THR Web Features   /   April 16, 2024

What Will America Look Like After a Second Trump Term?

Just Ask the Republican National Committee

Eric B. Schnurer

( THR illustration.)

Speculation about what a second Donald Trump presidency might look like mostly envisions something resembling an authoritarian regime. That may not be an unreasonable assumption given Trump’s own rhetoric. It has been widely reported that the administration-in-waiting has compiled plans to set up massive roundups and deportation camps for non-citizens, outlaw dissent, deploy red-state National Guards to blue-state cities to suppress it, and turn the Department of Justice loose to sue or prosecute political opponents. Trump himself will likely run for an extra-constitutional third term.

It is certainly what many of his supporters expect: Among the hottest-selling merch at Trump rallies these days are t-shirts calling to replicate the practice of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile of providing liberal opponents “free helicopter rides” (from which thousands were then thrown to their deaths into the ocean).

But both the hopes of Trump’s supporters and the fears of his opponents may well be disappointed by the man himself. If you really want a glimpse at what the country’s future will look like under Trump, just look at the Republican National Committee (RNC).

There, even long-time Trump ally Ronna Romney McDaniel—who turned against her own family members and, at Trump’s behest, disowned her maiden name—proved inadequate to Trump’s designs. She was recently replaced by (little surprise) a member of the Trump family, in this case his daughter-in-law Lara Trump, who now co-chairs the RNC (along with co-chair Michael Whatley).

It is important to see the larger purpose in this, not just the immediate effect. The leadership reshuffle was intended to facilitate Trump’s scheme to turn the RNC into a full-time funding mechanism solely for his own campaign. The campaign itself is largely both a merchandising operation and a full-time funding mechanism for his legal battles (some of which, such as his far-flung libel actions, serve not just political but also potential money-making purposes). In short, the RNC has become simply a component of a multi-level marketing scheme for Trump himself.

Some Republicans fret that the National Committee is now devoted not to funding and electing Republicans in general but to serving only one Republican in particular. In case that wasn’t clear from the get-go, Lara Trump—like any good corporate raider—has since her installation gutted staffing, shelved plans to hire Republican field operatives nationwide, and refused to fill other positions normally associated with, say, running political campaigns and winning elections. But there’s the point: Trump has pulled off the neat trick of turning one of the world’s grandest and oldest political parties—the sort of thing not generally conceived of as a business proposition—into what is effectively a wholly owned profit-making subsidiary of the conglomerate known as the Trump Organization. And that is exactly what we can expect the US government as a whole to look like after another four years of a Trump presidency.

We saw the earliest stages of this makeover during Trump’s first term, starting before he was even sworn in. Amid the attacks on the “Deep State,” it was perhaps easy to miss that Trump’s instinct was not so much to replace ensconced, supposedly liberal government bureaucrats with new, Trump-loyal government bureaucrats (as his think-tank allies are now planning for the second term). It was, rather, to replace government bureaucracies with extra-governmental, wholly owned Trump operations.

Trump distrusted the Secret Service and announced during the transition his desire to have his personal security handled by his own private-sector security crew. He suggested that the intelligence services be cut and outsourced to a private company. Neither of these ideas was allowed to go forward because, back then, congressional Republicans were still more concerned with such things as laws and traditional conceptions of “the national interest.”

But Trump nonetheless appointed family members to top White House positions and effectively privatized much of the country’s foreign affairs, creating business opportunities out of relations with China and Saudi Arabia. Trump’s daughter Ivanka procured around 18 trademarks in two months in the midst of US-China trade negotiations, and his son-in-law Jared Kushner secured a $2 billion investment from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, originally deemed “unsatisfactory” by even that country’s own oversight authority, until Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally intervened. Trump even more overtly privatized foreign policy toward Ukraine by making his private factotum-for-hire, Rudolph Giuliani, the de facto undersecretary of state for Eastern Europe.

Perhaps even more ominously, a major focus of Trumpism from the beginning has been the privatization and dispersal of the state’s central function: law enforcement—or, put another way, breaking up what Max Weber called the state’s monopoly on the use of legitimate force. Trump appears to believe in the devolution of legitimate use-of-force, from the state to quasi-privatized armed state entities, thence to fully-privatized non-state actors like, say, Proud Boys or the average rally crowd. During the upheavals following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, Trump—whose advisors talk a lot about invoking the Insurrection Act to put down dissent—instead took the route of turning the Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) police force into something of a Praetorian Guard personally loyal to him and engaging in extrajudicial arrests and incarceration in Portland, picking up protestors and spiriting them away in unmarked vans. The ICE police union has continued to demonstrate a personal attachment to the former president, a fact that probably would draw more attention were it, say, the country’s official armed forces rather than Trump’s apparent alternative to them.

Of course, ICE agents were and are government employees, not a private-sector substitute. So their special relationship to Trump does not represent an outsourcing of government functions in the traditional sense. But that is exactly the point: His approach is not so much to break apart the government and privatize its pieces, as has been a Republican policy shibboleth for decades and, in more extreme form, what Russia’s so-called oligarchs achieved after the fall of the Soviet Union. It is, rather, to absorb the government into the Trump Organization, loosely speaking, as if public agencies were simply another form of business that can be bought and sold like, say, a casino.

That’s why, when I wrote these words seven years ago, neither Trump nor his intellectual Svengali, Steve Bannon, struck me as garden-variety authoritarians:

The Americas Bannon and Trump envision are depressing, but not totalitarian. One is illiberal but not necessarily authoritarian, the other authoritarian but not necessarily illiberal. Both lead to a society embodying not so much the banality of evil as the evil of banality. And where they overlap is not the creation of a fascist state but rather the opposite: the hollowing out of the state as a viable institution.… It’s possible that Trump and Bannon will leave behind an Orwellian America. It’s more likely they’ll leave behind no meaningful America at all.

Seven years later, Trump has now converted his once-“hostile takeover” of the Republican Party—in a political, metaphorical sense—into one in the literal, economic, Gordon Gekko sense. And what just happened to the RNC is probably what we can expect to happen to the government of the United States in Trump’s second round of mergers and acquisitions.

Indeed, I anticipate that many more government functions will be not-so-much “outsourced” in the next four years as “taken over,” in one way or another, by a closely held family business. This is a much bleaker phenomenon than traditional conservative privatization schemes, or even Putin-style privatizations that reward friendly oligarchs.

Traditional Republican business leaders, and the Washington think tanks eagerly planning Trump’s return, generally contemplate these government functions continuing—to the benefit of private owners or, as the Heritage Foundation intends with its Project 2025, under the management of a new league of conservative civil servants. But as Trump’s first forays into converting government into a family subsidiary indicate, and as his acquisition of the RNC confirms, the Trump Organization is not in the business of traditional entrepreneurship—it is in the more modern business of sucking carcasses dry and leaving the desiccated bones behind.

Personal security, intel, trade deals, bribery/extortion of foreign leaders—all have ready-made business-world analogs. One can imagine the birth of a new enterprise called Trump Intelligence, a profit-making venture like, say the vaunted Economist Intelligence Unit or George Friedman’s GeoPolitical Futures—except that TrumpIntel would bear the same resemblance to these services that Truth Social bears to X (formerly Twitter): an unsuccessful model that, like all Trump ventures, loses money but extracts millions from gullible investors. The only difference is that, this time, it will be our government and we the taxpayers will be the investors.

Of course, not all government operations can be profitably converted into wholly owned subsidiaries of a closely held private company—at least, not one whose business model is making a fast buck instead of long-term productive investment. Many government programs are, instead, money losers to begin with, which is why governments, rather than private businesses, operate them. Who, after all, would want to own the welfare system? (The Social Security system is another matter, however, as Republicans have made clear for the last several decades.) You can expect those unprofitable aspects of the state—like those aspects of the RNC not contributing directly to Trump—to wither and die.

The real prospect of a Trumpian government, in sum, is less a totalitarian state than a hollowed out, then collapsing, central government and, ultimately, a failed state. This is, of course, an even better betting proposition under a CEO with a history of bankruptcy and business failures, in a society increasingly tending, because of its technological architecture, toward not centralization but dis-integration. Trump is a man for our moment. Both that man and moment are less authoritarian than anarchic. Whether that’s better, however, is debatable.