Trump’s “One Day” Abuse of Power and Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here

Donald Trump is in certain ways the Richard Nixon of our time. Liberals despised Nixon, today they loathe Trump. But there are significant differences. Instead of leaving office before impeachment like Nixon, Trump managed to stay in office despite two impeachment trials. And, most importantly, instead of Nixon’s famous final wave goodbye when boarding a military helicopter after leaving the White House for the last time, Trump promised to stay politically active when he left the White House on the day of his successor’s inauguration. “Hopefully it’s not a long-term goodbye. We will see each other again,” Trump boasted before fist pumping as he boarded Marine One on the day Joe Biden took office.

We are indeed seeing Trump again. He is the frontrunner for the Republican Party’s nomination and ahead of President Biden in most polls for the 2024 election. And he has given frightening intimations of what a second term will be like if he is re-elected. Trump was asked twice by Fox News host Sean Hannity at a December 5 town hall in Iowa to deny that he would abuse power if re-elected president. “Under no circumstances, you are promising America tonight, you would never abuse power as retribution against anybody?” Hannity asked. “Except for day one,” Trump responded. Although he qualified the day one as president to mean only to close the southern border and extend oil drilling, the very fact that he entertained thoughts about abusing power, if only for one day, is significant.

If Trump envisions getting away with abusing presidential power for just one day, what guarantee is there that he wouldn’t continue abusing power? The conservative-majority Supreme Court? A possible Republican-led Congress? Why should anyone believe Trump’s “Except for day one”?

Trump’s response to Hannity about abusing power brought to mind Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here. Written in 1935, the satirical, political best-selling novel describes how the United States came to be ruled by a Trump-like elected president turned dictator.

This is what Lewis’ fictional President Windrip promises:

 “Congress shall, immediately upon our inauguration, initiate amendments to the Constitution providing (a), that the President shall have the authority to institute and execute all necessary measures for the conduct of the government during this critical epoch; (b) that Congress shall serve only in an advisory capacity, calling to the attention of the President and his aides and Cabinet any needed legislation, but not acting upon same until authorized by the President so to act…”

Compare that with some recent articles warning of Trump’s dictatorial possibilities if re-elected:

Trump “would seek to expand presidential powers in myriad ways – concentrating greater authority over the executive branch in the White House, ending the independence of agencies Congress set up to operate outside of presidential control and reducing civil service protections to make it easier to fire and replace tens of thousands of government workers.” Charlie Savage, Jonathan Swan, and Maggie Haberman in the New York Times International Edition of December 6, 2023.

“Let’s stop the wishful thinking and face the stark reality: There is a clear path to dictatorship in the United States, and it is getting shorter every day…His administration will be filled with people with enemies’ lists of their own, a determined cadre of “vetted” officials who will see it as their sole, presidentially authorized mission to “root out” those in the government who cannot be trusted. Many will simply be fired, but others will be subject to career-destroying investigations. The Trump administration will be filled with people who will not need explicit instruction from Trump, any more than Hitler’s local gauleiters needed instruction.” Robert Kagan in the Washington Post of November 30, 2023.

As for after day one, this is how Lewis describes President Windrip’s after day one: He sent “a special message, next morning…demanding the instant passage of a bill…that he should have complete control of legislation and execution, and the Supreme Court be rendered incapable of blocking anything it might amuse him to do.”

Could it really not happen here? In a recently conducted poll by a Democratic advisory group, Biden and the Democrats led Republicans in the following: the president will not be an autocrat (plus 2) and protecting Democracy (plus 1). There was a tie on making democracy more secure. In other words,  the 2,500 voters surveyed in presidential and Senate battleground states as well as in competitive House Districts saw very little difference between Republicans and Democrats in making democracy more secure.

While one should criticize Biden’s presidency and the Democratic Party on several levels, the difference between Democrats and Republicans on securing democracy was most evident when 147 Republican members of Congress voted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. 147 Republicans voted against the peaceful transfer of power.

Poll results polls show Trump comfortably ahead of Biden in most competitive states and winning against Biden in 2024. Despite media warnings about Trump’s autocratic leanings, he remains the frontrunner to be president in 2024. The fact that his response to Hannity’s question did not cause a general outcry is reminiscent of how Lewis’ Windrip became dictatorial. There was no public outrage.

The president of the United States becoming a dictator? It can’t happen here? Or can it? Donald Trump didn’t want to leave the White House after he lost the 2020 presidential election. “I’m just not going to leave,” Trump told one aide. “We’re never leaving,” he said to another, CNN reported at the time.

When Richard Nixon lost the race for governor of California in 1962, he famously said at what he thought was to be his last press conference: “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” We can only hope to hear Trump say one day: “You don’t have Trump to kick around anymore.” And to really mean it.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.