The last time I wrote about Gavin Wax, the head of the hard-right New York Young Republican Club (NYYRC), was in the wake of its annual fundraising dinner last December.
Wax, who was joined that evening by Donald Trump Jr., Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and other figures from the right-most fringe of national and international politics, described his vision for political activism.
“We want total war,” Wax said. “We must be prepared to do battle in every arena. In the media. In the courtroom. At the ballot box. And in the streets.”
At the time, this was simply a small component of broad, shallow rhetoric hinting at political violence and a need for an extremist response to the moment. Not unimportant but still distant from actual anti-democratic actions.
On Saturday, at the NYYRC’s 2023 iteration of its dinner, Wax returned to the theme.
“Once President Trump is back in office,” he said, according to Politico, “we won’t be playing nice anymore. It will be a time for retribution. All those responsible for destroying our once-great country will be held to account after baseless years of investigations and government lies and media lies against this man.”
This time, though, there was much less distance between what he said and the mechanism for making it a reality. Unlike last year, Wax’s comments were followed by a speech from Trump himself.
“Gavin,” Trump marveled near the outset, “that was an excellent speech. That was an excellent speech!”
The crowd applauded; a chant of “Gavin!” broke out. Then the man whom Wax saw as the vehicle for right-wing retribution — the man who had himself introduced the idea that he was such a vehicle — dug into his remarks.
Much of his speech centered on familiar themes and rhetoric. You don’t hire Lynyrd Skynyrd to play your county fair without the expectation the band will play “Free Bird.” But, in a riff offered near the end of his comments, Trump addressed a more recent development in his campaign.
“These people are sick. They are bad,” he said of the media. He offered an example: that the New York Times’s Peter Baker had “said that I want to be a dictator.”
“I didn’t say that,” Trump continued, referring to his exchange with Fox News host Sean Hannity from earlier in the week. “I said I want to be a dictator for one day. And you know why I wanted to be a dictator? Because I want a wall, right? I want a wall and I want to drill, drill, drill.”
Loud cheers from the crowd and then a chant: “Build the wall!”
This is what Trump told Hannity. He had talked about building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and about wanting to expand oil exploration when Hannity asked about a Washington Post column that suggested Trump wanted power outside of the democratic process. So Trump said he didn’t want to be a dictator — except for his first day in office, to build a wall and to drill.
If you apply a slight amount of scrutiny to this idea, you see that it doesn’t make much sense: What does “being a dictator” mean in that context? What is it he hopes to do with some sort of absolute power that would be constrained to that day?
Those familiar with Trump’s first term in office might offer an answer. His 2016 presidential campaign was heavily focused on building a wall on the border, something that proved very difficult to do once he took office. Walls cost money, and presidents are limited in what they can spend. So Trump declared a national state of emergency, one that allowed him to pull funding from other parts of the government (particularly the Defense Department) to put toward wall construction. It occurred within the bounds of his presidential powers but, even at the time, was seen as pushing those boundaries.
Again, it’s not clear that Trump came into the Hannity interview with the idea that this was a pattern he would repeat, to a similar end. But that he offered the same examples to applause in front of the NYYRC crew suggests that he’s willing to stand by it.
Perhaps you noticed another bit of static here, though: The things Trump claims he wants to do using nondemocratic powers are things he also claims he’s already done.
He often spoke about his efforts to increase domestic oil production while he was president, stating, inaccurately, that the United States became energy independent on his watch. Since he left office, it is not the case that American oil production constricted; in fact, the country has set recent records for monthly output.
Then there’s the rhetoric about the wall. The audience reacted as a Trump audience is expected to react to Trump talking about building a wall: They chanted that the wall should be built. But then Trump had to jump in to point out that, well, he did build the wall as president. He claimed that his administration built more than 560 miles (the real figure is about 460 miles, with only 52 miles being installed in places where no barriers existed previously) and that he’d planned to build 200 more. It’s a tricky rhetorical path to walk, to claim that the border was under control because of your wall but that it’s now out of control because we need a wall.
This is the actual point. Trump is saying that he needs to step outside the expected boundaries of his power to do [generic things that his base views with approval]. This turns his comments from promises of what he’s going to do into promises of how he’s going to do it — which is exactly the thing that outside observers have grown so nervous about.
It is what those in his orbit like Stephen K. Bannon — also in attendance at the dinner — have suggested, too. And it’s what Wax said from that same stage: that a second Trump presidency will be about breaking the backs of his opponents, a pledge that is unattached to such niceties as congressional approval.
That was an excellent speech, Trump told Wax. An excellent speech.