You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

How Trump’s Dictator Pals Might Get Him Back to the White House

The GOP pulled “October surprises” in 1968 and 1980. Intel agencies fear this year’s version could trample democracy—and start a world war, besides.

Trump meets with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Trump with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in 2019

Donald Trump has overtly taken the side of dictators including Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Viktor Orbán, and Kim Jong Un over the past eight years, most likely because he admires the way each has crushed efforts toward democracy and ruled their respective nations with an iron fist.

Now U.S. intelligence agencies say their big worry is that one or more of these nations will reciprocate Trump’s love by launching some sort of “October surprise” to push voters closer to Trump in time for this fall’s election. Such an action could swing our election toward Trump, but it also risks provoking a third world war.

The phrase October surprise, of course, refers to the successful deal that the Reagan campaign cut with Iran to hold the American hostages in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran until after the 1980 election to destroy President Jimmy Carter’s chances. Both Iran’s then president, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, and the former lieutenant governor of Texas, Ben Barnes, have verified the plot, the latter last year in The New York Times.

An earlier (unknown until the past two decades) plot by the campaign of candidate Richard Nixon to blow up the 1968 Paris peace talks and thus sabotage President Johnson’s deal with the Vietnamese was the first known successful Republican effort to use treason to steal an election. It qualified for the October surprise label but wasn’t known until well after Reagan’s efforts had earned the title.

So it’s entirely reasonable to assume that Trump—still in touch with Putin, Kim, and Xi, even if only through media proclamations—is either planning or expecting help this fall from his autocratic pals.

Putin, desperate for more weapons to crush democracy in Ukraine, has formed a strong alliance over the past year with North Korea’s Kim, trading battlefield weapons for submarine and other technology that Kim can use along with nuclear weapons to threaten the United States.

In an NBC News article from May 24 titled “Are Russia and North Korea planning an ‘October surprise’ that aids Trump?” reporters Cortney Kube and Carol E. Lee note that there could be serious consequences arising from the fact that North Korea is today giving Russia more weaponry to use against Ukraine than all of Europe has been able to provide to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy: “U.S. officials are also bracing for North Korea to potentially take its most provocative military actions in a decade close to the U.S. presidential election, possibly at Putin’s urging.”

North Korea firing missiles into the demilitarized zone between it and South Korea to help Trump could represent a major escalation of tensions in the region, as would an October nuclear test or attack on South Korea’s border islands. It could also precipitate a major war in the region with the potential to spread worldwide.  

While China has, in the past, counseled Kim to refrain from overly bombastic or provocative behavior to keep tensions in the region low, China’s increasingly bellicose actions and rhetoric toward Taiwan suggest that it may welcome regional chaos that Xi could then use as a pretext to attack that island nation.

Our government has noticed: Three months ago, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or DNI, published its “Annual Threat Assessment.” It was unambiguous about what the office sees in the works for this election year: “The [People’s Republic of China] may attempt to influence the U.S. elections in 2024 at some level because of its desire to sideline critics of China and magnify U.S. societal divisions. PRC actors have increased their capabilities to conduct covert influence operations and disseminate disinformation.… The PRC aims to sow doubts about U.S. leadership, undermine democracy, and extend Beijing’s influence.”

Similarly, The New York Times reported last month that China—in a move reminiscent of Putin’s millions of Internet Research Agency troll posts promoting Trump on Facebook leading up to the 2016 election—is all in on using social media, including, apparently, TikTok, to crush Biden and lift Trump into the White House.

Any of these actions by China could be a trigger for an international conflagration pitting America and Asian democracies against an axis of China, North Korea, and Russia. If Europe jumped in to help, we’d be in the middle of World War III faster than most imagine possible.

Another hostile dictatorship that believes a Trump presidency would work to its advantage is Iran, which has worked with Republican presidential candidates before. It’s today run by the heirs to the regime that successfully handed the 1980 election to Reagan and tried to help Trump get elected in 2020.

As the DNI’s “Annual Threat Assessment” noted: “Ahead of the U.S. election in 2024, Iran may attempt to conduct influence operations aimed at U.S. interests, including targeting U.S. elections, having demonstrated a willingness and capability to do so in the past. During the U.S. election cycle in 2020, Iranian cyber actors obtained or attempted to obtain U.S. voter information, sent threatening emails to voters, and disseminated disinformation about the election.”

Combine Iran’s efforts with those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who is both openly hostile to President Biden (as he was to President Obama) and fond of Trump—and an expansion of conflict in the Middle East also has the potential to both influence the U.S. election and lead to a larger international war.

Netanyahu, under indictment for bribery and corruption with the cases against him paused until he’s no longer in office, has a powerful personal incentive to drag out the war (and the deaths of Gazans) just to stay out of prison. An alliance with a second Trump presidency would be political gold for him.

Every time Netanyahu commits another war crime or gives the U.S. and the international community the middle finger over his use of famine as an instrument of war, more young Americans peel away from Biden in frustration. While they probably won’t vote for Trump, polling from 2020 shows that if they hadn’t shown up for Biden in that election, Trump would have held onto the presidency. And Netanyahu knows it.

This past week, Trump told a group of wealthy Jewish donors that if student protests of Netanyahu’s policies in Gaza happened during his presidency, he would not only arrest them but he would strip them of American citizenship and deport them from the country. It’s his most explicit shout-out so far to Netanyahu, and it will certainly encourage the prime minister to continue to ignore Biden and enrage the Democratic base.

Finally, Putin knows that a second Trump term will be like a gift from the gods. He’s lost over a half-million soldiers and massive amounts of equipment in his brutal war against Ukraine and is facing rising anger at home. Trump, who has essentially promised to cut off U.S. support for that besieged nation, could literally save Putin’s life if his generals are thinking of taking him out the way Hitler’s tried to do.

The stakes are thus incredibly high for Putin; he may well think an attack against a NATO country, if not answered with a swift, massive response, would reveal weakness in the Biden administration that could help Trump this fall. And if NATO does respond vigorously, that could toss us into WWIII.

Most recently, Trump shouted out to Putin in an echo of Reagan’s traitorous embrace of Iran, essentially asking him to humiliate Biden by holding onto imprisoned Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich until after the election. This has to encourage Russia’s truculence in the face of international pressure to stop killing Ukrainian civilians.

Will one of these “help Trump get elected while advancing our own interests” scenarios by one or more of these axis nations lead to the end of democracy in America or a third world war? At this point it’s too early to tell, but EU and Asian democracies are increasingly worried about that exact scenario. And as we know—Republicans have done this before.