Donald Trump’s supporters reject concerns about ‘dictator’ comments


DURHAM, N.H. – Former President Donald Trump drew a torrent of criticism when he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity earlier this month he wouldn’t be a dictator “except on Day One” of a second administration.

But many attendees at Trump’s campaign rally Saturday at the University of New Hampshire said the comment was a joke meant to provoke his rivals. The voters said they’re not concerned Trump would truly lead as a dictator.

“He’s like a guy with a laser pointer, and the left is a cat,” said John LaClair, who drove from Barrington to attend the rally with his brother.

Rather, more than a dozen people who spoke with USA TODAY outside the rally said they believe the presidency would give Trump enough power to legally accomplish what is most important to them. That ranges from strengthening the economy to stopping migration at the southern border and preventing U.S. participation in foreign conflicts.

Shelly Temple, who volunteered for Trump’s campaign in New Hampshire in 2016 and attended the rally Saturday, said the nation’s energy production and border security are among her priorities ahead of 2024. But Trump would have plenty of authority under America’s system to address those issues, she said.

“I don’t see that as dictator, I see that as being a leader and to protect his country… I like a president that respects the Constitution,” she said. “Let the government work the way it’s supposed to. Let there be checks and balances.”

The interpretation of Trump’s comments among supporters at his Saturday rally diverges from the rising alarm among authoritarianism experts. Some have issued warnings about America’s institutions.

“Two things about Trump. One, he often says what he means and he often says it in the form of a joke,” said Mabel Berezin, a sociology professor at Cornell University who studies nationalist and populist political movements. “The second part of it is, I don’t think we should discount him.”

Trump’s allies are planning ways to bypass some of those checks and balances, Berezin said, even if consolidation of power couldn’t happen overnight. Trump on the campaign trail has proposed a series of measures that would grant the president additional powers.

“I think it’s one of those classic Trump things which have two meanings: It has a grain of truth in it, and it’s also a joke,” she said. “Trump’s most outrageous statements are worth paying attention to.”

Donald Trump makes promises for a second term

As he seeks a second term in office, Trump has eyed using the presidency to investigate and potentially prosecute his political enemies.

He wrote on his Truth Social platform and told attendees at another New Hampshire rally that he would “root out the communists, Marxists, fascists, and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.”

The former president has said he will make it easier to fire tens of thousands of federal workers, end birthright citizenship and carry out a mass deportation campaign.

At a town hall event in Iowa earlier this month, Hannity asked Trump about some of these pledges and whether he planned “to abuse power as retribution against anybody” if he regains the presidency.

“Except for Day One. I want to close the border and I want to drill, drill, drill,” Trump responded. “He says you’re not going to be dictator are you? No, no, no − other than Day One… after that, I’m not a dictator.”

He doubled down on the comments a few days later in a speech to the New York Young Republican Club.

Trump has also repeatedly praised authoritarian leaders in other countries, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and North Korean President Kim Jong Un. Trump on Saturday again said Kim was “very nice.”

‘You have to demolish your whole house’

As he addressed the crowd, Trump again pledged to “drill, baby, drill,” but did not touch on his previous “dictator” comments. Instead, he pointed a finger at President Joe Biden and the Democrats.

“Biden and the far-left lunatics are desperate to stop us by any means necessary. They’re willing to violate the U.S. Constitution at levels never seen before in order to win,” he said.

Multiple rally attendees who spoke with USA TODAY also said their concerns about democracy don’t lie with Trump but with the current president.

“I’m not at all worried about that,” Charles Martin, an engineer from southern New Hampshire said when asked about Trump’s comments about being a dictator.

He said he’ll “never forgive” Biden for the administration’s handling of COVID-19 vaccines, which put him at odds with his employer, adding that he believes “We live in a tyranny right now.”

The split reflects recent polling from the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, which found that a majority of Republicans and Democrats both feel democracy is at risk in the 2024 presidential election − but for different reasons. Eighty-seven percent of Democrats said Trump would threaten democracy, and 82% of Republicans said Biden would.

Nori and Sarah Kozuma own a cafe in Newmarket. They feel their business fared better under the Trump presidency and are hoping a second term would rejuvenate the economy.

Nori Kozuma added that he’s concerned democracy is in danger. The political system isn’t serving the people, he said, so “now we have to change the system.”

“You have to demolish your whole house to build a brand new house that’s really good for you. In order to destroy the whole house, it takes a long time and it takes leadership. (Allegations of dictatorship are) fanned by the media,” he said. “He hasn’t done one single thing that makes me think he’s a dictator.”

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