This Is How Trump Becomes a Dictator

This Is How Trump Becomes a Dictator

The former president doesn’t want to destroy the security state. He wants to bend it to his will.

Forever Wars / August 3, 2023

This Is How Trump Becomes a Dictator

The former president doesn’t want to destroy the security state. He wants to bend it to his will.

Spencer Ackerman
Donald Trump in 2016
Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Dennis Van Tine / STAR MAX via AP Photo)

Upon a white horse rides Donald Trump, man of destiny, determined to recapture the White House and, from there, to purge the deep state. “The State Department, the defense bureaucracy, the intelligence services, and all the rest need to be completely overhauled and reconstituted to fire the Deep Staters and put America First,” the twice-indicted GOP front-runner declares in a video on his campaign website. His terrible swift sword is necessary to avert the “nuclear Armageddon” he sees the Ukraine war slouching toward.

This is part of the animating premise of Trump’s 2024 campaign to consolidate dictatorial power within the White House. Through dubious assertions of presidential authority and the removal of civil service protections, Trump intends to “identify the pockets of independence” within the executive branch “and seize them,” his former budget director Russell T. Vought told The New York Times in mid-July.

But Trump’s rhetoric is not just the revenge fantasy of someone under multiple indictments, nor is it merely a cynical harnessing of right-wing bloodthirst. As president, Trump didn’t have a problem with the existence of a so-called deep state; his problem was a deep state he didn’t control.

Consider the case of Rudy Giuliani, his two goons, and Ukraine.

For a short but dramatic time in 2019, Giuliani captained an effort to leverage Ukrainian military dependence on the US to benefit Trump’s reelection campaign. The former New York City mayor dispatched two underlings, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, to dig up dirt on Joe Biden. They and their Ukrainian allies concocted a smear campaign against the US ambassador, Masha Yovanovitch, driving a perceived obstacle out of the US Embassy in Kyiv.

Giuliani’s proximity to Trump permitted the team to imply that they were acting in an official capacity. Parnas, through his lawyer, later said that he floated to a Ukrainian official that Vice President Mike Pence wouldn’t attend Volodymyr Zelensky’s inauguration unless the new president announced an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter, who was appointed to the board of a Ukrainian energy company. It culminated in the Trump administration freezing $400 million in weapons intended for Ukraine until Zelensky did Trump the “favor” of investigating Biden. All this is familiar enough, since it was the centerpiece of Trump’s first impeachment.

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Less often remembered is that Trump didn’t stop the arms provisions. In 2018, Trump supplied Ukraine with its first Javelin anti-tank missiles, a weapon that came to symbolize US allyship early in Russia’s invasion. During his impeachment, Trump didn’t argue that cutting off weapons to Ukraine was necessary to stop a NATO grift that was pulling “the world into a conflict with a nuclear-armed Russia.” He instead boasted, as an exoneration tactic, about surpassing Barack Obama’s security aid to Ukraine. Trump isn’t interested in stopping a US security strategy that he currently decries as a glide path to world war. He wants to make that security strategy work for himself.

Giuliani’s Ukraine escapade should be seen in the same light. This is the future of US intelligence that MAGA wants: aiming its expansive, intrusive tools at domestic political opponents. We saw that unfold in the summer of 2020, when Trump sicced the Joint Terrorism Task Forces on antifascists and Black Lives Matter protesters, sent drones into the skies above 15 cities, and had Homeland Security stuff demonstrators into unmarked vans in Portland, Ore. Almost immediately after Trump lost the 2020 election, one of the two flunkies he installed as head of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, baselessly declared that Democrats were stealing the election in Nevada. The other flunky, John Ratcliffe, recently told Breitbart that China may have compromised Biden—yes, Biden, whose initiatives to block China’s access to microchips critical to its economy risk precisely the kind of disastrous great-power war that allegedly worries Trump.

Trump could hardly be clearer about his intentions. In the same video pledging to purge the deep state, he names the “greatest threat to Western Civilization,” and it isn’t a foreign threat. It’s a litany of right-wing domestic grievances about everything from insufficiently brutal border enforcement to falling fertility rates. Among them: “the Marxists who would have us become a Godless nation worshiping at the altar of race and gender and environment.” Even China, against whom Trump launched a cold war that Biden has run with, registers only as a subsidiary foe in the predatory machinations of the “globalist class.” Grouping Marxists and capitalists together is notable less for its incoherence than for displaying the right’s appetite for domestic retribution.

Making the president an elected king, capable of eliminating pockets of independence within the executive branch, is not Trump’s idea. His ambitions as a dictator represent the next turn of the ratchet for the “unitary executive” theory familiar from George W. Bush’s presidency, when it was used to justify torture and indefinite detention. They reflect long-standing right-wing aspirations and have conservative legacy infrastructure behind them. The Times reports that the Heritage Foundation leads Project 2025, which Heritage president Kevin Roberts calls a blueprint for “dismantling the rogue administrative state.” It is intended for use by any Republican who ends up in the White House.

The point of purging the security state is to make sure that the people who staff it won’t stand in Trump’s way as he targets his domestic enemies with the most intrusive means the government possesses. The crackdown on the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020 was a prologue for what will happen should Trump return to power—and after 2016, there is no excuse for thinking Trump can’t win. That means that the surveillance and detention authorities, operations, and institutions that emerged out of the War on Terror must be understood as weapons in the hands of a president determined to wield them against Americans. These powers must be abolished before he, or another president, makes full use of their potential. That is how to uproot a deep state—and stop an elected dictatorship before it starts.

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