Resolute Square

"Lock Them Up": Trump's Authoritarian Plans for 2025

Controlling bodies in jails, camps, and psychiatric institutions makes strongmen feel powerful, writes historian and authoritarianism expert Ruth Ben-Ghiat.
Published:November 29, 2023

Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat

"Trump's dire words raise new fears about his authoritarian bent," reads the headline of a front-page story in the New York Times. I am quoted on how the former president used a campaign speech to circulate language with Fascist antecedents. He vowed to "root out the communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country..."

Last week's Lucid essay examined how such dehumanizing language is meant to prepare Americans psychologically to accept the persecution of their compatriots. This week’s post explores what that persecution might look like, drawing on what Trump did during his first administration and his campaign's statements of intent.

Some have wondered why the Trump campaign is being so open about the repressive policies they intend to implement. This “transparency” is in line with authoritarian history: Autocrats often tell you who they are and what they intend to do to you before they take office. They do this as a challenge to norms, and they do this as a threat.

Such frightening announcements aim to inject extremist ideas into the mainstream and create a climate of trepidation and powerlessness that discourages mobilization by the opposition. "I'm telling the Filipino people, it's going to be bloody," Rodrigo Duterte told journalist Maria Ressa during his 2015 presidential campaign. He lived up to his promise. The extrajudicial violence he unleashed in the Philippines as part of his "war on drugs" has made him the subject of an ongoing International Criminal Court investigation.

As a historian of authoritarianism, I find the plans of the 2025 Trump advance team to reshape America's government and population by force and executive fiat familiar. To sustain autocratic rule, the leader needs a domesticated and loyal party that puts his needs first, and Trump has already accomplished that with the GOP.

Autocrats also require a compliant civil service. They need legal professionals who will help the leader bend the law to his needs, and bureaucrats who will implement repressive or illegal actions without regard for ethics, norms, or custom. Finally, every viable autocracy needs fanatics in the government. These lawless and corrupt individuals push forward the extremist plans and help others in government to leave any remaining pangs of conscience or democratic principles behind.

This is why the 2025 advance team is now interviewing lawyers to find those with flexible (or, better, nonexistent) ethics, and why it is subjecting candidates for jobs to ideological and political vetting beyond the bedrock principle of fealty to the leader.

With an army of tens of thousands of craven and corrupt civil servants in place, and all non-loyalists removed from their jobs (Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, sounding like Duterte, calls this "slitting throats on Day One") every sort of repugnant and human rights-violating measure can find a consensus, such as placing homeless people into giant camps, psychiatric institutions, and prisons.

The unhoused would not be the only ones to be locked up. Trump's will to put Special Prosecutor Jack Smith and other Department of Justice officials in "mental institutions," as he calls them, stands out. Communist regimes and other authoritarian states routinely confined dissidents and "troublemakers" in psychiatric hospitals.

And former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, who does not tend to hyperbole, has stated that there will be a list of people to be imprisoned under Trump 2.0 and he will be at the top of it, for supposedly betraying Trump 1.0 and thus committing an act of treason. Trump already suggested that Milley deserved to be executed.

Right now, much of this planned repression is focused on immigrants, in line with major talking points and platforms for the 2024 election. Trump is promising to implement "the largest domestic deportation operation in American history," which means roundups and detentions of millions of illegal immigrants, expulsions of immigrants with visas who had found refuge from unsafe countries, and more.

Waiting to return to power: Stephen Miller, speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Dallas, TX, July 11, 2021. Brandon Bell/Getty Images.

Strongmen such as Trump feel powerful when they can lock up large numbers of people. But the scale of these plans also shows the mark of Trump immigration advisor Stephen Miller, a far-right extremist who experimented with mass detention in the years 2017 to 2020. Miller thirsts to get back into power to oversee "the most spectacular immigration crackdown," and we must understand the threat he represents. As I wrote in Strongmen, "Miller is a quiet extremist – the most dangerous kind. He made family separations at the border de facto state policy, tried to remove immigrant children from schools, recalling Fascist treatment of Jews as well as apartheid and other forms of racial segregation."

As for conditions in Trump's and Miller’s detention spaces, Dr. Dolly Lucio Sevier compared those in Clint and McAllen, TX to "torture facilities" for their freezing temperatures, 24-hour lights, and lack of hygiene and medical care. Extreme crowding, a staple of authoritarian concentration camps, features in the reports of Texan Inspectors General of Rio Grande and El Paso del Norte. In immigration processing centers there, adults were held in “standing-room only conditions for a week” and cells were so crowded that “adults had to stand on the toilets to breathe.”

All of this would be scaled up during a second Trump administration. The recruiting of enablers and accomplices of future state persecution is taking place before our eyes. If Trump returns to the White House, we cannot say we were not warned. He is telling us clearly that he will finish the job he started in his first term: wrecking U.S. democracy.