NBC’s GOP debate moderators should have asked about Donald Trump’s plans to install an authoritarian regime

Voters deserve to know how candidates feel about Trump's reported “totalitarian” plans for a second term

During last night’s third GOP presidential primary debate, moderators made no mention of Donald Trump’s dangerous and unconstitutional plans to transform the federal government into an authoritarian regime should he win the 2024 presidential election.

A Washington Post article detailed Trump’s plans for a second term, which include potentially invoking the Insurrection Act to dispatch the military to put down any civil demonstrations and transforming the executive branch into a politicized revenge machine designed to target Trump’s enemies. Fox News and other right-wing media personalities have hyped Trump’s proposed “revenge tour” as payback for his federal indictment for attempting to overturn the 2020 election.

The scheme was hatched by a group of right-wing think tanks – including the Heritage Foundation and the Christian nationalist Center for Renewing America — as part of Project 2025: a far-reaching effort that includes replacing thousands of nonpartisan federal civil service workers with conservatives who would enforce Trump’s authoritarian policies and facilitate political prosecutions of his enemies. According to the Post, Trump’s targets for political retribution include his former chief of staff John Kelly, former Attorney General William Barr, his former attorney Ty Cobb, and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley, as well as various Justice Department and FBI officials and President Joe Biden and his family.

Citing the Post article, Politico senior media reporter Jack Shafer implored reporters to press the issue with Trump’s Republican challengers, as their answers could determine whether they are nominated for cabinet positions in a second Trump administration:

Starting today, political reporters have a duty to grill Trump’s primary opponents, especially the “Trump Lite” candidates Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott and Vivek Ramaswamy, on whether or not they support Trump’s plans for political prosecutions and the imposition of military power over the citizenry, essentially the rapid dismantling of our democratic system of governance. No caviling answers to these questions should be accepted. Instead, reporters should push candidates to give the sort of unequivocal answers that will either qualify them for cabinet positions in the Trump regime (“Yes, it’s OK for a president to jail his opponents and for the military to occupy cities”) or earn them a Trump indictment should he win (“No, everything about the reported Trump plans for trials and military control stinks”).

If The Washington Post has accurately captured the style of government Trump intends to deploy should he win, there is no bigger issue on the plate than Trump’s reported plans. If he has totalitarian designs for mass political trials in storage and plans to release them in 2025, the press and his political opponents, including Joe Biden, should escalate their criticism of him pronto to make it the leading political issue. Biden can’t pretend to be an advocate of constitutional self-governance unless he presses Trump hard here.

None of the questions from GOP debate moderators Kristen Welker, Lester Holt, and Hugh Hewitt addressed Trump’s “totalitarian” aspirations. (Indeed, a Poynter op-ed gave the moderators a “so-so” grade, in particular singling out that Trump deserved more attention from the trio.)

Hewitt — a conservative Salem Radio Network host — opted to ask the candidates if the U.S. Navy has enough boats to deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and whether they would ban TikTok, while NBC’s Welker asked the candidates if they would discontinue aid for Ukraine.