When Trump was first elected in 2016, he lacked the experience, the team, and the vision to wield power effectively. He had never held elected office at any level. He lacked a detailed or sophisticated understanding of how the federal bureaucracy works. He barely had any loyal followers in Washington. Many senior staffers in his administration tried to do what they could to stop the administration from engaging in the most extreme or unsavory actions. Congressional Republicans, including the Speaker of the House, eyed him with great skepticism. And while he already believed himself to be the only legitimate representative of the people, he did not have a conscious plan to undermine checks and balances; in the early years of his presidency, conflicts with independent institutions arose piecemeal whenever someone somewhere told him that he did not have the authority to do something he wanted.
If Trump returns to power in 2024, he will not be constrained in the same ways. He now has four years of experience governing the country. He has come to have a much better understanding of what it takes to translate his wishes into reality. He has built up a deep bench of loyal followers who also have significant experience in the executive branch. This time around, his most senior appointees are unlikely to balk at pursuing an immoral or even unconstitutional course of action. Nearly all Republican members of Congress who were willing to defy Trump have retired or lost their primaries. And consolidating his power is now likely to be the top item of Trump’s agenda from his first day in office.
There is even more reason than in the past to believe that Trump has the will and the skill to subvert American democracy. Scarily, there is also good reason to fear that he might soon have the opportunity—perhaps even if he narrowly loses in 2024.