‘A revenge term’: what would another four years of Trump look like?

It is a cold day in Washington. A crowd is gathering on the National Mall for the swearing-in of the 47th president of the United States. At noon on 20 January 2025, Donald Trump places his hand on a Bible, takes the oath of office and delivers an inaugural address with a simple theme: retribution.

Related: Trump suggests he would use FBI to go after political rivals if elected in 2024

This is the nightmare scenario for millions of Americans – and one that they are increasingly being forced to take seriously. Opinion polls show Trump running away with the Republican presidential nomination and narrowly leading Democrat Joe Biden in a hypothetical match-up. Political pundits can offer plenty of caveats but almost all agree that the race for the White House next year will be very close.

The fact that there is a more than remote chance of the twice impeached, quadruply indicted former US president returning to the Oval Office is ringing alarm bells. “I think it would be the end of our country as we know it,” Hillary Clinton, who lost to Trump in 2016, said on the ABC talkshow The View this week. “And I don’t say that lightly.”

The former secretary of state noted that history shows how leaders can get legitimately elected and then terminate elections, the opposition and a free press. “Hitler was duly elected,” Clinton added. “All of a sudden somebody with those tendencies, dictatorial, authoritarian tendencies, would be like, ‘OK we’re gonna shut this down, we’re gonna throw these people in jail.’ And they didn’t usually telegraph that. Trump is telling us what he intends to do.”

Trump, notorious for eschewing the politician’s dog whistle in favour of a megaphone, has been characteristically transparent about his intentions in a second term. He set the tone in March when, addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference, he framed the 2024 election as “the final battle” for America and told supporters: “I am your retribution.”

Donald Trump at a rally in Hialeah, Florida, on 8 November.

Donald Trump at a rally in Hialeah, Florida, on Wednesday. Photograph: Octavio Jones/Reuters

Trump has promised to pardon January 6 insurrectionists in a second term. The Axios website has reported on his plan to dismantle the “deep state” by purging potentially thousands of civil servants and appointing ideological loyalists. A recent New York Times newspaper article told how his team wants to fill the White House and government agencies with aggressive rightwing lawyers who would not challenge the expansion of presidential power.

And the Washington Post reported that Trump is discussing how to use the justice department to investigate or prosecute perceived enemies including his former chief of staff John Kelly, former attorney general William Barr and former joint chiefs of staff chairman Gen Mark Milley. The paper added that he is also considering invoking the Insurrection Act on his first day in office, which would allow him to use the military domestically to crush protests and dissent.

Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University in Washington, said: “It would be a disaster for America. He’s already made it very clear that his second term is going to be a revenge term. He’s going to use the power of government to persecute and prosecute his enemies and to cement his own power, or at least the power of his allies and cronies.

“He’s already shown he has no respect for the law or for the traditions of American democracy and so a second Trump term would be very frightening. The overwhelming consensus of scientists is that we are getting close to the point of no return on climate change and four years of Trump would be a disaster for the planet. He wants to drill and dig and burn.”

Trump has escaped cross-examination of his policy agenda by skipping all three Republican primary debates so far. But he has given plenty of clues in campaign rallies and online announcements that his second term would make the first look almost modest and moderate by comparison.

He has pledged to extend his signature border wall, deploy special forces to fight drug cartels in Mexico “just as we took down Isis and the Isis caliphate”, and impose the death penalty on drug dealers. Other proposals include punishing doctors who provide gender-affirming care, tightening restrictions on voting in elections and eviscerating diversity, equity and inclusion programmes in education.

Trump has previously branded the climate crisis a hoax and regularly mocks renewable energy sources such as wind; a second term would be sure to activate more drilling for gas and oil. He has also vowed to end the war between Russia and Ukraine in 24 hours, which many observers interpret as effectively waving a white flag to President Vladimir Putin.

Trump would be unlikely to meet much resistance from the rank and file of the Republican party, which recently elected Mike Johnson, an election denier and ardent opponent of abortion rights, as speaker of the House of Representatives. An election that produces a Trump presidency would also be likely to give Republicans control of both the House and Senate, just as it did in 2016.

Trump supporters cheer him on at a rally in Hialeah, Florida, on 8 November.

Trump supporters cheer him on at a rally in Hialeah, Florida, on Wednesday. Photograph: Alon Skuy/Getty Images

Ezra Levin, co-founder and co-executive director of the progressive grassroots movement Indivisible, said: “In that scenario you see the tools of the executive branch being used for retribution, for dismantling our democratic institutions as he is currently promising to do very publicly, but you also see rightwing Maga members of the House and the Senate controlling the legislature.

“We have a white Christian nationalist now who is speaker of the House and would in all likelihood be speaker of the House in 2025, not in a Democratic or Republican split government scenario but one in which he can actually set policy. That is one where you see abortion bans, national book bans, defunding of education, a tax on contraceptives – the entirety of the agenda that they tried to push in 2017 and more because the Republican party in the intervening years has only gotten more extreme as the moderates have been pushed out by Trump supporters.”

Levin, a former congressional staffer, added: “It is right to focus on what Trump is promising to do, but remember it’s not just Trump because he brings a lot of other bad actors along with him in the legislative branch, and they are going to do enormous amounts of damage with his support.”

The enactment of such an agenda seemed far-fetched in the aftermath of the January 6, 2021 insurrection and as criminal indictments against Trump piled up in four jurisdictions. Yet he has proved remarkably politically resilient and dominates the Republican primary field by more than 40 percentage points.

A string of opinion polls one year out from election day spooked Democrats. The New York Times and Siena College found Trump leading Biden in five of the six states crucial to deciding the electoral college. Emerson College Polling also had Trump ahead in five out of six swing states. CNN put Trump ahead of Biden by 49% to 45% nationally as voters express dissatisfaction with the economy and rising prices.

Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, warned: “The fact that Donald Trump in polling is beating Joe Biden in five out of the six battleground states is mind-numbingly painful to believe because it says to me that you value the country and its constitution far less than you value your own self-gratification. I get it; times are not equally good for everybody at the same time; people are going through stuff, absolutely.

“But I’m not going to sit back and say that the guy who tried to overthrow the government, who botched the most consequential pandemic in modern times, resulting in the death of over a million Americans, who plays footsies with our enemies in Russia and China, is going to be the answer to high inflation which, by the way, is half of what it was a year ago. I’m not buying what folks out there are trying to sell with thinking that it will be better with Donald Trump.”

He represents a clear and present danger. He is a threat and I take him at his word

Michael Steele, former Republican National Committee chairman

Steele added: “He represents a clear and present danger. He is a threat and I take him at his word. When a candidate says, ‘I am your retribution’ to his base, that’s not good for the rest of us. People need to get their heads out of their behinds when it comes to what that threat is.”

The 45th president suffered a setback, however, when Democrats achieved sweeping victories in this week’s off-year elections in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere, powered in part by voters’ demand for abortion rights. Trump’s primary opponents cited it as proof that he is electoral poison and bears responsibility for a long run of Republican defeats at the ballot box.

The results were enough to steady nerves about whether Biden, who turns 81 later this month, is the right man for a gruelling election campaign. Trump, meanwhile, spent Monday in a New York courtroom for a fraud case that threatens to break up his business empire – a preview of legal trials and tribulations that could still undermine his candidacy next year.

Should the man seen as an autocrat-in-waiting overcome those hurdles and return to power in January 2025, the obituaries of American democracy are sure to be written. But not everyone believes that Trump 2.0 would be quite so apocalyptic.

Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank who served in the Bill Clinton administration, said: “There’s a little bit of an exaggeration, a little bit of hysteria going on about this. The guardrails of American democracy are still in pretty good shape.”

People protest against Trump outside the New York supreme court, on 6 November.

People protest against Trump outside the New York supreme court, on Monday. Photograph: Stefan Jeremiah/AP

The supreme court and lower courts overwhelmingly rejected Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election, Kamarck noted. “That’s not changed. If anything, the judiciary now has more non-Trump people because Biden has had three years of appointing judges – and he’s appointed a lot of judges.”

A President Trump would also be checked by Congress where Republicans would be unlikely to have the 60-vote Senate majority required to pass legislation. A true autocrat also enjoys control of the military. “Look at all the top aides that have come out against Trump as president. There’s no indication that they would proceed to follow illegal orders from him; it doesn’t work that way.”

Kamarck acknowledged: “I do think it would be bad for America and he would certainly try to be a dictator but this is where we trust in the founding fathers. They anticipated a Trump, but in a white wig with curls, and they built the system to prevent him. I think that system will work.”

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