take anti-democratic ideas and promises seriously.
Keep a broad pro-democracy movement united against the acute, big-picture autocratic danger.
Support Republicans who stand firm for democratic institutions.
Rally around non-partisan, independent public servants.
Uphold the rule of law and democratic institutions, and always repudiate violence.
Protect the first targets, and arrange now to advocate for the most vulnerable.
Evaluate security at the community, household, and personal level.
Work to protect free and fair elections in 2026 and 2028.
Continue building the democracy of tomorrow.
Read more: What we can do.
To be clear, I hope beyond hope that the authors are wrong, that none of this research and preparation ends up being necessary, that our democracy is never tested to such a profound extent. But hope isn’t a plan. So just in case, I’m reading, downloading, and bookmarking this document (digital version / PDF version). And you should too.
The highbrow “Big Lie”
When it comes to false claims about the 2020 election, there really isn’t that much to understand. A presidential candidate decisively lost an election, was unwilling to accept his loss, concocted a barrage of convoluted and flimsy lies, and aimed them squarely at our democracy in an attempt to hold on to power. In doing so, he and the people around him did lasting — potentially permanent — harm to our institutions (and to the people who make them work). For most of us, that’s all we really need to know.
David Weinberg is not most of us. As a former senior staffer on the January 6 Select Committee, David is much more familiar with the intricacies and details of the lies that led to the attack on the U.S. Capitol.
On the third anniversary of the events of January 6, David listened to House Speaker Mike Johnson and GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik tell a more refined and genteel version of the Big Lie — a legalistic-sounding account full of references to “states’ rights” and “unconstitutional changes to election rules.” David was struck by some of the peculiar details of their seemingly less tin-foil-hatted claims.
And he was not impressed. Not only are they pushing debunked arguments similar to Trump’s more delusional claims, but their cynical opportunism and brazen willingness to say “up is down” is a grim portent for the 2024 election.
Read his whole piece here.
An important win for free expression
I want to close with a piece of good news in Florida. A federal district judge allowed Protect Democracy’s case challenging a Florida school board’s removal and restriction of books from public school libraries to proceed, making it clear that the case weighs heavily on censorship and the First Amendment.
If you want to read more about the case itself and why protecting free expression in school libraries is protecting our democracy, my colleague Jon Steinman has a helpful writeup of the encouraging development and what it means here.
Shalini Goel Agarwal, Protect Democracy’s lead counsel on the case, puts it bluntly:
Make no mistake, this was a win for democracy. After targeting books centering people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals and ignoring its own review committees’ recommendations, the government baldly asserted that this could not be viewpoint discrimination because the First Amendment does not apply to school libraries. The federal court ruling makes clear that they are wrong. Censorship does not serve students today, who must be prepared to be the citizens of our democracy tomorrow.
This is just one example of the many positive developments for our democracy happening every day. Part of the reason we’re writing this briefing is to highlight the good news stories — the many lights in the darkness. You can help us spread the word. We will never use this space to ask for donations or support, we promise; all we ask is that you send this to friends and colleagues and invite them to subscribe.
What else we’re tracking:
I live in California, and, like most voters, I don’t love that my local election outcomes are mostly single-party. And so I have been thrilled to see the movement for proportional representation in the Golden State gaining ground. This week, the coalition released their roadmap detailing why it would work and how to make it happen. Check them out.
Following the win for democracy in Escambia County, I’ve been reflecting on the role of public schools as laboratories of democracy. Some additional reading on the subject: Adam Harris in The Atlantic on how Reconstruction built education into a public good; Melissa Gira Grant on the groups angling to decimate public education for The New Republic.
I love each and every one of the essays in this new collection, The Realistic Promise of Multiparty Democracy, from New America. This comes out of an important conference at Stanford last April. Together, these essays lay a compelling case for (and path to) fusion voting and multi-partyism in the United States. Didi Kuo’s piece on why parties are essential democratic institutions (in short, “the history of parties is the history of democracy itself”) is, to me, especially compelling.
Dan Vallone — who is both a veteran and a veteran democracy communications expert — writes compellingly about how America’s veterans are civic assets in The Messenger. (Initiatives like Count Every Hero are proof of this idea.)
Most electoral reformers, including Protect Democracy, focus on changes that can happen through statute, without amending the Constitution. With good reason: amendment is really, really difficult. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be prepared. Larry Schwartztol and Justin Florence in The Atlantic: “Amending the Constitution Is Impossible Until Suddenly It’s Not.”
Elections don’t run themselves. They happen because of hard work by over 10,000 election officials across the country. Issue One’s Faces of Democracy series profiles some of these officials, and in the process, helps explain how our elections work. This week: Wesley Wilcox, a Florida Republican passionate about cybersecurity and Rubik’s Cubes.