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A second Trump administration would be much worse

The CNN town hall was a wake-up call: If Trump wins, he’ll be even more dangerous than he was last time.

In a shadowy silhouette, Donald Trump speaks into a microphone.
Trump speaking in 2017.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

At Donald Trump’s CNN town hall on Wednesday, the former president took a series of policy positions that felt extreme even by contemporary Republican standards.

“In little over an hour, Donald J. Trump suggested the United States should default on its debts for the first time in history, injected doubt over the country’s commitment to defending Ukraine from Russia’s invasion, dangled pardons for most of the Capitol rioters convicted of crimes, and refused to say he would abide by the results of the next presidential election,” the New York Times wrote in a fair summary of the evening.

There is every reason to think that this kind of talk reflects what a second Trump administration would be like. As the Times notes, there has been a concerted behind-the-scenes effort in MAGA world to ensure that Trump will face fewer roadblocks in enacting his agenda in 2025 than he did in 2017 — starting with gutting the federal bureaucracy and replacing thousands of nonpartisan employees with Trumpists.

“These proposals have been incubating for more than two years within a network of well-funded and Trump-connected outside groups,” the Times reports.

In 2016, Trump put absolutely zero effort into preparing for the possibility that he might actually govern after the election. The result is that he took office with a staff heavily drawn from the ranks of the GOP establishment, some of whom worked to curb his most disruptive impulses.

This time around, we can expect no such discordance — meaning that we’re likely to get Trump unleashed from day one.

Moreover, experience with politicians like Trump abroad suggests that Trump’s agenda will be every bit as radical as the town hall suggests — with a focus on dismantling constraints on Trump’s authority and undermining the fairness of the political system.

In Hungary and Israel, electoral defeat radicalized current prime ministers Viktor Orbán and Benjamin Netanyahu. When returned to power in subsequent elections, they pursued policies that endangered their country’s democracy — and, in Orbán’s case, succeeded in destroying it.

Based on what we know about both American and comparative global politics, Trump’s radical CNN town hall was not some kind of joke or sideshow. It may well be an accurate representation of what a second Trump term would be like.

Trump 1 wasn’t prepared. Trump 2 will be.

Several days after his inauguration in 2017, Donald Trump attempted to make good on one of his signature campaign trail proposals: the “Muslim Ban.” He issued an executive order, crafted primarily by aides Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, that banned travel to the United States by residents of seven Muslim-majority countries.

Except, as you might recall, the entire effort was a disaster. The order was so poorly written that it failed to answer basic questions — like whether permanent US residents from those countries could reenter the United States after traveling abroad. The result was chaos at American airports: baffled Customs and Border Protection agents trying to apply the vague order with little guidance amid large-scale protests.

The order was struck down in litigation, as was a second attempt. Finally, a third watered-down effort came into effect months after the first order.

The whole episode was, in the memorable phrasing of legal writer Ben Wittes, “malevolence tempered by incompetence”: an attempt to do something awful that failed primarily because the people behind it had no idea what they were doing.

In general, the Bannon and Miller types — the true-believer Trumpists — regularly ran up against the limits of their own expertise and experience when trying to implement the MAGA agenda. By contrast, their rivals in the administration — like Jim Mattis, Trump’s first defense secretary — often succeeded in pulling the president away from his own instincts.

The result was, for years, a kind of incoherence in the Trump administration’s policymaking: what the president would say in his tweets and press conferences did not necessarily reflect what his White House was actually doing.

Take Russia policy: While Trump cozied up to Vladimir Putin, his administration deployed US troops to NATO’s eastern flank countries and provided lethal weapons to Ukraine.

Protestors in an airport.
Demonstrators pass a volunteer immigration attorney at Los Angeles International Airport in February 2017.
David McNew/Getty Images

In the extended MAGA universe, the idea that Trump was being betrayed by his own appointees became a common complaint. And over the course of his administration, the president and his allies got better at identifying yes-men and putting them in top positions.

John McEntee, for example, got his start as the president’s bodyman. By the end of the administration, he had worked his way up to director of the White House Presidential Personnel Office, where he worked incessantly to identify pro-Trump people and get them in positions of influence.

“McEntee and his enforcers made the disastrous last weeks of the Trump presidency possible,” ABC News’s Jonathan Karl writes in his book Betrayal. “Thanks to them, in the end, the elusive ‘adults in the room’ — those who might have been willing to confront the president or try to control his most destructive tendencies — were silenced or gone.”

What we see, then, is that Trumpworld learned its lesson: Personnel is policy, and they needed their people in the right places.

And in their time out of power, they have been preparing to do just that.

The Heritage Foundation is perhaps the most influential conservative think tank in Washington, and also one that has taken an increasingly Trumpy policy line under its new president Kevin Roberts. Currently, Heritage is operating a $22 million initiative called Project 2025 — an ambitious effort to compile a personnel database from which the next Republican president can quickly and efficiently select staffers to fill their administration.

In early May, Heritage hired McEntee as a senior adviser to Project 2025. His hiring suggests that the project is designed to allow Trump, if he is indeed the Republican standard-bearer, to quickly and painlessly find staff who are ready and willing to follow his aggressive lead. McEntee all but confirmed that in an interview with RealClearPolitics, saying that his role at Heritage will be to “bring the people that are a little more hardline, who are going to go in there and kind of shake things up, because that’s what we need.”

The effort to find Trump a friendly staff does not merely cover traditional political appointees. In 2020, Trump issued an executive order called Schedule F — which would, in effect, allow him to convert over thousands of career civil service jobs into political appointees. While Schedule F was not successfully implemented — President Biden rescinded it when he took office — there is an extensive plan in place to revive it as soon as Trump returns to the White House (one that Democrats in Congress tried and failed to block). If successful, it would allow him to replace what he calls the “deep state” with the Trump state.

Trump, in short, will be much better positioned to get “his” people in power this time around — and bend the entirety of the government to his will.

Recent history suggests that democracy will be his first target

Of course, just because Trump is planning a wholesale takeover of the federal government doesn’t mean he’ll actually do it. Trump has never had a second term before, and predicting the future is notoriously hard.

Here is where international comparisons are helpful. Because as much as Trump seems sui generis in American politics, his type is actually relatively common in global politics: the charismatic authoritarian who appeals to a segment of the population that sees themselves as the authentic people (“real Americans” in the Trumpist case) besieged by a corrupt elite and enemies both foreign and domestic.

Of these many leaders, two stand out as especially useful parallel cases: Orbán in Hungary, and Netanyahu in Israel.

Hungary and Israel are both comparatively wealthy democracies whose right-wing leaders have been friendly with Trump and popular on the American right. Moreover, both Orbán and Netanyahu spent some time out of power after their first electoral victories, meaning that they can give us some clues about what happens to leaders of Trump’s type when they are defeated and then return to office.

The answer, in both cases, is radicalization. During their first terms in office, neither Netanyahu nor Orbán seriously threatened the foundations of their respective democratic systems.

When Orbán was defeated after his first term in office, from 1998 to 2002, he never really accepted the loss. Spokespeople for his party, Fidesz, accused their opponents of fraud; in interviews, Orbán blamed the defeat on the lack of Fidesz-friendly media outlets that were parroting his party’s message.

Immediately after winning the 2010 election, Orbán launched a full-scale campaign to rig the system in his favor — rewriting Hungary’s constitution and gerrymandering its legislature to protect permanent Fidesz dominance. Since then, he has only tightened his grip on the system, seizing control of 90 percent of the media and winning three elections in a row under increasingly unfair conditions.

Orban and Netanyahu speak at podiums.
Orbán and Netanyahu hold a joint press conference in Jerusalem in February 2019.
Israeli Prime Ministry Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Netanyahu had a similar authoritarian conversion after his 1996-1999 stint ended in electoral defeat, reportedly saying at the time that “I need my own media” to regain and hold power in the future.

When he returned to office in 2009, he seems to have set about trying to do just that — allegedly attempting to trade political and regulatory favors for favorable coverage in two outlets, the leading daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth (“Latest News”) and the popular news website Walla. He seems to have succeeded with Walla, allegedly reaching a secret deal to approve a merger that its parent company wanted in exchange for a pro-Netanyahu editorial slant.

When Israeli prosecutors uncovered evidence of these schemes to suborn the free press and indicted him, Netanyahu doubled down, calling the whole thing a “witch hunt” by his political enemies.

When he lost power again in 2021, he allied with far-right parties to regain it in 2022 — and swiftly set about working with them to enact legislation undermining the independence of the judicial system. Their plan, unveiled earlier this year, was so threatening to Israeli democracy that it prompted the largest street demonstrations in Israeli history.

In both cases, the parallels with Trump should be obvious. In all three cases, you have leaders who never really accepted the legitimacy of their defeats — seeing themselves as the rightful leaders of the nation unseated by some combination of a hostile establishment and a biased liberal media. When handed power again, why wouldn’t such a leader take steps to ensure that this would never happen again?

Of course, there are also many important differences between Trump and these two leaders (and, of course, the United States and their countries). One important one: Orbán and Netanyahu are savvier policy minds than Trump, better capable of identifying the vulnerabilities in their democracies and effectively exploiting them.

Here, Trump’s much stronger staffing will likely make a difference. While Trump may not sweat the wonky stuff, he’ll have many more true believers willing to do that than he did before. And there’s every chance he would instruct his staff to take every avenue possible to prevent a repeat of what he sees as the ultimate humiliation: losing.