What Trump’s Second Term Could Look Like
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In the January/February issue of The Atlantic, 24 writers explain how Donald Trump could destroy America’s civic and democratic institutions, including its courts, national political culture, and military, if he succeeds in returning to the Oval Office.
First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic:
- Jeffrey Goldberg: A warning about a second Trump term
- The Supreme Court takes on yet another made-up controversy.
- Israel’s impossible dilemma
- Alan Taylor’s top 25 news photos of 2023
What a Collapse Would Look Like
For years, Donald Trump’s many opponents were often accused of alarmism, and early on, this seemed a justified criticism: Before he was even sworn in, words such as fascist and autocrat were in the air. Although I was a charter member of the Never Trump movement, I worried that catastrophizing Trump and depicting him as an invincible Demogorgon would induce helplessness and resignation among American citizens. When Trump was defeated in 2020, however, many voters took that as a sign that the guardrails had held and that America was out of danger. Even January 6, 2021, has receded from the public’s consciousness, and a fair number of Americans seem unaware of just how close we came to the violent overthrow of our electoral institutions.
Trump’s autocratic instincts have now fully mutated into an embrace of fascism. And yet, America shrugs: Millions of voters think of the upcoming election as just another contest between a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat, instead of an existential contest between democracy and authoritarianism. The early hysteria about Trump has ended up submerging deep concerns about democracy in a haze of equivocation and complacency. Even people who have no particular love for Trump typically argue that life under his administration was mostly normal, and that all of the fears about how Trump could collapse American democracy were just overheated rhetoric.
By now, I have been asked many times: What is everyone so worried about? What would it even look like for American democracy to collapse?
These are reasonable questions. In our January/February edition, The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, and 24 writers at the magazine have accepted the challenge to answer them in detail. We describe the threats that a second Trump term would pose to the United States government, the country’s institutions, U.S. national security, and the American idea itself.
Several articles from the issue appeared online earlier today, and more will be published as the week progresses. Each of them explores the damage Trump could do to a particular area of American life.
David Frum opens this edition with the overarching warning that America’s “existing constitutional system has no room for the subversive legal maneuvers of a criminal in chief.” If Trump’s voters somehow expect that he will undertake policies to improve their lives, they are mistaken. Instead, Trump will envelop the Oval Office in a storm of panic and vindictiveness as he fights multiple felony indictments (and, by 2025, possibly convictions). As David notes, “For his own survival, he would have to destroy the rule of law,” which would allow him to both evade justice and exact revenge—political and physical—on his enemies.
Barton Gellman writes in detail about exactly how Trump could thwart constitutional limits on his power while pursuing these goals. In a particularly disturbing observation, Bart suggests that the failure of imagination about how bad things could get is not just a problem among the public; even “government veterans and legal scholars” are possibly “blinkered by their own expertise when they try to anticipate what Trump would do,” because they are focused on how he could abuse “the ostensibly lawful powers of the president, even if they amount to gross ruptures of legal norms and boundaries.”
But, as Bart notes, “Trump himself isn’t thinking that way.” Rather, Trump may simply make good on his threat to “terminate” parts of the Constitution that he considers obstacles to his power. He would then count on getting away with such moves by inducing shock and paralysis in a judicial system that has no mechanism for enforcing court decisions against a sitting president. (And don’t rely on the military to stop him: In an article coming later this week, I describe how Trump is likely to try to subvert the constitutional loyalty of America’s armed forces and turn them into a praetorian guard loyal only to him.)
Corruption, as Franklin Foer’s coming article describes, is endemic to Trumpism both as a business practice and as a theory of government; friends benefit, and enemies suffer. Ron Brownstein writes that Trump would not hesitate to replicate this idea on a national level by using the power of the federal government to impose red-state priorities on cities and states that do not support him, in effect conducting a war against blue America that could be the greatest threat to national unity since the Civil War.
None of the officials inside a second Trump administration is likely to put a stop to any of this. In Trump’s first term, several establishment Republicans thought they had a duty to serve and be a restraining influence inside the White House. “Don’t expect it to happen again,” McKay Coppins writes. This time, he would surround himself with bottom-of-the-barrel appointees who would care nothing for the Constitution and would only amplify, rather than restrain, Trump’s narcissistic rage.
Nor would the damage be limited to U.S. political institutions. Trump, supported by this cast of misfits, would ramp up the poisoning of American social and cultural life that he began in his first term. Caitlin Dickerson—who won a Pulitzer Prize for her investigation into the horrifying family-separation policies of Trump’s first term—tells us that the Trump adviser Stephen Miller (who would likely return to the White House) would “move even faster and more forcefully” to reinstate such sadistic and shameful practices.
In addition to immigrants, women would be a target: Sophie Gilbert writes about how we would endure another four years of Trump’s misogynistic vulgarity, which would not only coarsen life in the public square but also be a permission structure for more attacks on the rights and dignity of women. Later in the week, Elaine Godfrey will discuss more hard-line efforts to restrict abortion. If Trump is reelected, racial and sexual minorities will fall under attack as well; also to come this week, Vann R. Newkirk II will explore the dangers to civil rights, and Spencer Kornhaber will describe how Trump would try to use gender issues to stoke an ongoing moral panic.
Science and knowledge have already suffered from Trump’s preening ignorance, and things will only get worse: Zoë Schlanger notes today that climate denial will flourish, and Sarah Zhang will write tomorrow about how Trump would accelerate his efforts to subordinate science to partisan tribalism.
Abroad, Trump will stand shoulder to shoulder not with America’s allies but with its worst enemies, and especially with Vladimir Putin’s neofascist Russia. As Anne Applebaum warns today, it won’t end there. “Once Trump has made clear that he no longer supports NATO,” she writes, “all of America’s other security alliances would be in jeopardy as well.” The beneficiary of this American exit from the democratic world will be China, as Michael Schuman foresees, another autocracy—and one that will only get stronger while Trump unleashes chaos at home.
In the end, as David Graham puts it later this week, Trump is telling us what he’s going to do; he’s not bluffing. Some Americans know this and are cheering on Trump’s return. But many more seem unable to internalize how close a shave their country had only a few years ago, and how bad it could get a very few years from now.
In lieu of a postscript here, I want to suggest that if you’re not a subscriber to The Atlantic, this might be the time to join us and become one. This special issue, I think, can help counteract the kind of complacency—or fatalism—that comes when trying to think about threats of this magnitude. It deserves careful reading and sharing with friends and family who might, by this point, have become numbed by the incessant torrent of awfulness to which Trump has accustomed too many of us.
As Jeffrey Goldberg noted today on Morning Joe, this edition is a considered exploration of what the magazine’s writers think is very likely to happen if Trump wins, and we need to ask one another: Is this what you really want?
- Israeli air strikes have intensified in the southern Gaza Strip, including in areas where residents were told to seek shelter.
- Members of the Supreme Court questioned a bankruptcy plan that would protect members of the Sackler family from liability in future civil cases regarding the opioid crisis.
- The White House warned Congress that it needs additional aid to support Ukraine before the end of the year.
The Danger Ahead
By David Frum
Editor’s Note: This article is part of “If Trump Wins,” a project considering what Donald Trump might do if reelected in 2024.
For all its marvelous creativity, the human imagination often fails when turned to the future. It is blunted, perhaps, by a craving for the familiar. We all appreciate that the past includes many moments of severe instability, crisis, even radical revolutionary upheaval. We know that such things happened years or decades or centuries ago. We cannot believe they might happen tomorrow.
When Donald Trump is the subject, imagination falters further. Trump operates so far outside the normal bounds of human behavior—never mind normal political behavior—that it is difficult to accept what he may actually do, even when he declares his intentions openly. What’s more, we have experienced one Trump presidency already. We can take false comfort from that previous experience: We’ve lived through it once. American democracy survived. Maybe the danger is less than feared? … When people wonder what another Trump term might hold, their minds underestimate the chaos that would lie ahead.
More From The Atlantic
- Ron DeSantis does not seem to be enjoying himself.
- Beyoncé is not the star of her own movie.
- Let’s never do this to Edith Wharton again.
Read. “My Ancestors Ride Wit Me,” a new poem by Tayi Tibble:
“My ancestors ride wit me. / Don’t tell me wtf they would do. / I know them way better than you / and I know the wild / variety of things / they had to do / to get me here”
Listen. In a productivity-obsessed culture, what would it mean to waste time? In the first episode of our podcast How to Keep Time, co-hosts Becca Rashid and Ian Bogost explore the value of doing nothing.
Shane MacGowan understood the depths of human despair—a feeling he plumbed on his song “The Old Main Drag,” James Parker writes in his tribute to the late Pogues singer.
Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.
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