Donald Trump’s admiration for authoritarian leaders around the world was on display through his years in the White House. It was clear he would have preferred the powers of a dictator to those of a president. Now, as he campaigns to get back into the White House, he and his allies are making plans to move the U.S. presidency a little closer to a dictatorship—but big chunks of the plan aren’t new to Trump. They’re just his extra dictator-y gloss on a longstanding Republican plan.
Team Trump isn’t making a secret of the plan. They want people to know about it, whether in a Steve Bannon rant at Turning Point USA—“This is a crusade! This is a Holy War against the Deep State! Donald Trump is our instrument for retribution!”—or in wonky-sounding quotes to reporters.
“The president’s plan should be to fundamentally reorient the federal government in a way that hasn’t been done since F.D.R.’s New Deal,” John McEntee, a former White House personnel chief, told The New York Times.
“Our current executive branch,” according to McEntee, “was conceived of by liberals for the purpose of promulgating liberal policies. There is no way to make the existing structure function in a conservative manner. It’s not enough to get the personnel right. What’s necessary is a complete system overhaul.”
As former Office of Management and Budget head Russell Vought put it, “What we’re trying to do is identify the pockets of independence and seize them.” That’s a pretty direct statement of intent to bring the federal government under the control—and subject to the whims—of one person. One person who, right now, they are hoping will be Donald Trump.
Team Trump’s wish list includes impounding funds, a practice in which a president refuses to spend the money Congress has appropriated for specific programs or projects. According to Trump, he would “instead return the money to the general treasury and maybe even lower your taxes.” The problem is that there’s a law restricting a president’s ability to do this that was passed in 1974 “in response to President Nixon’s executive overreach.” If the money is legally appropriated, the president can’t just refuse to fund things. But Trump wants to roll back the clock and get that power. He also wants more control over independent federal agencies like the Federal Communications Commission.
In 2020, Trump moved to gut the nonpartisan civil service, replacing expertise and qualifications with political loyalty tests even for career civil servants. He definitely wants to bring that plan back if he returns to the White House in 2025.
But while Trump is, well, Trump—a fanboy of dictators, a thrower of ketchup, a narcissist who believes his own immediate desires belong at the center of everything—Republicans have long been pushing to increase presidential power. William Barr wasn’t just Trump’s attorney general. He was previously attorney general for George H.W. Bush, generally considered one of the less extremist Republican presidents. And Barr spent decades promoting the idea of the “unitary executive.” Writing at Just Law in 2020, Caroline Fredrickson explained, “This alarming—and highly contested—theory posits that the president has the power to make all executive branch decisions, including hiring, firing, and—perhaps most chillingly—whether or not to initiate or end a criminal prosecution.”
The George W. Bush administration also advanced the idea of the unitary executive. This isn’t just some Trump excess, it’s a longstanding crusade among establishment Republicans. If Trump moves this forward, the next Republican president—even if he’s not, on the surface, a Trump type—will be more than happy to take what Trump left him and push it forward a little more.
In 2016, Democrats warned that a Trump presidency would mean the end of Roe v. Wade. That warning was widely ignored, even mocked and dismissed by the traditional media. Then Trump, with the help of then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, packed the court, and those predictions came true with the 2022 Dobbs decision. This time around we have a warning just as dire: Trump and Republicans want to expand the president’s powers to have fewer checks and balances and more decisions in one man’s hands. That Donald Trump is their current plan for who that man will be isn’t even the scariest thing about this.