Americans are sleepwalking into a dictatorship. Why aren’t they more afraid?

Worldview: A second Trump presidency could spell the disintegration of the Nato alliance, and would have far-reaching consequences for the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East

Former US president and now Republican presidential hopeful, Donald Trump, in New York on December 9th, 2023. Photograph: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty

Less than a year before the US presidential election and one month before the Republican primaries begin with the Iowa caucuses, there are dire warnings that if Donald Trump returns to the White House, the United States may be headed for dictatorship.

The US “is sleepwalking into dictatorship”, former representative Liz Cheney told CBS News in early December. Cheney was expelled from the GOP for criticising Trump and lost her seat to a Trump supporter.

Trump leads all other Republican candidates by double-digit figures in opinion polls. “Trump will soon be the presumptive Republican nominee for president,” Robert Kagan, a prominent neo-conservative commentator, predicted in the Washington Post. “When that happens, there will be a swift and dramatic shift in the political power dynamic, in his favour… There is a clear path to dictatorship in the United States, and it is getting shorter every day.”

The sense of alarm is shared in Paris and London. “Is American democracy entering its last year?” Piotr Smolar, Le Monde’s Washington correspondent, asked rhetorically.

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“There is no point in pretending that a man who believes that any election he loses is rigged, that the judicial system is rotten and corrupt, and that his political enemies belong in jail, is a believer in democracy,” Edward Luce wrote in the Financial Times.

The system of checks and balances could prove inoperative in a second Trump presidency. The right obtained a super majority in the supreme court after Trump appointed justices Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Coney Barrett. Trump can count on the support of Fox News, the most watched news channel in the US. Mike Johnson, the fundamentalist Christian Republican speaker of the house, is an ardent enabler. Trump would replace tens of thousands of civil servants – “the deep state” in his parlance – with thoroughly vetted loyalists.

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Impeachment is a spent cartridge, since impeachment trials over Trump’s attempt to blackmail Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy into investigating Joe Biden’s son Hunter, and Trump’s instigation of the January 6th, 2021 riot, have failed.

It is one of the mysteries of the American soul that, as David Remnick writes in the New Yorker, “Tens of millions of Americans seem undeterred by the prospect of absolutism, cruelty and corruption on the horizon.”

A second Trump presidency could spell the disintegration of the Nato alliance, and would have far-reaching consequences for the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East

Sean Hannity of Fox News asked Trump on December 5th whether he was still determined to take revenge against his political enemies. Trump replied that he would not be a dictator “except for day one”. Trump then elaborated, alluding to immigration and the hydrocarbons industry, issues on which he holds extreme views: “I want to close the border and I want to drill, drill, drill. Other than that, I am not a dictator,” he said.

Trump promises to arrest millions of migrants, intern them in prison camps and deport them. He is an inveterate climate change denier who would reverse environmental measures taken by the Biden administration. He wants to shoot shoplifters and instate the death penalty for drug dealers. He says he will deploy the army to fight crime in the Democratic-run cities of Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.

Trump faces trial in four criminal cases. He claims he has been framed by a corrupt elite who want to prevent him from helping the average American. The majority of respondents to a YouGov poll in August, and four out of five Republicans, believe the Biden administration has manipulated the justice system to undermine Trump. They would find it perfectly logical for Trump to appoint special prosecutors to pursue his enemies.

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Trump’s thirst for revenge reinforces his personality cult. In his closing address to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland last March, he said, “I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution.”

Trump promised on November 11th to “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists, and radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country, lie, steal and cheat on elections, and will do anything possible, whether legally or illegally, to destroy America, and the American dream”.

William Burns, Joe Biden’s director of the CIA, was a US diplomat for 35 years. In an article entitled The Demolition of US Diplomacy published by Foreign Affairs magazine in October 2019, Burns accused Trump of “diplomatic malpractice” and “diplomatic self-sabotage”.

A second Trump presidency could spell the disintegration of the Nato alliance, and would have far-reaching consequences for the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East. The author of The Art of the Deal says he would bring Vladimir Putin, for whom he has expressed admiration, and Volodymyr Zelenskiy together and solve the conflict in 48 hours, no doubt by forcing Zelenskiy to relinquish the nearly 20 per cent of Ukraine that is occupied by Russia.

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Trump moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and was the most anti-Palestinian US president ever. Israeli sources told the Financial Times the Gaza war will continue for at least another year. Binyamin Netanyahu may also be waiting for a Trump victory, which could enable him to drive surviving Palestinians out of Gaza into the Sinai desert, and to annex the West Bank.