Author:  David Montgomery, the Washington Post Magazine.

Phase 1: Trump seizes control of the government and installs super loyalists.

Among the first things he would do, in the initial hours of his presidency, would be to fire the FBI and purge the FBI. Trump would then set about trying to politicize the FBI, the intelligence agencies and as much of the government as possible. He has complete authority to appoint the senior ranks of the National Security Council. So you could see someone who would not represent any of the prudence and restraints and efforts to rein in Trump’s more authoritarian and impulsive instincts. Trump made his own view of federal law enforcement clear at a rally: “ The FBI and the Justice Department have become vicious monsters controlled by radical-left scoundrels, lawyers and the media who tell them what to do”.

Trump will be looking to put true loyalists in, people who place their loyalty to him above their oath of office. A number of outside groups formed by supporters and former Trump administration officials are identifying and vetting a government-in-waiting that will be ready to serve Trump right away. If Trump installed loyalists at the FBI and Justice Department any lingering federal investigations of Trump could be dropped. Trump is going to come in and use the state to go after his enemies. He has a long list of grievances against people. He’s going to come in like an authoritarian autocrat. Loyalists would lead other departments as well.

Installing loyalists at the top of government won’t be enough. As for populating the rank and file with those who echo the former president’s slogan of Make America Great Again, Trump will strip as many as tens of thousands of federal employees of their civil service protections. Top officials would be able to fire them almost at will.

The real intention is to basically politicize the whole civil service. Because Trump personalizes everything to such an extent, he’s going to be super looking out for revenge and therefore going after, for example, anybody that denied that he won the 2020 election. And this is going to go down to a really low, granular level of American government.

The approach would restore a patronage system that hasn’t existed in the United States since reforms were enacted in the late 19th century. It is fundamentally this notion that the president should be able to decide, not on the basis of merit, but on the basis of political or personal interest, a larger segment of the workforce.

Phase 2: Trump deploys the military aggressively at home, while retreating abroad.

Once Trump has centralized power through cadres of vetted loyalists across government, what will he do with it? Some of his proposals include: Execute drug dealers. Move homeless people to tent cities. Eliminate the Education Department. Restrict voting to one day using paper ballots. Make profound shifts in military and foreign policy.

President Trump and his team of loyalists are going to seek to magnify the president’s already extraordinary power in this area and remove the safeguards sometimes mockingly called the ‘adults in the room.’ Those safeguards don’t prevent the president from doing what he wants to do. They slow the system down from responding to the whim that the president expresses and make sure the president has heard all sides and is willing to own the consequences.

More substantively, Trump could restore Confederate symbols to military bases, reinstitute an effective ban on transgender people serving, and dismantle ongoing diversity and inclusion efforts that his Senate allies already lampoon as “woke.” These would be a series of dumb, dumb moves done for political stunts and Twitter troll point-scoring rather than because this is a sincere effort to improve national security. A dramatic and potentially deadly breach with tradition could come if widespread street protests erupt against Trump and his policies, or if disputes over future elections turn violent. Repression of protest very often triggers the escalation of protests; it could get very ugly, very quickly, under Trump. In such a scenario, the response of other elements of the federal government and federal law enforcement could be unpredictable. What that order does is that it fractures the American federal government, because you give an order like that to fire on American civilians and then maybe some agencies will pick it up and some won’t. There’s a very real possibility that giving an order like that leads not to protest being put down, but it leads to some Americans in uniform firing on other Americans in uniform, with the people on both sides being convinced that they are doing the lawful and correct thing.

As for the use of military power abroad, Trump mostly favored withdrawals during his term. Those moves would be devastating to global security and alliances. A second term might see them come to pass. There’s a higher likelihood that the president would take risky action, but they would be risky actions of retreat, or abandonment of allies rather than invasions of countries, although downstream they could result in that. One might argue that’s the starting point would be to withdraw all U.S. forces and diplomats from Africa, withdraw all U.S. forces from Germany. And depending on his views of Putin and the conflict in Ukraine, he might just stop the flow of arms, ammunition and material to Kyiv.

If in 2025 Ukraine still depends on American aid for survival, halting it would hand Vladimir Putin the victory that he was denied in 2022. Recent work to restore America’s leadership and ability to coordinate allies against rogue actors would be undone. NATO would be undermined if not abandoned. Trump’s election means the end of the Western alliance. American foreign policy would not only be upended vis-a-vis Russia and NATO. The overriding interest in the Gulf isn’t going to have anything to do with national security. It’s going to have to do with the security of the Trump Organization.

Beyond an issue-by-issue restoration of Trump’s isolationist version of an “America First” foreign policy, this will result in a ruinous blow to the country’s stature in the eyes of friends and foes. The Europeans understand that the bloom is off the rose on US capacity to tell and lecture others about what freedom and democracy mean. But never before have they looked into a window where the basic concept of America, the stability of its political system has been now replaced with one party essentially no longer being willing to respect norms and institutions that are essential to good governance. Another four years of Donald Trump, and what that could do to faith in government, its institutions, its political stability and U.S. values, would fundamentally open a more permanent set of questions about America. What does this country stand for now? Is it so deeply divided and polarized that it can’t create a coherent image to the world?

At CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., a Trump loyalist ensconced in the director’s chair could damage intelligence efforts at the most basic levels. Seasoned people will leave. Worse, key allies may be loath to share top secrets.  If Trump is in power again, after four years, many people won’t ever trust the US again.

In spy work, as in so many professions essential to democracy, respect for facts and the objective search for truth are vital. Trump’s reelection would be another sign the country is “spiraling down” into a “post-truth” era.

Phase 3: Political violence and democratic collapse? It’s possible.

Trump did not cause the fissures slowly pulling the country apart. He’s a symptom but he’s also an accelerant, one whose return to the White House could provoke the final breakdown. Trump has been able to add to the narrative that if democracy doesn’t deliver what I want, then it must be a flaw in the democracy

Ideological, racial and ethnic tensions ramp up.

America is already gripped by an unprecedented level of what political scientists call “pernicious polarization” stoked and exploited by Trump and a second Trump term could make it dangerously worse. No other established democracy since at least 1950 has been so polarized for so long. The next step after pernicious polarization is either “electoral autocracy” where votes are cast but don’t necessarily confer power  or outright “democratic collapse. It’s extremely worrisome; the US is in uncharted territory.  If Trump does come back it would severely deepen the crisis that the US face.

Racism, including violent racism, is likely to increase. The most immediate concern of Trump returning to the presidency is it would provide the greatest domestic terrorist threat of our time violent white supremacist organizations the ability to rebuild and spread and engage in even more violence and terror. The ideological collision, potentially violent collision, political collision would just be unlike anything the US has seen since the Reconstruction era.

Trump would almost certainly return to the issue that first built his following in the GOP and still animates the party: harsh measures to counter illegal immigration. America will not be known as the place of the Statue of Liberty but rather as the place where there’s a big wall at the border. Trump will find another domestic use for the military: deployment to the border with Mexico.

Dehumanizing rhetoric and conspiracy theories about White people losing their status will lead to more mass shootings targeting immigrants. He will just continue to create these really hard moments, terrifying moments, for communities.

The bonds that bind the Union loosen.

How Trump gets reelected matters. Is it a close but legitimate victory where he loses the popular vote but takes the electoral college, as he did in 2016? Or do the insurrectionist schemes that failed in 2020 getting state officials to block certification and substitute slates of electors work in 2024? Perhaps by 2024 such shenanigans will have been made legal in certain swing states. Ultimately, does the GOP-appointed Supreme Court majority or the gerrymandered House of Representatives pick the winner?

The intensity and immediacy of the backlash would vary depending on those circumstances, but serious damage to the democracy may be inevitable either way if Trump is on the ballot. There is a significant percentage of the American electorate right now who have been lied to about the integrity of the elections, who believe that elections are rigged unless their candidate wins. Yet it’s nowhere close to 50 percent of America overall. But if Trump were to win a narrow victory again,  election denial ideas could infect a larger percentage of the electorate. And if a large segment of a democracy’s electorate loses confidence in elections, that democracy probably is unsustainable. Differences between states could deepen. You’d be looking at states Democratic states which would be taking over Republican arguments about states’ rights and applying them in a different way to try to limit the reach of the federal government. And then you’d also be seeing something which has already started to happen as a result of the overturning of Roe v. Wade: You’re going to see people moving. It might be a peaceful process at first. But I think you’re going to see populations sorting themselves out according to where people feel safe and at home, which will mean red states becoming more red and blue states becoming more blue. And that makes some kind of secession or breakup scenario in the medium term more likely.

The message of prophets of democratic doom can sound over-the-top, but to dismiss it, experts say, would be naive.

Nightmarish scenarios of democratic dominoes could fall in the wake of a Trump reelection. It would be very hard for him to keep the Union together as it is now. That doesn’t necessarily mean civil war; short of armed conflict, there are things that could weaken the bonds between the states. An example we’re already seeing is the governors of Texas and Florida sending migrants to D.C. and Massachusetts, based on the idea that states are competitors rather than collaborators and partners. Actions like that to score points against blue states on any number of issues will multiply, and blue states will retaliate. If Trump won reelection in 2024, how long until California says, ‘Why are we sending [more in taxes] for every federal dollar we’re getting back?’ ‘Why aren’t we requiring the federal government to pay for its use of the naval bases in San Diego and Camp Pendleton and other places?’. There are a lot of people who would say, ‘Oh, that would never happen.’ [But] what we’ve seen in the last two years we thought would never happen.

What if the ties that bind the US have become so weak that even that can’t result in the enforcement of federal court rulings? A democracy that must by definition rely upon the rule of law is built upon an agreement that these paper or parchment documents have meaning and we will abide by them. If someone like Trump comes into office with a clear contempt for the rule of law, which he has demonstrated, at what point does the rule of law evaporate? At what point does that agreement evaporate? At what point do the people who oppose him say, ‘Okay, are we going to fight him with one arm tied behind our back, even though he won’t do that?’

The chances of civil war increase.

That’s when the potential for violent conflict is real. For those studying the implications of these trends, there’s no scenario that worries them more than that the wheels just come off completely from the restraints against violence in the United States. The biggest concern is what citizens would do to citizens, and what citizens might do to legitimately constituted government authority.

Some of the preconditions for civil war a weakening democracy with hindrances to popular participation and divisions along identity lines are brewing in the United States. Those dynamics could intensify with Trump in the White House. It wouldn’t be an 1860s-style civil war of states vs. states; if it did come to pass, the type of war we’re going to see is an insurgency. Participants are going to fight a type of guerrilla war, a siege of terror that’s going to be targeted very specifically at certain individuals and certain groups of people, all civilians.

The election of Trump would not necessarily cause the kinds of people who stormed the Capitol to stand down, just because their goal of elevating their leader has been achieved four years later. There’s a scenario by which their aggression accelerates because they’ve won and they’re emboldened and they have a president who, with a wink and a nod, encourages them not to allow ‘cheating’ and disloyalty at lower levels of authority. The already commonplace threats and intimidation of public officials, civic volunteers and civil servants election workers, teachers, health-care workers, librarians could spread and strengthen, egged on by Trump, driving more from their jobs to be replaced by MAGA loyalists.

Activated rage would not be limited to Trump supporters. A narrow or dubious Trump victory would inspire massive, potentially violent protests on the left. Then the MAGA, violent, January 6th-style extremists would take that as the signal to rise ups.

The spiral of violence, response and counter-response would create the kind of disorder that Trump no longer constrained by his secretary of defense and attorney general could use to justify invoking the Insurrection Act. Then federal troops would flood the streets of American cities  and this time, not for a parade.

Could it happen here? Would it be that bad? The message of prophets of democratic doom can sound over-the-top “crackpot, practically,” But to dismiss it, they say, would be naive and they urge vigilance and civic engagement to prevent the nightmare from coming true.

 A few days after Biden’s recent democracy speech in Philadelphia in which the current president said, “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic” Trump responded at a rally: “As you know, this week, Joe Biden came to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to give the most vicious, hateful and divisive speech ever delivered by an American president, vilifying 75 million citizens … as threats to democracy and as enemies of the state. … He’s an enemy of the state, you want to know the truth. … We are the ones trying to save our democracy.”

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