“Ron DeSantis is a Test Case”

Tom Edsall NYT column:

What would it be like living in this country in 2025 if Trump, DeSantis or one of their emulators wins the White House backed by Republican majorities in the House and Senate?

I posed this question to a number of experts and received a wide range of responses….

Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Hoover Institution, wrote in an email that “if a Trump Republican becomes president in 2025, I am less worried about church-state relations, or a federal ban on abortion, the passage of extremely illiberal national legislation, and so on.”

Instead, Diamond said, “I am worried about the extreme politicization and abuse of federal government power, the targeting of political enemies, and the mobilization and emboldening of the violent, well-armed, extremist fringe of Trump followers — who, even though they may represent a small percentage of Trump supporters, are in absolute numbers significant.”

If Trump wins, Diamond continued, he will initiate the removal of government officials believed to be disloyal, including those currently protected by Civil Service regulations:

He would stack the upper reaches of government with absolute loyalists who would follow his wishes on domestic policy, foreign policy, and abuse of power, rather than try to delay, obstruct, or undermine his anti-democratic impulses. He would fire Christopher Wray at F.B.I. and install a loyalist to politicize that crucial agency. He would also install individuals he could trust to follow his authoritarian orders and sympathies to head other intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and he would purge career professionals in numerous government departments and agencies suspected of disloyalty to him personally.

Richard Hasen, a law professor at U.C.L.A., argued in an email that should Republicans prevail in the 2024 election, the crucial question will be how victory was achieved: “It is important at the outset to differentiate between a Trump (or another candidate’s) legitimate win and one that would come through some form of election subversion.”

If Trump fails to win legitimately but finds a route to being installed as president, Hasen wrote, “then at that point the United States ceases to be a democracy. Such a move to steal an election would likely be followed by other means of solidifying and maintaining power, such as control over the military and reformulation of election rules so that the regime would be self-perpetuating.”

Such a scenario, in Hasen’s view,

would no doubt lead to massive street protests, and these could well be put down with violence. Such violence could then deter people from speaking out in media. There could also be soft or harder controls over the media. There would be tremendous uncertainty over what a post-democracy period would look like in the United States. People would not feel free to speak out against the regime, much like there are penalties for doing so in other repressive societies.

Conversely, Hasen wrote,

If Trump (or another candidate like Trump) legitimately wins office in 2024 then I think we would not likely see all of those things I mentioned, including a takeover of the military or massive disenfranchisement or electoral manipulation. Instead I think we would see much of what we saw during Trump’s first term, only more extreme. He would put more of his loyalists in key places in the government, and push the limits of what is allowed in terms of taking power and changing society toward his desires.

The lesson to be drawn from the second Trump impeachment, according to Hasen, “is that Republicans who challenge Trump will be drummed out of the party. That means Trump would be able to get away with a lot more without Republican pushback.”

Richard Pildes, a law professor at N.Y.U., based his emailed comments on the premise that “democratic backsliding is not about ordinary policy conflict, but an attack on the mechanisms and values that sustain democracies.”

In the United States, Pildes wrote, “one might imagine the party in power during unified government would seek to dramatically expand the number and size of the federal courts, then fill these new positions.” Trump, Pildes noted, has already indicated that “one of the first things he’d do if re-elected would be an executive order reassigning tens of thousands civil servants into ‘Schedule F’ positions — which would mean they would lose their Civil Service protections and could be fired and replaced with new appointees the President would choose.”

Instead of censorship, Pildes wrote, an authoritarian-leaning president would seek to control the media

through exacting economic leverage against it or delegitimating it by calling it “fake news.” As they insulate themselves from accountability, these governments then use their discretionary powers over grants, licenses, and the like to pressure businesses and others to extract “donations” to political campaigns, toe the party line, or at least not to challenge it publicly. We saw a glimpse of this during Covid, with President Trump saying he would provide desperately needed equipment to governors who were “nice” to him, not “nasty.”

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