Dec 6, 2023 - Politics & Policy

GOP's "dictator" test

Photo illustration of two images of President Trump, one upside-down and distorted.

Photo Illustration: Brendan Lynch. Photos: Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

Republicans in Congress and across the country — including on the GOP debate stage — are facing a new litmus test: Should former President Trump's remarks that he will be a "dictator" only on "Day 1" be taken seriously?

Why it matters: This isn't 2016. Trump is well aware that the softball question lobbed last night by Fox News' Sean Hannity — "Do you in any way have any plans whatsoever, if re-elected president, to abuse power?" — is rife with alarming context.

Zoom in: Trump is facing 91 criminal charges in four separate jurisdictions, including for allegedly trying to overturn the 2020 election in an unprecedented plot to remain in power.

That's the critical context for why Hannity chose to give the 2024 GOP frontrunner not one but two opportunities to try to shut down the media's obsession with his authoritarian flirtations.

  • Instead, Trump decided to play troll — dodging the question while offering a wink-and-a-nod to his supporters.
  • "We're closing the border. And we're drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I'm not a dictator," Trump told Hannity, describing two mainstream Republican priorities that don't sound all that authoritarian.

How it's playing: "Trump's super power is that he's the most quick witted leader in a generation. Every grown man hyperventilating about this clip needs to find a sense of humor," Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) tweeted.

  • Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who endorsed Trump this week, laughed at the clip on Fox Business and focused his response on the need for tighter border security.
  • "He said he would do two things: He would close the border and drill. Everybody could say that's abusing power, I think that's a righteous use of power and President Biden's failed on it," Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) told CNN.
  • Even Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), no friend of Trump's, sought to claim plausible deniability: "He's firing up the base, he's entertaining people. But I don't know that I attach great importance to some of the things he says."

The other side: The Biden campaign, whose messaging is centered in large part on the threat Trump poses to democracy, is taking the comments deadly serious.

  • "As Donald Trump escalates the stakes of this race, the media cannot shy away from covering his assault on our democracy, including people in his orbit threatening to jail the free press," the campaign said in a statement.
  • "Trump's not even hiding the ball anymore," Biden said at a fundraiser last night. "He's telling us exactly what he wants to do. He's making no bones about it."
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