Donald Trump was back out on the campaign trail on Saturday. There’s a temptation to dismiss this buffoon and his tired act, and in some sense it’s understandable—he’s a wheezing old third-tier Rat Packer spewing out his two or three long-ago hits at a shabby, seen-better-days hotel a couple miles off the Strip.
But simultaneously, he is dangerous. More dangerous than he was in 2016. I watched his Waco speech, or as much of it as I could take, and this much was unmistakable: Yes, he’s still recycling the old hits, like xenophobia and racism, but there are two arguments from this new Trump that make him a much bigger threat to the republic than he was in 2016: revenge and apocalypse.
The revenge he seeks against the deep state and the prosecutors who are closing in on him. Many in the audience held signs that said “Witch Hunt” as Trump spun out a fantastical story involving Chuck Schumer’s brother, a corporate lawyer in New York, who is supposedly part of the enormous conspiracy to take down Trump. “The abuses of power that we’re currently witnessing at all levels of government will go down as among the most shameful, corrupt, and depraved chapters in all of American history,” Trump said. He called it “the central issue of our time,” and he told his audience, as he always does, that “they’re not coming after me, they’re coming after you,” which enlists them emotionally and psychologically in the revenge plot.
The apocalypse part was even worse. Get this: “Our opponents have done everything they can to crush our spirit and break our will. But they’ve failed. They’ve only made us stronger. And 2024 is the final battle. That’s gonna be the big one. You put me back in the White House, their reign will be over, and America will be a free nation once again.”
The final battle. What? So now the Dark Lord is dragging us into his science fiction movie. Except this isn’t fiction. He means it. A man who wanted a mob to kill his own vice president also wants—hungers for, lusts for—a Book of Revelations–level battle, fought, of course, in his name and for his greater glory.
In 2016, Donald Trump didn’t really want to be president. He wanted attention. He wanted to jack up the value of his brand. And yes, he wanted to air his Archie Bunker grievances on behalf of America’s Archie Bunkers. But he didn’t really want the job, and once he got it, he didn’t really know what to do with it.
This time around it’s different. He craves returning to the job. And he knows precisely what he’ll do with it. As he said in that bone-chilling video he released in mid-March: “Evicting the sick and corrupt establishment is the monumental task for the next president, and I’m the only one who can do it.… I know exactly what has to be done.”
We’ve all read the stories about this. Most notably there was Jonathan Swan’s stunning Axios report in July 2022 about the so-called Schedule F executive order—a plan, in a second Trump term, to fire thousands upon thousands of career professional experts in governmental agencies and replace them with people who are loyal to Trump.
The havoc this would wreak is hard to comprehend. For example, there are about 19,000 employees in the Department of Energy. Only a few hundred are political. The rest stay in their jobs from administration to administration, and many of those jobs are highly technical. Check out this DOE org chart and imagine Trump lackeys in charge of nuclear nonproliferation, energy security, energy supply chains, and the dozens of other jobs that require tremendous knowledge and experience.
But that’s not even the worst of it. Who would be President Trump’s secretary of state? National security adviser? Whom would he name to be the U.S. ambassador to NATO? In 2017, Trump tried to hide his Putin affections, which only came into full flower at that Helsinki press conference in July 2018. If there’s a next time, he’ll be openly pro-Putin from jump street.
But the very worst of it would be the way Trump would abuse the justice system. His rhetoric today is the time-honored rhetoric of fascists throughout history—accuse the other people of doing what you are doing, or planning to do, and that way you’ll fool at least half the people into thinking you’re the solution and not the problem. So in describing the allegedly corrupt people coming after him now, he is in fact signaling his own intentions.
Imagine who would run Trump’s Department of Justice. In 2017, he didn’t care very much, and he gave the gig to an early supporter from the Senate (Jeff Sessions) who had a record of racist comments and positions that Trump surely admired. But if Trump returns to the White House in 2025, he will care a lot. He will install a total lapdog at Justice, like Jeffrey Clark, who worked at the department in 2020 and plotted with Trump to steal the election, and in the U.S. Attorneys Offices. Can you picture Alina Habba, so bad that she was disliked even by the rest of Trump’s third-rate legal team, running the prestigious Southern District, pursuing nakedly political prosecutions of Trump’s foes?
Trump is today the favorite to win the GOP nomination. He also bragged in Waco about some recent polls that showed his lead over Ron DeSantis and the field widening. As I’ve written, I’m basically OK with this. I can’t imagine the swing voters of Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, Georgia, and a few other states rolling the dice on him again as they did in 2016. A reasonably sentient Joe Biden beats him handily.
All the same … you never know. It’s not impossible that he could win. Voter turnout in 2020 was a record high, 67 percent, but even so, 80 million adults didn’t vote. What chunk of that 80 million are potential fascists who couldn’t be roused to vote for a bumbler who botched the pandemic but just might be willing to get in line behind a persecuted martyr leading his charges into a “final battle”?
We don’t know, and I hope we never find out. I think Trump’s more likely to be in an orange suit in 2025 than a white house. But the 2024 Trump will have plans and motivations that the 2016 Trump couldn’t have imagined, and that had better scare you.