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The Real Danger (guest post)

I can't claim credit for the following post; it's the brainchild of a friend of mine, the most brilliant analyst of democracy -- and what it will take to regain ours -- I have ever met. The writer in me couldn't resist reworking the text for style and format, and adding a tidbit here and there. I am posting it now (on the heels of a spirited debate with some of you about the advisability of a Biden withdrawal, and ahead of an analysis of the Supreme Court decision on presidential impunity) because I believe this is the most salient issue of the current political moment.

Amid the horror-struck speculation about what a second Trump term might look like, and the lists of Trumps policy preferences and likely uses and abuses of power, the single most important consideration is being overlooked.

Trump will never voluntarily leave office again if he regains it.

Even people who fear the prospect of a second Trump term seem to be presuming that the country would be dealing with just that, a term: one final four-year Trump tour.  Most of his supporters, as well as those considering voting for him, probably have the same prospect in mind: a second and final term, as stipulated by the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution.  In interviews on other topics, Trump rally-goers have expressed their firm conviction that he would not abuse his powers, even in ways he has explicitly stated that he would. 

This working premise -- that Trump would hand over the presidency at the end of a second legal term -- is disastrously incorrect.  Evidence from dozens of countries across every continent establishes that no matter how would-be authoritarians achieve power, they never, ever relinquish it unless compelled to.

In their witty 2011 examination of the topic, Dictator's Handbook, political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith suggest three overriding rules of the authoritarian experience:

1. Dictators never leave office voluntarily.

Taking this reality to heart allowed a few individuals to predict by the spring of 2020 that Trump would not step down of his own accord if defeated in November.  Their predictions were greeted with the verbal equivalent of pats on the head. 

2. The dictator's coalition determines his survival.

No dictator achieves or keeps power by himself.  He is backed by a coalition that puts and keeps him in place.  That coalition may be shifting and dynamic, but the dictator alone does not decide whether he gets to stay in power.  His coalition decides.  If the coalition stays unified and strong, the dictator stays; if it splits or wavers, he goes. 

The lesson here is to resist the temptation to obsess about the man or woman at the top, and focus instead the network holding them in place.  That means examining the makeup of that coalition, its strength and unity, its potential weaknesses, and ways of amplifying them.

Trump's first term coalition, remember, was not strong and blindly loyal enough to keep him in power in 2021.  Even his sycophantic attorney general flatly refused to peddle the lie that he had won the election; Republican state officials defended the validity and accuracy of their vote counts; and crucially, the U.S. military was led by men and women devoted to the ethic of nonpartisanship that permeates that institution.  Top brass was not part of the Trump coalition.

One way of understanding the kaleidoscopic events of late 2020 and early 2021 is therefore as follows.  Trump was playing the textbook role of a rising dictator, deploying every stratagem to cling to power -- exactly as should have been expected.  His moves were perfectly in line with those of his peers around the world and across history.  Only in an American context were they breathtakingly unimaginable.  And only because his coalition was still too sparsely scattered across the institutions that mattered did the gambit fail.

Let's not get caught off-guard again.  Let's not give him the opportunity to try again.

3. All other things being equal, the military decides.

Under  most conditions, the military is the decisive element in a successful dictator’s coalition.  As long as the dictator has the loyalty especially of top military brass and elite or special units, he usually gets to stay no matter how badly other aspects of national life are going.  The examples of this rule are legion: Mubarak in Egypt for years, Maduro in Venezuela, and so on.  The fall of the dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt and Burkina Faso between 2011 and 2015 show what happens when the military withdraws its support from the autocratic ruler.  Zimbabwe is another such cautionary tale.  In 2017, at 37 years in power, Robert Mugabe was the longest ruling dictator on the African continent.  His country's economy lay in ruins and he was strongly opposed at home and internationally.  Yet, with the backing of the army, he stayed, decade after decade.  But then, in 2017, his wife allied with younger politicians and army officers and made a move against the older top generals.  Abruptly, the eternal dictator was toppled. 

What are the implications of these three rules for the United States today?

First: Trump has no intention of leaving power should he regain the presidency in 2024.  Given his own track record and the pattern of other rulers with similarly authoritarian personality types, this should be the working premise.

Second: If he regains office, Trump will remedy the decisive weaknesses of his first coalition.  He will place all key institutions under the control of True Believers — with particular attention to the Justice Department and the military.  In fact, he is already in the process of putting this resolve into practice, within the Republican National Committee, for example.   The long hold on top military appointments imposed by a lone senator through 2023 would have left Trump a huge swathe of positions to fill, just as Sen. Mitch McConnell's refusal to bring Barak Obama's judicial appointees up for a vote supplied a historic opportunity for Trump to remake the U.S. judiciary. 

Third: The July 1 Supreme Court decision guaranteeing a president impunity for a vast range of activities has immeasurably facilitated any machinations Trump might undertake to guarantee his grip on power as 2028 approaches. That is, not only is he determined to stay, this decision can only fortify such a resolve, and increases the likelihood he'll pull it off.  

Call to Action

Given the specifics of Trump's own history as a compulsive rule-breaker who has already tried to ignore the results of an electoral loss, as well as the overwhelming evidence from other dictatorially inclined individuals across time and cultures, the "Trump Stays" message is badly underweighted relative to its probability, the severity of its implications, and its potential for impact on borderline voters.  Therefore:

1. Turn up the volume

A comprehensive communication plan to inject this issue into the electoral discussion with more force, vigor and impact is needed.  At best, the Trump Unlimited prospect hangs in the background of passionate discussions of more familiar issues, such as abortion or retribution against perceived enemies.  In a report on the Trump threat earlier this year, for example, the cutting-edge organization Protect Democracy noted only as a final point: “But we shouldn’t write off the [Trump] threat not to leave as outlandish or impossible.” This is the type of downplaying language and secondary emphasis that needs to change.  We need to move from “not impossible” to “highly probable.”  We need to move from “maybe outlandish but let’s not write it off” to “90%, working premise,” loudly declared as such, and centered in future discussions of the threat of a second Trump presidency.

2. Focus the "Trump Stays" message on the swing states 

A not insignificant number of pro-Trump voters or on-the-fence voters leaning his way might change their minds if they knew that Trump would attempt to become president for life.  An end to the 22nd Amendment -- and a chief executive with no term limit -- is not what they're bargaining for, in spite of being attracted to Trump in so many other ways.  A communication strategy to turn up the volume on this issue should therefore home in on the crucial swing districts in swing states, where relatively small changes within voting blocs may have a decisive impact on the overall outcome.

Thus, any effective communication strategy on this issue must first identify the likely key districts within swing states that require intensive focus.  It might also focus on districts hosting military bases, and concentrations of servicemen and -women, for whom the Constitution remains sacrosanct.  The most effective panoply of potential platforms for spreading this word should be sussed out, as well as spokespeople known to local voters and voters in uniform and trustworthy to them.  Then comes creativity.  All the eye-catching ways this information might be expressed, all the ways most likely to land, must be used.

Remember, nothing in these considerations represents propaganda or smoke and mirrors or dirty pool.  Everything here is true.  Although aimed at preventing a second Trump term, it is not at its heart a partisan proposition.  Its fundamental objective is to preserve an American government of and by the people, in which talented leaders of both parties or parties yet unborn have a chance of gaining office and serving with the consent of the governed.      

3 comentários

“The American Political parties have long ceased to be transmission belts for ideas. Instead they have become private paths to privilege, meticulously guarded, attacking critics with acrimony and violence.”

Agreed. I have no reason to believe that a Democrat win would result in anything but more of resuming the same swift movement towards a WHO, UN, +, +, One World debacle.

There is apparently no adult capable of doing what MUST be doe to reduce our debt.

No internal fortitude to commence the required steps that would not appease voters - starting with stepping up social security age triggers (becoming more difficult daily as the population ages.)

The status quo’s not working - I’ll try door #2…


On the point of "The Military Decides," our approximately 600,000 soldiers are not the semi-literate cannon fodder that will automatically obey their superior. They could control a modest circle around their base, but would get too strung out beyond that base. Extreme MAGA supporters might add some manpower, but their discipline would be questionable. It could get very messy in certain military bases.

One organization not mentioned by David is the local police. There are approximately 800,000 in the US, but their tactical position is the opposite of the Army & Marines. They are greatly outnumbered in their city/town. But they need to be taken into consideration since the two major national police organizations have publicly supported Trump, and police…


David Grunwald
David Grunwald
03 de jul.

Sarah, Good to see you posting. I might add that what is happening now has been in the works for some time. The idea that one has to pay for representatives by funding them, our inability to craft a working foreign policy and the COVID debacle with its self-serving winners and masses of silent losers and even more fundamentally, our loss of purpose, pride and real understanding of right and wrong - all of this has opened the door to Trump and other like him who are racing to the doors to get lifeboats for their friends and donors even if they know they have no plan on what to do once they save their skins in the World War n…

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