Last Exit From Autocracy

America survived one Trump term. It wouldn’t survive a second.

photo of a road with a stop sign ending at a cliff
Photo rendering by Patrick White

Updated at 11:14 a.m. ET on October 14, 2020.

The most important ballot question in 2020 is not Joe Biden versus Donald Trump, or Democrat versus Republican. The most important question is: Will Trump get away with his corruption—will his crooked and authoritarian tactics succeed?

If the answer is yes, be ready for more. Much more.

Americans have lavished enormous powers on the presidency. They have also sought to bind those powers by law. Yet the Founders of the republic understood that law alone could never eliminate the risks inherent in the power of the presidency. They worried ceaselessly about the prospect of a truly bad man in the office—a Caesar or a Cromwell, as Alexander Hamilton fretted in “Federalist No. 21.” They built restraints: a complicated system for choosing the president, a Congress to constrain him, impeachment to remove him. Their solutions worked for two and a half centuries. In our time, the system failed.

Through the Trump years, institutions have failed again and again to check corruption, abuse of power, and even pro-Trump violence.

As Trump took office, I published a cover story in this magazine, arguing that his presidency could put the United States on the road to autocracy. “By all early indications,” I wrote, “the Trump presidency will corrode public integrity and the rule of law—and also do untold damage to American global leadership, the Western alliance, and democratic norms around the world. The damage has already begun, and it will not be soon or easily undone. Yet exactly how much damage is allowed to be done is an open question.”

We can now measure the damage done. As we near the 2020 vote, the Trump administration is attempting to cripple the Postal Service to alter the election’s outcome. The president has successfully refused to comply with subpoenas from congressional committees chaired by members of the opposing party. He has ignored ethics guidelines, junked rules on security clearances, and shut down two counterintelligence investigations of his Russian business links, one by the FBI, the other by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. He has assigned prison police and park police to new missions as street enforcers, bypassing the National Guard and the FBI. As in 2016, he is once again welcoming Russian help for his election campaign—only this time, he controls the agencies that are refusing to answer the questions of Congress and the American people.

Those who would minimize the threat that Trump poses take solace in his personal weaknesses: his laziness, his ignorance of the mechanics of government. But the president is not acting alone. The Republican politicians who normally might have been expected to restrain Trump are instead enabling and empowering him.

Perhaps the most consequential change Trump has wrought is in the Republican Party’s attitude toward democracy. I worked in the administration of George W. Bush, who was the first president since the 1880s to win the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote. Bush recognized this outcome as an enormous political problem. After the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, on December 13, 2000, the president-elect promised to govern in a bipartisan and conciliatory fashion: “I was not elected to serve one party, but to serve one nation,” he said in a speech at the Texas state capitol, where he was finishing his term as governor. “The president of the United States is the president of every single American, of every race and every background. Whether you voted for me or not, I will do my best to serve your interests, and I will work to earn your respect.”

You may believe that Bush failed in that promise—but he made that promise because he recognized a problem. Two decades later, Trump has normalized the minority rule that seemed so abnormal in December 2000.

Republicans in the Trump years have gotten used to competing under rules biased in their favor. They have come to fear that unless the rules favor them, they will lose. And so they have learned to think of biased rules as necessary, proper, and just—and to view any effort to correct those rules as a direct attack on their survival.

What I wrote in 2017 has only become more true since: “We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered.”

To understand how the U.S. system failed in Trump’s first term—and how it could fail further across another four years—let’s look closer at some of Trump’s abuses and the direction they could trend in a second term.

Abuse of the Pardon Power

On July 10, 2020, Trump commuted the sentence of his longtime associate Roger Stone. As Stone’s own communications showed, he had acted as an intermediary between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks in 2016. Had Stone cooperated with federal investigators, the revelations might have been dangerous to Trump. Instead, Stone lied to Congress and threatened other witnesses.

Just as Stone was supposed to go to prison, Trump commuted his sentence. Commutation was more useful to the cover-up than an outright pardon. A commuted person retains his Fifth Amendment right not to testify; a pardoned person loses that right.

Trump’s clemency to Stone reminded others who might hold guilty knowledge—people like Paul Manafort and Ghislaine Maxwell—of the potential benefits to them of staying silent about Trump.

How did Trump get away with using a public power for personal advantage in this way? There’s nothing to stop him. The Constitution vests the pardon power in the president. Long-established government practices have discouraged presidents from using it on a whim. But a second-term Trump could demand that associates break the law for him—and then protect them when they are caught and face punishment. He could pardon his relatives—and even try to pardon himself.

Abuse of Government Resources for Personal Gain

On August 28, 2020, after the president broke with precedent—and, if federal employees besides the president and vice president were involved in planning the event, possibly violated the law—by accepting the Republican nomination on White House grounds, The New York Times reported:

Mr. Trump’s aides said he enjoyed the frustration and anger he caused by holding a political event on the South Lawn of the White House, shattering conventional norms and raising questions about ethics law violations. He relished the fact that no one could do anything to stop him, said the aides, who spoke anonymously to discuss internal conversations.

“No one could do anything to stop him.” No one has stopped Trump from directing taxpayer dollars to his personal businesses. No one has stopped him from defying congressional subpoenas looking into whether he was violating tax and banking laws. No one has stopped him from hiring and promoting his relatives. No one has stopped him from using government resources for partisan purposes. No one has stopped him from pressuring and cajoling foreign governments to help his reelection campaign. No one has stopped him from using his power over the Postal Service to discourage voting that he thinks will hurt him.

Trump found it surprisingly easy to use the Justice Department as a shield against curtailment of his own wrongdoing. The Hatch Act forbids most uses of government resources for partisan purposes. By long-standing courtesy, however, enforcement of that law against senior presidential appointees is left to the president. It’s just assumed that the president will want to comply. But what if he does not? The independent federal agency tasked with enforcing the Hatch Act, the Office of Special Counsel, has found nine senior Trump aides in violation of the law, and has recommended that Trump request their resignation. He has ignored that recommendation.

“No one could do anything to stop him.” In his first term, Trump purged the inspectors general from Cabinet departments and punished whistleblowers. In a second Trump term, the administration would operate ever more opaquely to cover up corruption and breaches in national security. The Justice Department would be debauched ever more radically, becoming Trump’s own law firm and spending taxpayer dollars to defend him against the consequences of his personal wrongdoing. The hyper-politicization of the Justice and Homeland Security Departments would spread to other agencies. The last vestiges of ethics and independence in the Republican Party would gutter out.

Directing Public Funds to Himself and His Companies

In the 230-year history of the United States, no president before Trump had ever tried to direct public dollars to his own companies—so no Congress had ever bothered to specifically outlaw such activity. American ethics law instead relies heavily on disclosure. When the disclosure rules were instituted half a century ago, the assumption was that, if provided with the necessary information, the political system would police wrongdoing.

But that assumption originated in a time when the parties were less cohesive—and the public less polarized—than now. Trump’s superpower is his absolute shamelessness. He steals in plain view. He accepts bribes in a hotel located smack in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. His supporters do not object. His party in Congress is acquiescent. This level of corruption in American life is unprecedented. Trump has actually pocketed more from the Republican Party than he has from the U.S. Treasury—money you would imagine that Republicans donated to elect other Republicans and enact their favored policies, not to enrich Trump—yet the party and its candidates continue to book event after event at Trump properties, proving loyalty by allowing themselves to be pillaged. A willingness to line the Trump family’s pockets has become a mark of obeisance and identity, like wearing cowboy boots during the George W.  Bush administration.

The result of this almost-universal Republican complicity in Trump’s personal corruption has been the neutering of Congress’s ability to act when corruption is disclosed. In the past, a subpoena from Congress was a subpoena from Congress; all of its members shared an interest in seeing it obeyed. Now a subpoena is merely an invitation from whichever party happens to hold a majority in the chamber that issued it. Republicans in the House cheerfully support Trump when he defies subpoenas from Democratic chairs, setting a precedent that probably will someday be used against them.

Trump has a lot to hide, both as president and as a businessman. The price of his political and economic survival has been the destruction of oversight by Congress and the discrediting of honest reporting by responsible media. In a second Trump term, radical gerrymandering and ever more extreme voter suppression by Republican governors would become the party’s only path to survival in a country where a majority of the electorate strongly opposes Trump and his party. The GOP would complete its transformation into an avowedly antidemocratic party.

Inciting Political Violence

Trump has used violence as a political resource since he first declared his candidacy, in the summer of 2015. But as his reelection prospects have dimmed in 2020, political violence has become central to Trump’s message. He wants more of it. After video circulated that appeared to show Kyle Rittenhouse shooting and killing two people and wounding a third in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 25, Trump liked a tweet declaring that “Kyle Rittenhouse is a good example of why I decided to vote for Trump.” “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order,” Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway said on Fox & Friends on August 27. Two nights later, a 600-vehicle caravan of Trump supporters headed into downtown Portland, Oregon, firing paintball guns and pepper spray, driving toward a confrontation during which one of them was shot dead.

The people best positioned to regulate the level of political violence in the country are local police, whom Trump has again and again urged to do their work in ways that support him, no matter how “tough” that requires them to be. The police are represented by unions often aligned with the Trump campaign. “I can tell you,” Trump said in a March 2019 interview with Breitbart News, “I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump—I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough—until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”

Trump’s appeal is founded on a racial consciousness and a racial resentment that have stimulated white racist terrorism in the United States and the world, from the New Zealand mosque slaughter (whose perpetrator invoked Trump) to the Pittsburgh synagogue murders to mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Gilroy, California. In recent weeks, political violence has caused those deaths in Kenosha and Portland. A second Trump term will only incite more such horror.

The man the Founders dreaded entered the high office they created—and proceeded to abuse that office in just the ways they feared. Now that man is seeking a second term, which would be even more abusive and dangerous. Trump’s election strategy is to weaponize the Electoral College to re-secure the presidency of the United States over the opposition of the majority of the people who live and vote there. If he can activate the fears of enough white people in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, he could succeed—defeating the much larger number of Americans who want him gone. Every plausible scenario of Electoral College success implies a popular-vote defeat even more lopsided than the 2.9 million votes he lost by in 2016.

It’s a trick of authoritarian populists like Trump to proclaim themselves leaders of “the people,” even as large majorities of the electorate reject them. The authoritarian populist defines “the people” to exclude anyone who thinks differently. Only his followers count as legitimate citizens.

Yet that does not mean the authoritarian populist respects his followers. He is exploiting their prejudices for his own benefit, not theirs. Trump uses power to enrich himself and weaken any institution of law or ethics that gets in the way of his self-enrichment. He holds power by inflaming resentments and hatreds. A second term will mean more stealing, more institution-wrecking, more incitement of bigotry.

Legend has it that in the 1870s, “Boss” William Tweed, the famously corrupt New York City politician, taunted his critics by saying, “What are you going to do about it?”* Trump’s relentless defiance of law and decency does the same. Congress has done nothing. So it’s up to voters.

Voters in 2020 will go to the polls in the midst of a terrible economic recession, with millions out of work because of Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. But the country is facing a democratic recession too, a from-the-top squeeze on the freedom of ordinary people to influence their government. Will the president follow laws or ignore them? Will public money be used for public purposes—or be redirected to profit Trump and his cronies? Will elections be run fairly—or be manipulated by the president’s party to prevent opposing votes from being cast and counted? Will majority rule remain the American way? Or will minority rule become not a freak event but an enduring habit? These questions are on the ballot as Americans go into the voting booth.

* This article originally referred to “Boss” William Tweed as a New York City mayor. He was not mayor of New York.

This article appears in the November 2020 print edition with the headline “Last Exit.”