Understanding the Scale of the Trump Threat

Journalist Radley Balko on the authoritarian nightmare being planned for a second Trump term.

Radley Balko is one of America's leading journalists on policing and criminal punishment. His book The Rise of the Warrior Cop is a remarkable exposé of the militarization of local police forces around the country. Recently, Radley has produced several excellent essays on the authoritarian threat posed by Donald Trump and those in his circles.

Radley's pieces compile frightening evidence of what a second Trump presidency might look like. In "Lines in the Sand," he discusses possibilities like invoking the Insurrection Act, arresting or deporting critical journalists, purging the civil service of anyone who opposes him, etc. In "Trump's Deportation Army," he looks specifically at immigration and what it would actually involve to fulfill Trump's stated ambition of deporting all undocumented immigrants. Whether or not this nightmare will actually come true, it is what Trump is pledging, and we should take Radley's warnings very seriously indeed. The scale of this threat is one reason why we at Current Affairs insist that no leftist could want a Trump presidency, and Trump should be taken seriously when he vows to build vast new deportation camps.

 The interview has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

nathan j. Robinson 

Before we get to your most recent piece, "Trump's Deportation Army," which is about how Donald Trump might implement his plans on immigration in a second term, let's talk more broadly about Trump's authoritarianism. You have written a few posts now with the message, essentially, that this shit is serious. There is a really deep and scary threat here.

radley Balko 

We're in the middle of what, I think, is a pretty fascinating experiment and also a pretty terrifying one. Which is, what would happen if you had a candidate for the presidency in the U.S. who was openly promising authoritarianism and corruption? Openly promising autocracy and kleptocracy? Openly promising to wield the government as a weapon against his enemies and to end the free press? Normally, we think that these kinds of things are a danger and a threat in politics. These are things that candidates hide and implement after they're elected because we think they're bad and not good for getting elected. But I think what Trump is showing is that there's a significant part of the country that may want these things, in part because they think they'll be deployed against their political enemies and the people they hate.

Robinson 

Well, he is currently leading in the polls, so at the moment, it looks like he will succeed. Things could change—the Biden camp really wants us to understand that there's time, and that things can change. But it looks very plausible. You point out that it's not only the case that, as it was in 2016, many people really don't want to believe that he could get elected. But it's also the case—and I think one of the reasons that your posts are so important—that people, on some level, don't really believe he means what he says. In your “lines in the sand” post, you have all these screenshots of people basically saying, before the 2020 election, that of course Trump is going to concede if he loses—all this stuff about how he won't concede, and how it's just rhetoric. We know that he did, in fact, try to cling to power. This is the extraordinary phenomenon that we can see, going back to the past, of people not taking him at his word.

Balko 

And I think the other part of that is people saying that he won't be able to implement the most extreme parts of his plans. That the institutions will stop him, that he's incompetent and constantly tripping over his own ego. I guess my response to that is, in Biden, you have a perfectly conventional, flawed politician who certainly has his weak spots, and certainly, I'm sure there are areas where many people disagree with him, as I do, but he's a very conventional politician. On the other hand, you've got Trump, who is openly promising to put an end to some of the fundamental characteristics of democracy as we know it. He might not be able to implement some or all or even any of those plans, but why would you take the chance? Unless that's something you actively want. So, I don't think about whether he'd be able to do this. I don't think whether he actually intends it is important. What's important is that he wants the votes of people who want these things to happen, and I think that is a very alarming place we are in U.S. politics right now.

Robinson 

I agree with you, although I would say that the question of what he would be able to do is very important, and it's something that you discuss. There is some evidence that he might be able to do more in a second term than he did in a first term. You might think to yourself, if you were waving away these concerns, that we lived through four years of this already and made it out on the other side with something resembling a democracy. But you point out things like the fact that Trump wanted to invoke the Insurrection Act to stop George Floyd protests, but top officials threatened to resign. It seems the Trump camp has learned from the fact that oftentimes he was thwarted by his own—I wouldn't call them moderate because they weren't really moderate—moderately more sane cabinet members.

Balko 

Right. People who are pretty conservative and right wing but are institutionalists and still sort of believe in some rule of law over the rule of one particular person. And, yes, they have learned from this, and now you have a lot of these MAGA factions, pundits, and think tanks that are putting a plan together to get around all of that. They're going to rapidly strip the civil service of anybody that they think is disloyal. The only priority and principle that's going to matter is loyalty to Trump, and they've been very upfront about that. Again, this isn't something they're hiding. They're telling us exactly what they're going to do.

Robinson 

Tell us a bit more about what they are telling us. People who aren't paying much attention might have missed some of the statements that have been made that you lay out in this post. There are plenty of things that have been said and have been promised that you encourage us to take seriously.

Balko 

One thing they're planning to do is implement this plan dealing with what they call Schedule F, which is a classification of federal employee. These are people who are career appointees but have pretty senior level positions in federal agencies, and these are the people who thwarted a lot of Trump's plans in his first term. And so, what they're going to do is turn these Schedule F positions into political appointee positions, and then they're either going to dismiss the people currently in those positions, or they're just going to transfer them somewhere where they have no real authority or decision-making power. They will replace them with political appointees who will do exactly what Trump wants them to do.

In his first term, Trump wanted the credibility of having establishment conservatives in his administration, people like Kelly and McMaster; he wanted people who would give his administration some gravitas and heft, or at least the appearance of those things. I don't think he cares about that anymore. I think now all he wants is people who are going to say yes to whatever he wants to do. And so, as part of this Project 2025 plan these MAGA groups have put together, Trump will invoke the Insurrection Act on his first day in office to bring the military in to put down any protests of his inauguration. That is on paper. They plan to do that. And if there's anybody in the Pentagon that does not want to send active duty troops in to put down protesters, that person will be dismissed immediately and replaced with somebody who will. So, it's frightening. But again, the thing I find really remarkable about this is that it's all there. They are open about all of this, and he's still leading in the polls.

Robinson 

You quote Trump's allies, people like Senator J.D. Vance, saying that we need an American Caesar—

Balko 

And just like everything else, they don't really know their history. The idea that they want Trump to be the American Caesar—they need to read about what actually happened to Caesar and what happened to Rome under Caesar. What they mean is they want a strong man. They want an authoritarian.

Robinson 

They want someone who's ruthless.

Balko 

It didn't end well for Caesar. 

Robinson 

It did not end well for Caesar. You point out that one of the potential picks to lead the CIA has suggested that he'll use the agency to arrest and imprison critics. A potential pick for the Attorney General promised a reign of terror, which is a phrase I find concerning given the history of reigns of terror.

Balko 

On social media, many of these people will claim they're just joking, but they talk about sending their political opponents to camps, and that's just not the kind of thing that you should be joking about if you're in for a high-level position of the next administration. Trump himself is talking about staying in office for another three or four terms, and some of his acolytes in the media are already making the case that he should be able to run for a third term because his first two would be nonconsecutive. So, they're already making the case for having Trump in power for the next eight years.

Robinson 

From the far right, there's this “maybe we're joking, maybe we're not” thing, and one of the things that you did in this post is to include a list of questions that are very direct, which you say they should all have to answer. For example, do you believe that the media is the enemy of the people? If so, are you saying they should be prosecuted? What exactly are you promising to do? What commitments are you making? You’re trying to nail people down on whether they mean the things they say.

Balko 

Yes, I think that's important, and I've written similar pieces in other contexts over the course of my career. But I think one thing that happens is that when norms start slipping and political factions start aligning, people shift their positions, and it's easy to lose focus of how far we've fallen. And so, I think it's important to establish, as I put it in the headline, the “lines in the sand,” saying this is something that I won't go any further with. Right now, one thing we've seen is there is a lot of polling showing that if Trump were to be convicted of a felony, he would lose about 10–15 percent of the vote. And my response to that has always been that that sounds right in theory, but one thing we've seen is that what Trump supporters will tolerate continues to shift as he continues to do increasingly terrible things, and I'm not convinced that he's going to lose very many of his supporters if he gets convicted of a felony. I think they will find a way to excuse it, like they found a way to excuse everything else. 

Robinson 

These questions are really clarifying because they help us think about what we're actually talking about here. So, for example, do you believe LGBTQ people are a threat to children, or are more likely to abuse children than other people? Do you believe that Congress or the state legislatures should have the power to criminalize homosexuality or ban contraception? Do you believe trans people have the right to exist, or should the government prevent them from existing? There's all this rhetoric that comes out about the threat to our children, and you're trying to get down to, what are we actually expecting to happen here? Because maybe almost nothing will happen, but it could be a very serious effort to drastically restrict the freedoms of Americans. 

Balko 

I think we need to get politicians on the record. When I was writing that, I was thinking almost as much about other right-wing pundits and personalities as much as anybody. But at the very least, look at the lineup of people that are in the process of humiliating themselves to become Trump's running mate. We should ask those people these questions. We need to get people on the record now. On some level, I think even that isn’t [sufficient]. We're in an era where nothing really matters. 

Robinson 

They might lie.

Balko 

Yes. If you look at J.D. Vance, he considered Trump a clown and a threat to the country back in 2015 and 2016, and the same with Nikki Haley and Elise Stefanik. All these people are now being somewhat challenged on what they said about Trump back in 2015, and their responses are to get angry at the media for quoting them directly. But it's a cult. I don't know how else to describe the behavior that we're seeing from some of these politicians.

Robinson 

I want to get to your most recent piece, "Trump's Deportation Army." You zero in on one particular part of the plan, Trump's vow to deport 15 million people. Before we get to what you spend the meat of the piece on, what is actually feasible and what is not, tell us what Trump and his allies—people like Stephen Miller, who'd probably be in charge of it—actually have said they want to do.

Balko 

Trump has flat-out said he wants to deport every undocumented person in the U.S. That is impossible. It can't be done. Just trying could do an enormous amount of damage and would probably wreck the U.S. economy. We can get into the specifics, but it would be enormously expensive. It would require, basically, Trump's own army to do it. Stephen Miller has gotten into more specifics than that in an interview with Charlie Kirk on his podcast. Miller talked about bringing in the National Guard and active duty military and recruiting state and local police officers as part of this immigration enforcement team. He's talked about using military planes, setting up tent camps along the border, and having regular flights going in and out of the country to take people back to their countries of origin. He's talking about, as I put in the piece, what would be the second-largest forced movement of people in the history of the world, probably tying with the British partition of India. We're talking about 15 million people. Only World War II displaced more people forcibly.

I think they don't really expect to deport 15 million people. What they do want is to show a lot of violence. They want to show their supporters that they are inflicting harm and pain on immigrants, particularly on migrants and undocumented people, because that's what their supporters want. They want to inflict punishment on people that they see as their enemies, and I don't think that's an exaggeration. As I pointed out in the piece, during the first Trump administration, the Trump administration flat out admitted that the family separation policy was designed to show these scenes of agony of children being ripped from their parents' arms because they thought that would be a deterrent to other migrants from coming to the U.S. There was no safety reason to do that. There's no national security reason to do that. It was specifically for the purpose of terrorizing and traumatizing these children and their parents to deter other migrants from coming here. And so, I think we'll see a lot of the same. We will see policies that are cruel for the sake of cruelty. And I think, as an American, but also just as a human being, that’s appalling, and I think it's something that we need to make people aware of, so at least we can own it. I don't want this to happen because people didn't know that it was going to happen. And if we're the kind of country that's going to endorse this sort of policy, then I guess that's something that we have to reckon with.

Robinson 

As you said, it's not actually feasible to do what Trump has said he's going to do for plenty of reasons, including the fact that it would cost more than the entire budget of the U.S. Army, at a minimum, to do it. Implementing this promise to deport all the undocumented immigrants in the United States would be so impossible that it would show just how silly it is to think about the undocumented population as a group of people who shouldn't be here. Being realistic, they are here, and it points to why we need to have some kind of path for people to be legalized. As you describe it, what it would actually mean to deport undocumented people would be insane. It's a lot more logistically impossible than people would assume it is, which is a good thing, in a way. Trump probably can't do this thing. But it does point to why it's so absurd to maintain this kind of fantasy that you're going to somehow have a fully legalized population with anything other than introducing a plan for getting people who are here to have permanent residency or citizenship.

Balko 

There's the cost of the deportations themselves and the machinery and logistics that you would have to have in place to do it, and that's probably close to a trillion dollars at this point if you wanted to deport everyone. But then there's the cost of what it would do to the economy. Economists estimate that you're looking at a $4.5 trillion or so hit to the economy over the next 20 years. If you want to talk about inflation, which is Trump's 'trump card' against Biden right now, deporting all these people will make the cost of groceries, new home construction, and services soar because there will be a huge labor shortage in those areas.

When COVID hit, a big part of the inflation problem was that we had a very slight dip in immigration to the U.S. because jobs dried up and people weren't moving as much, and crops were rotting in the fields at that point. That was one of the big contributors to inflation. Immigrants coming back since is one of the reasons the economy bounced back the way it did. You're going to see inflation soar if this happens, and you will see the money that immigrants would have spent will not be spent. From what I've read, a massive, major recession is almost a certainty, and that could very well spin into a depression. So, even if you don't care about the human cost—which, what the hell is wrong with you if you don't?—this is going to hurt everybody. It will hurt all of us because immigrants are an ingrained part of our society and our culture, including undocumented immigrants, and there's just no way to implement this kind of plan without hurting the country as a whole.

Robinson 

What you've laid out in this post is the kind of maximal version of this. You've pointed out what is actually going to happen will probably fall short of that, but nevertheless, it will be incredibly cruel. I don't know that you can answer this question, because I don't think anyone can answer this question of what will actually happen, but I think it depends to a very large extent on how much resistance there will be. It seems as if the Trump administration will push for as close to what's possible, as you lay out here. The question is, what can they get away with?

Balko 

Miller talks about things like activating the National Guard in Red states and sending them into Blue states and into what they call sanctuary cities. And I think, what would the reaction to that be? Well, I think in some cities you would see resistance. You would certainly see citizens, and legal or documented immigrants, try to resist this effort to deport their neighbors and friends. You might even see official resistance. You might see Blue state governors activate the National Guard to keep the Red state National Guard troops out. You might see police agencies in Blue cities resisting efforts to deport immigrants. Those are really horrifying scenarios that seem to be a recipe for violence.

But you also would see what we saw during the first Trump administration, with immigrants less likely to report crime and cooperate with police because they would be afraid, and so you would probably see a spike in crime in many places. Police rely on cooperation from immigrant communities to do their jobs, and they wouldn't be able to rely on them anymore because immigrants would be scared to come forward. You definitely see increases in things like domestic violence, which require immigrants to voluntarily come forward to police. We did see that during the first Trump administration. There are just all sorts of consequences that I think we'd see. I think you'd see a lot of vigilantism. Trump has made a big deal over the years of a strange fantasy he has of bikers and soldiers and cops coming to his aid and striking down his enemies. So, I could completely see him trying to deputize Minutemen militias or Proud Boy groups to implement some of this policy. We're in uncharted waters here. I don't think it's possible to quite predict what would happen if they tried to do this, other than that it would be bad and take us down a road that seems pretty extreme, scary, and dystopian. 

Robinson 

As you pointed out at the beginning of the conversation, basically, we're confronting a big “what if” question: what if the United States elected someone who wanted to be a dictator? It's the subject that you might pursue in speculative fiction. We are choosing to pursue it as an experiment in the real world.

Balko 

One of the things we saw during the first Trump term is that Trump seemed to believe that if you did your corruption out in the open, it wasn't corruption. I did it in front of all of you, so how could it be corruption? And he got away with it, at least a lot of it. I think we're seeing that playbook now applied to these kinds of authoritarian instincts. If he's openly promising to do these things, and then gets elected, how can anybody complain? Voters had their say. For voters, it's not like we were tricked. We were told ahead of time exactly what was going to happen. 

Robinson 

Yes. Obviously, a big part of any reason why Trump would actually get elected is that Joe Biden is a historically weak candidate in many ways.

Balko 

I think he's a weak candidate. Obviously, his age is a big concern. But, I also think he's been dealt a pretty difficult hand, having come in toward the end of COVID and having to battle inflation, which I think every country in the world has had to battle. The odd thing is, in my first book—which is about police militarization and the drug war—Joe Biden's name appears over and over again, and it's never in a flattering way. I spent most of my career criticizing Joe Biden, and so to be in a position now where he's sort of the best hope for democracy is not a position I find myself advocating comfortably. But I think that's where we are.

Robinson 

You mentioned your book, Rise of the Warrior Cop, and a basic premise of Trumpism and the far right is that the police can do no wrong. If we think that it's bad with the almost complete impunity U.S. police officers have now—doesn't Trump have a crazy quote where he encourages police to bash people's heads against the car as they arrest them?

Balko 

Well, the thing is that the police can do no wrong, except for the Capitol Police on January 6 or the FBI. Trump supports the police as long as the police support Trump. And so, it's the classic thing: benefits of government for the in-group, and all the negatives of government for the out-group. So, yes, he supports police, except when he doesn't.

Robinson 

But I can expect that, to the extent that this movement succeeds, the trends of militarization of police and the elimination of accountability can be expected to worsen.

Balko 

Absolutely. The Supreme Court, just in the 2023 term in the Egbert v. Boule decision, basically made federal law enforcement officers immune to civil liability. So, even if a federal officer knowingly and egregiously violates your constitutional rights, and the courts recognize that's what happened, they can't be sued. Then you pair that with other decisions the court has made, which have said that when local and state police officers are deputized and become federal officers for a specific mission or for a specific time, they enjoy the same benefits as federal officers. And so, for immigration purposes, Trump can create this deportation force that is basically completely immune to any civil liability. If they accidentally kill someone, or if they violate people's constitutional rights by putting them in tent camps and treating them inhumanely by not giving them food or water and protecting them from disease and illness, they're all going to be protected. There's not going to be any incentive for them to recognize and respect these people as human beings. And in fact, every incentive is going to cut the other way because they will be working for an administration that is openly calling them vermin who poisoned the blood of the country. Sometimes I'll hear myself talking about this and just think, what era are we living in right now? 

Robinson 

Yes, I think in one of your posts, you comment on how strange it feels to even be writing these things and having to make this argument. One of the interesting things about Trump's first term is that it also saw one of the most significant efforts at police reform in the history of this country. The George Floyd protests, a massive uprising to protest police brutality, were in some ways a good sign. It suggests that, under a second Trump term, we might see a resurgence of that kind of popular anger at authoritarian abuses. I wanted to use the opportunity of talking to you to ask about one other thing that you've written, which is that you've also talked about how the Right has been trying to rewrite the original incident that sparked off those protests, the killing of George Floyd. Obviously, plenty of people saw the video and were horrified because it seemed a pretty egregious case. The argument that was usually made was that Derek Chauvin was a bad apple, it doesn't represent the culture, and so on. There's also a “Derek Chauvin did nothing wrong” story that has been told, which you have dealt with. Could you lay out what the argument made to rewrite that history is?

Balko 

I thought the George Floyd protests were encouraging, as you said, not just because of the show of support and the sustained nature and the size of the protests, but also that they brought about substantive change more than any point in my career writing about these issues. Not at the federal level so much, but definitely at the state and local level we've seen real change in police policy that I never thought was possible, or would have been possible, before the protests. Part of that, I think, is due to the fact that Floyd's death was caught on video and that it was so egregious. Initially, there was unanimity that this was an unjustified killing, that it was a murder—people across the political spectrum thought that. And as you said, the only defense of law enforcement on the Right was that this is not typical, Derek Chauvin is not your typical cop, and what he did is not something that we see regularly.

In the years since, there has been this slow peeling off of people on the Right towards defense of Chauvin. We saw it within months after the killing. I think it has intensified, particularly after the release of the documentary The Fall of Minneapolis, which was produced by a former police officer and the wife of the head of the Minneapolis police union. I don't know how far in the weeds you want to get here, but the gist of the argument is that Chauvin was doing a technique that was taught by the Minneapolis Police Department and that Floyd died from one of the various ailments or addictions that he was suffering from, some combination of the heart ailment and opioid intoxication or overdose. There are many problems with all of those claims, but mostly, what Chauvin did in that video is not taught by the Minneapolis Police Department, and the people who are claiming otherwise have deployed manipulations of trial testimony to claim otherwise.

There was a technique that was taught where you can put a knee on someone's back temporarily, for a matter of seconds, while you apply a device called a hobble that's meant to restrain people, and then you're immediately supposed to turn the person over. Well, what we saw with Floyd was not that. Chauvin had his knee on his back for several minutes, including several minutes after Floyd fell unconscious, and he was never turned over on his side in order to regain his breathing. As for the other claims, there's really no evidence that Floyd died of an opioid overdose. In fact, his opioid levels were lower than that of most people who are arrested for driving under the influence while on opioids—people who have not had an overdose and didn't die, but who were just pulled over for intoxication. And also, he didn't show any of the signs of somebody in the midst of an opioid overdose. When you are overdosing on heroin, oxycontin, or fentanyl, you're sluggish and slow. These are depressants, and they slow you down. Floyd was agitated, irritated, and panicky, and those are not the signs of an opioid overdose at all. But I just think it's a toxic effort to retcon Floyd's death. Clearly, the goal is to undermine these substantive reforms that happened. Black people have been talking about police abuse for years and years, and finally, you have this case where there's video showing and confirming that police lie about these things. If it weren't for that video, the Minneapolis Police Department's initial press release would probably be the narrative about Floyd today, which was that he died of a medical condition while police were trying to arrest him. So, I think it's a really toxic effort to undo all these reforms and to undo the kind of racial reckoning that we saw after Floyd's death. That is what's behind all of this.

Robinson 

You make one interesting argument in your piece, though. You say there's one way in which the argument that Chauvin was not departing from standard police practice might even be plausible, not that it was the practice in the handbook, but that the sort of thing that he was doing was, in fact, tolerated by the police. You call it the Derek Chauvin defense no one wants, because essentially the defense is that this is pretty typical Minneapolis Police behavior. In your final post in the series, you make the case—and this is so important because you are showing the pattern of police misconduct in the city—as to why this really isn't just about Derek Chauvin committing murder. Yes, these protests occurred because of George Floyd, but George Floyd was a stand-in for something. You point out that the reason these protests occurred is that the incident lights a fuse and blows up something that's been there all along waiting to explode.

Balko 

Yes, the point is that these protests are rarely just about the person who died that precipitated the protest. People don't take to the streets because of one death, no matter how unjustified. They take to the streets because they see themselves as that person. They've had a bad interaction with police, or their brother or husband or friend has, and so they look at what happened as something that could have been them, or somebody they love or care about.

One big substantive reform that we have seen following the protest is a reevaluation of deaths in police custody, and there's pretty striking and persuasive evidence that we have been classifying these deaths wrong for a very long time. We're talking probably thousands of deaths in police custody that have been attributed to conditions like “excited delirium,” which are conditions that are sort of made up and that have very little scientific basis. What's actually probably happening in most of these cases that people are dying from what they call positional asphyxia, and that is when police officers are positioning these people in ways that make it difficult for them to breathe, triggering a cardiopulmonary failure. What we’ve seen after Floyd's death is an effort to revisit this and reevaluate how we classify these deaths, both so that we can properly investigate the deaths themselves, but also to prevent it from happening in the future.

And so, if you go back and say, the incident that precipitated all these reforms is a lie and a hoax, then why do we need these reforms at all? Arguing that position is going to cost lives. People will die who otherwise wouldn't have because these changes to police procedures and training aren't going to happen, and people will say that there was never a problem to begin with. That's where I find that these really fact-challenged efforts to retroactively justify Floyd's death are really destructive because people are going to die.



Transcript edited by Patrick Farnsworth.

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