From the farm where he retired in the Pennsylvania countryside, Roger Williams has been keeping up with the latest news about his preferred presidential candidate, Donald Trump – including the comments he has made about wanting “to be a dictator for one day”.
“For one day – don’t get it twisted,” Williams, 67, replied when asked about the comment that amplified fears that Trump, if successful in his campaign to return to the White House in next year’s election, would take steps to dismantle US democratic institutions.
“He wanted to put his foot down and dictate some things that needed to get done. That’s what he meant,” Williams said as he sat at 4th Street Pub in West Hazleton, a town in Pennsylvania’s north-eastern Luzerne county that was key to Trump winning the state and the presidency overall.
In the seven years since he transformed the Republican party with his 2016 election victory, Americans have grown used to Trump saying brash, strange and insulting things in public, but the comments he made about wanting to be a dictator have landed differently.
Polls show the former president is the overwhelming frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination next year, even though he is facing federal charges for his well-documented attempt to overturn the 2020 election, when voters rejected his bid for a second term and replaced him with Joe Biden.
Media outlets have already reported that Trump is considering purging thousands of civil servants and replacing them with ideological loyalists, using the justice department to retaliate against former officials who turned against him and deploying the military to crush protesters if he wins a second term in 2024. Earlier this month, Trump went public with his desire for absolute power when he took questions from conservative Fox News commentator Sean Hannity at a town hall in Iowa.
“Under no circumstances, you are promising America tonight, you would never abuse power as retribution against anybody?” Hannity asked. “Except for day one,” the former president responded.
We have Biden because of Trump, and we have Trump because of Biden. I don’t want either of them to run
Chris Christie supporter Bob Capparell
“I love this guy,” Trump continued, referring to Hannity. “He says, ‘You’re not going to be a dictator, are you?’ I said: ‘No, no, no, other than day one. We’re closing the border and we’re drilling, drilling, drilling. After that, I’m not a dictator.’”
Days later, in a speech at the New York Young Republican Club’s annual gala, Trump doubled down. “I said I want to be a dictator for one day. You know why I wanted to be a dictator? Because I want a wall, and I want to drill, drill, drill,” he told the sympathetic crowd.
The former president’s foes pounced on the remarks to press their case that he is too dangerous to hold office gain. “The greatest threat Trump poses is to our democracy, because if we lose that, we lose everything,” Biden said at a campaign reception in Los Angeles.
It will be voters in places such as Pennsylvania whose judgment of Trump’s remarks will matter most. One of a handful of swing states expected to determine the outcome of next year’s presidential contest, Trump won the Keystone state in 2016, and lost it four years later to Biden. His arrival on the political scene left a lasting imprint in Luzerne county, which once leaned Democratic but broke decisively for Trump in his first presidential election, and where the GOP has generally done well ever since.
Several voters in the county who spoke to the Guardian said they remain unnerved by Trump, but the former president’s fans portrayed the concerns about his desire for dictatorship as overblown.
“That’s all bull,” said retiree Joe Belletiere, 74, of the ex-president’s remarks. “They took that out of context.”
A former Democratic who switched parties when Trump first ran in 2016, Belletiere now describes himself as a “staunch Republican”. Sipping coffee in a McDonald’s where he meets up with his friends every morning in Hazleton, a medium-sized city neighboring the smaller, more-conservative West Hazleton, Belletiere said Trump is just showing his resolve to achieve longstanding campaign promises, like building a wall along the border with Mexico, and increasing the country’s already record oil production.
“He’s going to dictate taking the wall down and opening up the oil,” he said.
Sitting nearby, 77-year-old Richard Yanac said he once again planned to vote for Trump, expecting him to bring down prices that had risen throughout Biden’s presidency due to a long list of factors, including the economy’s broader recovery from the disaster brought about by Covid-19.
“I don’t think he’d be a dictator,” Yanac said. “I’m a Trump person, and I hope that when he gets in, he shuts down the border, he starts drilling and he gets the prices down.”
Polls have recently shown a tight race between Trump and Biden, with several finding the sitting president lagging among voters in Pennsylvania. They have also shown that voters are sour on both men, and that feeling was very much alive among the retirees who hold court at the Hazleton McDonald’s.
“We have Biden because of Trump, and we have Trump because of Biden. I don’t want either of them to run,” said Bob Capparell, 74. A lifelong conservative, he’s supporting ex-New Jersey governor and Trump foe Chris Christie, or perhaps Nikki Haley, who served as the former president’s UN ambassador.
Asked whether he thought Trump could become a dictator, Capparell replied, “He would be, absolutely. You’d never get him out of office, never.”
While Trump’s triumph in Luzerne county and Pennsylvania as a whole in 2016 was one of the many shocks he gave Democrats that year, there’s evidence his staying power has waned. The county supported him again in 2020, but by a percentage point less, and Democratic candidates won four seats in the county council in last month’s elections.
Bob Buchman, 72, voted for Trump in 2016 because he “believed his baloney”, but backed Biden four years later. Faced with the same choice again, he’ll vote for Biden, if he must.
“I’d take 10 Joe Bidens before I’d take one Donald Trump. He just lies and lies and lies,” he said. “I’m afraid if he gets in now, he’ll just have four years of getting even.”