How far would Trump go in a second term?

The former president has promised "retribution" and expanded executive powers.

December 12, 2023, 4:39 PM

Welcome to 538's politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

tia.yang (Tia Yang, editor/reporter): While voting hasn't even begun in the GOP presidential primary, former President Donald Trump is widely expected to be his party's nominee. Early polls currently have him running neck-and-neck in a potential rematch against President Joe Biden, or potentially edging ahead in key states. So, today we're going to take a step back from the horse race and discuss what a second Trump presidency would actually look like.

It's nothing new that Trump's rhetoric on the 2024 campaign trail has been combative, to say the least. He's told supporters that he will be their "retribution" and laid out plans to punish or go after his political opponents — raising concerns among critics that his second term could effectively be a revenge tour. How does Trump's campaign messaging this year compare to what we saw in 2016 or 2020? Are critics' fears of an authoritarian Trump presidency justified?

Let's start at the (hypothetical) beginning. Last week, Trump said in an interview with Sean Hannity that he would not be a dictator "except for day one," a claim he's since repeated. What would day one of a second Trump term look like? What immediate actions might he try to, and be able to, take?

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and 538 contributor): Well, he's talked about closing off the southern border and has experience doing that during the pandemic using Title 42, which limits entry into the country under public health rules.

More broadly, Trump's plans while running in 2016 sounded, with a Trumpian twist, somewhat like the "Green Lantern presidency" promises we often see from candidates promising change — sweeping policy reform. But his plans this time around sound a lot more like someone who knows the powers of the presidency — the ways the executive branch and bully pulpit can be used, even weaponized.

Monica Potts (Monica Potts, senior politics reporter): I agree, Julia, he seems to have more solid ideas about how to limit both legal and illegal immigration using his executive powers, including deputizing National Guard soldiers to help carry out deportations and build camps to detain people.

He also has a supportive legal team behind him. It sounds mundane, but it's important, because legal appointees raised concerns about some of his efforts during his first term. If he has a team willing to create the legal justification for whatever he might do, it gives him more cover. When he was first elected in 2016, he actually didn't know a lot about what it would mean to build an administration and take office. Now he does, so he would be more ready to go on day one.

julia_azari: I do think that there are still some weak points — Trump still likes to make some sweeping promises, and while he does seem to have learned about the capacities of the executive branch, it's less clear if he's mastered the policy details that sometimes came back to bite him in 2017-2021. So I could see, for example, a sweeping order like closing down the southern border, but with some of the gaps in details that caused such chaos in 2017, when one of his first executive actions was issuing travel bans on several majority-Muslim countries.

On the immigration point, I find it interesting that Trump advisor Stephen Miller has connected Trump's deportation plan back to the Eisenhower administration — linking with history, especially a relatively moderate figure like Eisenhower, was not a big rhetorical feature of the first administration. (FWIW, I am a skeptic that there will be a second administration, but it's, of course, a possibility.)

gelliottmorris (G. Elliott Morris, editorial director of data analytics): One of these days, we're going to have to fight about probabilities here. But for now, I think that's right. It sure seems like we're heading into an election with a candidate whose central pitch is that he should be given a second term because he understands how to "make change" in spite of the constraints placed upon the executive.

To play off of Julia's point about Trump's policy approach, if Trump learned from his last term that the president has very limited ability to shape policy — even, as it seems, with nearly unanimous support from his party — that strikes me as potentially dangerous given what the president actually does have control over. Trump has promised to fire swaths of federal bureaucrats, and even to use the Justice Department to prosecute his political opponents. Last month, he promised, "If I happen to be president and I see somebody who's doing well and beating me very badly, I say go down and indict them."

That certainly fits with the broader theme of his campaign this time. If I can generalize, we now see lots of talk of retribution for this and prosecution for that, and little emphasis on the things that originally helped him realign party support in those key northern battleground states: preserving Social Security and Medicare and promising his voters that other groups would not infringe on their rights or status.

julia_azari: The thing about "change," though, is that he's not really promising a traditional route to change — but rather "retribution."

gelliottmorris: Right.

Monica Potts: I would agree that seeking retribution is a key part of his pitch, and he's presented himself as someone who's standing up to these powerful, nebulous forces to protect his voters. He'll say things like, "In the end, they're not coming after me. They're coming after you — and I'm just standing in their way." I think that idea of vengeance appeals to his voters.

tia.yang: Elliott mentioned Trump's plans to fire large swaths of federal bureaucrats — that wouldn't just be vengeance, but also a potential reshaping of the executive branch. Beyond his legal team, Trump has signaled that he plans to install loyalists in thousands — maybe tens of thousands — of positions throughout the federal government. The Heritage Foundation's "Project 2025" transition plan is now informally but closely linked to Trump's team, and has been preparing for years to replace "deep state" government employees with conservative recruits.

Do you all think that these moves would be calculated and effective to help Trump smooth out opposition to policy proposals, avoiding snags like what Julia mentioned with the travel bans? Will they help him circumvent potential opposition from either his own party or Democrats in Congress?

julia_azari: Hard to say. One of the reasons we have the civil service rules in place to protect the jobs of federal employees through a presidential transition is because back in the 19th century, political appointees were sometimes lacking in the necessary skill and expertise to do their jobs.

More recent political appointees have a pretty poor track record, also. The George W. Bush administration and FEMA is a good example of this.

tia.yang: Julia, what do you think happens in the case that Republicans successfully install political appointees, but find themselves floundering in those appointees' inability to navigate the bureaucracy and get things done? What would Trump do? Would other Republicans need to step in to right the ship?

julia_azari: I think there's a win-win for at least some Republicans in the sense that thwarting the execution of government programs also serves the broader political agenda — no more environmental regulations, slowed IRS, etc. There's a question about what level of government dysfunction would result in political consequences for Republicans who promise to limit government meddling. I am not sure of the answer to that question.

Other Republicans could step in on a sort of small-scale, constituency-service basis to make sure people get Social Security checks or something like that.

tia.yang: That's a good point: Cutting back on government programs and bureaucracy is a key priority for many Republicans, including in Project 2025. Their goal is to eliminate many parts of the regulatory state, not only replace those in it with conservatives.

It would be interesting to see, though, how much a restructuring under Trump fits what "small-government" conservatives have been calling for, versus installing people loyal to Trump above all else. Conservatives will need to balance out Trump's preference for loyalty over ideology or competence — presumably not a concern they'd have with a president like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who's said he would fully eliminate four federal agencies.

gelliottmorris: What about the role that the Republican Party plays in constraining Trump? Should we expect GOP members of Congress to rein him in less or more than they did before?

tia.yang: Adding to that question, has the party realigned too closely with him for that to happen? Trump has frequently targeted and called out Republicans who opposed him during his first term, and many of them saw their political fates spiral after he left office.

Monica Potts: We haven't seen any evidence yet that they are willing to rein him in. Even his opponents in the GOP primary contest barely criticize him, and those who do, like former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, are hardly popular with voters.

gelliottmorris: There also won't be many powerful skeptics left in the party. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, for example, is retiring in 2025, and even those Republicans who voted to convict Trump during his second impeachment trial toe the party line on most things. Maybe egregious violations of political norms constitute resistance for them, but their legislative behavior says otherwise.

At the same time, we have seen that Trump can actually drag his party down at the ballot box — so one reality here is that he manages to win the 2024 election due to a large gap between the Electoral College and popular vote, but the House and Senate both go to Democrats.

julia_azari: I tend to describe Trump's dynamic with his party this way: He constantly puts them in the position of having to defend things that a number of them don't want to. This exerts a kind of power over them, but also forces out his critics in the party, and a number of the GOP legislators who pushed back — Romney, former Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse — will be gone. But one does wonder if Trump in office for a second term would lose some of that luster — second terms are typically pretty rough for presidents trying to hang on to political capital.

gelliottmorris: And presumably he can't hold another election over their heads?

julia_azari: This is the question I keep trying not to think about — some Trump critics have certainly suggested that the 22nd Amendment ... would have to be enforced. I just don't know, obviously.

I sort of have to think that the GOP coalition of Trump supporters would shrink if he tried that. And yes, the lack of an upcoming reelection is part of the argument about why second-term presidents are weakened.

Monica Potts: I don't know, after losing the election in 2020, Trump had convinced many of his supporters that the election was stolen and that parts of the Constitution should be terminated. His voters were convinced that those actions were necessary to save democracy. While the most vocal election deniers at the time may have been a small portion of the electorate, Jan. 6 showed us how even a subset of voters can wreak havoc if they truly believe extreme measures, including violence, are necessary. And we've since seen much of the GOP embrace Trump's false claims about the 2020 election — polls have shown a majority of Republicans believe voter fraud played a role in the result. So we would have to see, but I don't think a Trump who is reelected would pause at trying to further enshrine power.

Out of office, he's tried to support primary challengers for Republicans who cross him, with mixed success. He could threaten to do that throughout and after a second term, too.

tia.yang: What does Trump himself want out of a second term, though? He would be 82 years old in 2028. Would he want to remain president for a third term? Is it ridiculous to wonder if he'd rather focus on taking out opponents who've already crossed him and then step out of office with the party successfully reshaped in his image?

julia_azari: I think avoiding prosecution is probably a key goal.

(A bit before we started this chat, we learned that special counsel Jack Smith has asked SCOTUS to rule on whether former presidents are immune from prosecution, hoping to end Trump's appeals on the basis of immunity claims. These appeals risk delaying the trials, which are otherwise scheduled to start in March.)

gelliottmorris: I don't want to sound too much like a hopeful optimist here, but I do think we are at risk of getting too far over our skis by entertaining the idea of a third Trump term. I think fears about the implications of that are well founded — perhaps for obvious reasons — but the fundamental guardrails of constitutional democracy have shown some level of durability over the last 8 years, probably enough to prevent something like a mass uprising to overturn the 22nd Amendment.

But, again, hopeful optimism caveat.

julia_azari: I agree, but I am thinking about these things because I think it's important not to be caught flat-footed in the event of unthinkable events.

gelliottmorris: Right. Political scientists caught a lot of flack in 2020 for arguing that low-probability (or "fat-tailed") events like preventing the peaceful transfer of power were a risk worth paying attention to. And, well ... they were right!

julia_azari: We were the ones trying to warn people!

Monica Potts: I agree, Elliott, and we may not even see a second term. But I think that the fact that Trump's current legal problems and history of trying to overturn elections clearly haven't disqualified him with voters means Julia is right, and we should be prepared for all scenarios.

julia_azari: Yeah, I'm trying to think of this chat as a response to media scholar Jay Rosen's call for discussing not the odds but the stakes.

The presidency is constructed to not have very many guardrails. It is designed to overcome the efficiency and collective action problems of the rest of our government. So presidents can carry out policy, or gum up the works, without much there to stop them unless the other branches act collectively. The main guardrail against unconstitutional activity from the executive branch remains the electoral process. That's a pretty weak guardrail under current conditions. And I will not both-sides this.

tia.yang: Elliott, you said earlier the guardrails were durable enough to prevent something like a mass uprising or an effort to install Trump for a third term. Beyond the electoral process, what other guardrails are in place?

gelliottmorris: Well, without trying to make any predictions about the future, I think my comment was more inspired by the apparent disconnect between survey evidence showing support for political violence and apparent willingness to commit such violence in reality.

An extra-constitutional presidency would, presumably, require a significant level of mass violence by Trump's supporters. Or, say, military intervention. I'm worried about both, but think the revealed probabilities have been low.

Again, not making any predictions about the future!

tia.yang: Before we wrap up, any concluding thoughts?

julia_azari: Another point I wanted to make is that there's space for an overly politicized executive branch that squashes political dissent in a way that might fly under the radar and not even necessarily look like what people associate with a "dictator" or break any major, formal rules. (This is why "abuse of power" tends to be a frequent flyer as far as presidential impeachment charges go.)

gelliottmorris: What is really resonating with me from this chat, and perhaps what people should take away from it too, is that an elected wannabe dictator can accomplish a lot before we get to that point of an extra-constitutional presidency. And I do not buy that he would limit his abuse of power to his first day in office, as he claims.

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