Ever since the U.S. Senate failed to convict Donald Trump for his role in the January 6 insurrection and disqualify him from running for president again, a lot of people, myself included, have been warning that a second Trump term could bring about the extinction of American democracy. Essential features of the system, including the rule of law, honest vote tallies, and orderly succession, would be at risk.
Today, however, we can do more than just speculate about how a second Trump term would unfold, because the MAGA movement has been telegraphing its plans in some detail. In a host of ways—including the overt embrace of illiberal foreign leaders; the ruthless behavior of Republican elected officials since the 2020 election; Trump allies’ elaborate scheming, as uncovered by the House’s January 6 committee, to prevent the peaceful transition of power; and Trump’s own actions in the waning weeks of his presidency and now as ex-president—the former president and his allies have laid out their model and their methods.
Begin with the model. Viktor Orbán has been the prime minister of Hungary twice. His current tenure began in 2010. He is not a heavy-handed tyrant; he has not led a military coup or appointed himself maximum leader. Instead, he follows the path of what he has called “illiberal democracy.” Combining populist rhetoric with machine politics, he and his party, Fidesz, have rotted Hungarian democracy from within by politicizing media regulation, buying or bankrupting independent media outlets, appointing judges who toe the party line, creating obstacles for opposition parties, and more. Hungary has not gone from democracy to dictatorship, but it has gone from democracy to democracy-ish. Freedom House rates it only partly free. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance’s ratings show declines in every democratic indicator since Fidesz took power.
The MAGA movement has studied Orbán and Fidesz attentively. Hungary is where Tucker Carlson, the leading U.S. conservative-media personality (who is sometimes mentioned as a possible presidential contender), took his show for a week of fawning broadcasts. Orbán is the leader whom the Conservative Political Action Conference brought in as a keynote speaker in August. He told the group what it loves to hear: “We cannot fight successfully by liberal means.” Trump himself has made clear his admiration for Orbán, praising him as “a strong leader and respected by all.”
The U.S. is an older and better-established democracy than Hungary. How, then, could MAGA acolytes emulate Orbán in the American context? To simplify matters, set aside the possibility of a stolen or contested 2024 election and suppose that Trump wins a fair Electoral College victory. In this scenario, beginning on January 20, 2025, he and his supporters set about bringing Budapest to the Potomac by increments. Their playbook:
First, install toadies in key positions. Upon regaining the White House, the president systematically and unabashedly nominates personal loyalists, with or without qualifications, to Senate-confirmed jobs. Assisted by the likes of Johnny McEntee, a White House aide during his first term, and Kash Patel, a Pentagon staffer, he appoints officials willing to purge conscientious civil servants, neutralize or fire inspectors general, and ignore or overturn inconvenient rules.
A model for this type of appointee is Jeffrey Clark. A little-known lawyer who led the Justice Department’s environmental division, he secretly plotted with Trump and the White House after the 2020 election to replace the acting attorney general and then use the Justice Department’s powers to pressure officials in Georgia and other states to overturn Joe Biden’s victory. Only the threat of mass resignations at the Justice Department derailed the scheme.
Trump has plenty of Jeffrey Clarks to choose from, and a Republican-controlled Senate would confirm most or all of them. But no matter if the Senate balks or if Democrats control it. Trump will simply do more, much more, of what he raised to an art in his first term: appointing “acting” officials to circumvent Senate confirmation—a practice that, the Associated Press reports, “prompted muttering, but no more than that, from Republican senators whose job description includes confirming top administration aides.”
Second, intimidate the career bureaucracy. On day one of his second term, Trump signs an executive order reinstating an innovation he calls Schedule F federal employment. This designation would effectively turn tens of thousands of civil servants who have a hand in shaping policy into at-will employees. He approved Schedule F in October of his final year in office, but he ran out of time to implement it and President Biden rescinded it.
Career civil servants have always been supervised by political appointees, and, within the boundaries of law and regulation, so they should be. Schedule F, however, gives Trump a new way to threaten bureaucrats with retaliation and termination if they resist or question him. The result is to weaken an important institutional safeguard against Trump’s demands to do everything from harass his enemies to alter weather forecasts.
Third, co-opt the armed forces. Having identified the military as a locus of resistance in his first term, Trump sets about cashiering senior military leaders. In their place, he promotes and installs officers who will raise no objection to stunts such as sending troops to round up undocumented immigrants or intimidate protesters (or shoot them). Within a couple of years, the military will grow used to acting as a political instrument for the White House.
Fourth, bring law enforcement to heel. Even more intimidating to the president’s opponents than a complaisant military is his securing full control, at long last, over the Justice Department.
In his first term, both of Trump’s attorneys general bowed to him in some respects but stood up to him when it mattered most: Jeff Sessions by recusing himself from the Russia investigation and allowing a special counsel to be appointed; Bill Barr by refusing to endorse Trump’s election lies and seize voting machines. Everyday prosecutions remained in the hands of ordinary prosecutors.
That now changes. Trump immediately installs political operatives to lead DOJ, the FBI, and the intelligence and security agencies. Citing as precedent the Biden Justice Department’s investigations of the January 6 events, the White House orchestrates criminal investigations of dozens of Trump’s political enemies, starting with critics such as the ousted Representative Liz Cheney and whistleblowers such as the former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson. With or without winning convictions, multipronged investigations and prosecutions bankrupt their targets financially and reputationally, menacing anyone who opposes the White House.
Most actions carried out by the Justice Department and national-security agencies remain routine in 2025 and beyond, but that doesn’t matter: No prosecution is above suspicion of political influence, and no Trump adversary is exempt from fear. Just as important is whom the government chooses not to prosecute or harass: It stays its hand against MAGA street militias, election shysters, and other allies of the president. The result is that federal law enforcement and the security apparatus become under Trump what Trump claims they are under Biden: political enforcers.
Fifth, weaponize the pardon. In Trump’s first term, officials stood up to many of his illegal and unethical demands because they feared legal jeopardy. The president has a fix for that, too. He wasn’t joking when he mused about pardoning the January 6 rioters. In his first term, he pardoned some of his cronies and dangled pardons to discourage potential testimony against him, but that was a mere dry run. Now, unrestrained by politics, he offers impunity to those who do his bidding. They may still face jeopardy under state law and from professional sanctions such as disbarment, but Trump’s promises to bestow pardons—and his threats to withhold them—open an unprecedented space for abuse and corruption.
Sixth, the final blow: defy court orders. Naturally, the president’s corrupt and lawless actions incite a blizzard of lawsuits. Members of Congress sue to block illegal appointments, interest groups sue to overturn corrupt rulemaking, targets of investigations sue to quash subpoenas, and so on. Trump meets these challenges with long-practiced aplomb. As he has always done, he uses every tactic in the book to contest, stonewall, tangle, and politicize litigation. He creates a perpetual-motion machine of appeals and delays while court after court rules against him.
Ultimately, however, matters come to a head. He loses on appeal and faces court orders to stop what he is doing. At that point, he simply ignores the judgments.
A famous precedent suggests that he would get away with it. In 1832, the Supreme Court ruled that states were illegally seizing Indian lands. President Andrew Jackson, a racist proponent of forced assimilation, declined to enforce the verdict. The states continued stealing Indian lands, and the federal government joined in. Trump, who hung a portrait of Jackson near his desk in the Oval Office, no doubt knows this bit of history. He probably also knows the consequences Jackson faced for openly defying the Court: none.
With reelection in the balance, defying the courts was a bridge the president did not cross in his first term. From the beginning of that term, when the Supreme Court scrutinized his Muslim travel ban, to the very end, when the Court swatted away his blitz of spurious election lawsuits, the judiciary was the strongest bastion of the rule of law. Its prestige and authority were such that not even a belligerent sociopath dared defy it.
Yet having been reinstated and never again to face voters, Trump now has no compunctions. The courts’ orders, he claims, are illegitimate machinations of Democrats and the “deep state.” Ordered to reinstate an illegally fired inspector general, the Justice Department nonetheless bars her from the premises. Ordered to rescind an improperly adopted regulation, the Department of Homeland Security continues to enforce it. Ordered to provide documents to Congress, the National Archives shrugs.
At first, the president’s lawlessness seems shocking. Yet soon, as Republicans defend it, the public grows acclimated. To salvage what it can of its authority, the Supreme Court accommodates Trump more than the other way around. It becomes gun-shy about crossing him.
And so we arrive: With the courts relegated to advisory status, the rule of law no longer obtains. In other words, America is no longer a liberal democracy, and by this point, there is not much anyone can do about it.
In the first term, resignation threats acted as a brake on Trump. They thwarted the Jeffrey Clark scheme, for instance. A resignation threat by the CIA director deterred Trump from installing a hack as her deputy. A resignation threat by the White House counsel deterred him from firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Now, however, the president has little to fear politically, because he will never again appear on a ballot. If officials threaten to resign, he can replace or circumvent them. Their departures may slow him down but cannot stop him. Besides, he finds ways to remind his subordinates that angering him is a risky business. Noisy resignations will result in harassment by his supporters (the sorts of torments that hundreds of honest election officials have endured) and—you never know!—maybe by federal prosecutors and the IRS, too.
Might he go so far as to turn even Republicans in Congress against him? Unlikely. We should rationally assume that if Republicans protected him after he and his supporters attempted a coup, they will protect him no matter what else he does. Republicans are now so thoroughly complicit in his misdeeds that anything that jeopardizes him politically or legally also jeopardizes them. He already showed in his first term that he can and will stonewall congressional investigations. Unless Democrats drive Republicans into the political wilderness, overriding his veto (which requires a two-thirds vote of both chambers) is nigh-on impossible. Impeachment no longer frightens or even concerns him, because he has weathered two attempts and come back triumphantly.
Of course, there are congressional hearings, contempt-of-court orders, outraged New York Times editorials. Trump needn’t care. The MAGA base, conservative media, and plenty of Republicans in Congress defend their leader with whatever untruths, conspiracy theories, and what-abouts are needed. Fox News and other pro-Trump outlets play the role of state media, even if out of fear more than enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, MAGA forces are busy installing loyalists as governors, election officials, district attorneys, and other crucial state and local positions. They do not succeed in every attempt, but over the course of four years, they gather enough corrupt officials to cast doubt on the legitimacy of any election they lose. They invent creative ways to obstruct anyone who challenges them politically. And they are not shy about encouraging thuggish supporters to harass and menace “traitors.”
And so, after four years? America has crossed Freedom House’s line from “free” to “partly free.” The president’s powers are determined by what he can get away with. His opponents are harried, chilled, demoralized. He is term-limited, but the MAGA movement has entrenched itself. And Trump has demonstrated in the United States what Orbán proved in Hungary: The public will accept authoritarianism, provided it is of the creeping variety.
“We should not be afraid to go against the spirit of the age and build an illiberal political and state system,” Orbán declared in 2014. Trump and his followers openly plan to emulate Orbán. We can’t say we weren’t warned.