Hoo boy. Okay, so wrote this post in part as a failed effort at catharsis. I’ve been running election scenarios in my head, and none of them are happy. I don’t mean I think Joe Biden will lose—I mean I think Trump will render it all moot. I was not encouraged when I read about the “war games” played out by the Transition Integrity Project. Suffice to say, there were no scenarios that did not involve violence in the aftermath of election day.
I went back and forth about whether to post this, or relegate it to a lonely folder of forgotten musings on my desktop. But, well … misery loves company.
Two years ago, The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer wrote what I think has been the most incisive evaluation of Trump, his administration, and the phenomenon of Trumpism as a whole. It’s also one of those articles whose thesis is plainly stated in its very title: “The Cruelty is the Point.” I feel as though the “is” in that title should be italicized, in tacit response to the sort of punditry that affects bafflement or bemusement at Trump’s behaviour and that of his acolytes, and attempts the Sisyphean task of framing it in terms of everyday politics. What ideology exists in Trumpism is the ethos of resentment and revenge, in which the infliction of pain and suffering on one’s foes is not a bonus accrued in the process of political gamesmanship, it is the game. Serwer writes,
We can hear the spectacle of cruel laughter throughout the Trump era. There were the border-patrol agents cracking up at the crying immigrant children separated from their families, and the Trump adviser who delighted white supremacists when he mocked a child with Down syndrome who was separated from her mother. There were the police who laughed uproariously when the president encouraged them to abuse suspects, and the Fox News hosts mocking a survivor of the Pulse Nightclub massacre (and in the process inundating him with threats), the survivors of sexual assault protesting to Senator Jeff Flake, the women who said the president had sexually assaulted them, and the teen survivors of the Parkland school shooting. There was the president mocking Puerto Rican accents shortly after thousands were killed and tens of thousands displaced by Hurricane Maria, the black athletes protesting unjustified killings by the police, the women of the #MeToo movement who have come forward with stories of sexual abuse, and the disabled reporter whose crime was reporting on Trump truthfully.
It is this cruelty, and the outrage it reliably incites, that bonds Trump to his base and makes his stubborn refusal to do anything that might disappoint them comprehensible. “Their shared laughter at the suffering of others,” Serwer says of Trump’s most loyal adherents, “is an adhesive that binds them to one another, and to Trump.”
Even now, pundits and columnists not employed by Fox News still wonder why Trump can’t seem to grasp the fairly basic political ramifications of not presenting at least a thin façade of statesmanship and condemning violence on all sides, of saying something tepid that gestures toward de-escalation. And this after he’d actually managed to be relatively disciplined for four days. The Republication National Convention somehow managed to keep the president on a tight leash and somehow convinced him to stick to the teleprompter during his speech, and presented a carefully stage-managed spectacle specifically designed to give disaffected or alienated Trump voters a permission structure to vote for him again: trotting out every Black Trump supporter they could find, staging a naturalization ceremony for conspicuously dark-skinned new citizens, parading a veritable cavalcade of women (the balance of whom were, true to Trump’s pageant-owning past, blonde and statuesque) attesting to Trump’s kindness behind the scenes and his equitable treatment of women; all of which was by way of soothing people’s misgivings about Trump’s racism and misogyny. Don’t believe the liberal liars and Fake News, and don’t believe everything you think you’ve seen and heard for more than four years—this is the REAL Donald J. Trump.
Cue the panicking of the Chicken Littles, suddenly terrified that the Republicans had been successful in snowing the public yet again.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m afraid the sky is falling, too. I’m just not quite so worried about electoral math. If that was the only problem now, I’d sleep a lot better.
I’ve had a lot of people asked me if I think Trump can win in November. I say no, I don’t. The worry creasing their faces eases for a moment as I break down my reasoning. As we’ve seen since the 2016 election, Trump has a strangely resilient approval of around forty percent. It goes up and it goes down, but never by too much. For any other president, never once cresting fifty percent in the polls during a first term would be catastrophic, something we tend to forget in the present moment, because, however egregious Trump’s behaviour, however monumental his incompetence, and however disastrous his mismanagement of the pandemic response, the economy, and race-based civil unrest, that forty percent remains durable. That is, of course, cause for concern, as that was more or less the number he had going into 2016. But there are a handful of factors at play in 2020 that make a key difference. First, Trump is no longer an unknown and untested quantity. In 2016, it seemed a lot more reasonable to some people to give the chamber a spin and play Russian roulette with a Trump vote. What’s the worst that could happen? was asked a lot—or, as Trump said in his plea to Black voters, “What have you got to lose?” (Which is one of the many, many reasons White liberals need to pay more attention to Black voters—they’re very keenly aware of what they have to lose). After almost four years of corruption and self-dealing, and of course an economy cratered by a pandemic and a death toll pushing two hundred thousand, we’re now living “the worst that could happen.” Second, for a critical mass of unwarranted reasons (and a handful of warranted ones), Hillary Clinton was a deeply unpopular candidate whose unfavourables were comparable to Trump’s. Couple that with the divisiveness caused by a bitter primary fight, and it exacerbates the problem of the third item—third party candidates, who provided safe haven for people who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton (but who also believed she would still win in a walk). A possible Kanye West candidacy notwithstanding, third party candidates aren’t a factor this time around. And even if they were, anyone who bought into Trump’s spiel in 2016 about deal-making and his promises to build infrastructure and tax the rich aren’t about to be fooled again (I sincerely hope).
All of that makes Trump’s chances quite dire, even with that static forty percent popularity, and I haven’t yet mentioned the name Joe Biden. To be clear, he was never near the top of my list during the primary (Team Warren all the way!), and in the present moment I think a ficus in a fedora would give Trump a run for his money, but I’m not unconvinced he’s the person for the moment—someone whose history of tragedy and heartbreak has gifted him with the humility and empathy needed to heal a suffering nation. That, and (touch wood) it looks as though the Democrats have their shit together this time around.
Remember, Trump lost the popular vote; he won the electoral college by eking out victories of less than one percent in three key states. I’m not saying that can’t happen again, just that the factors listed above make it far less likely, at least mathematically.
And this is the point, when I’ve eased my friend’s worry somewhat, that I make their face fall by saying, “But that probably won’t matter.” Because I’m not worried about electoral math: I’m worried about Trump’s capacity to foment chaos.
Which brings us back to the ostensible confusion among some of the pundit class about Trump’s apparent inability to help himself politically by, say, condemning the vigilantism of armed pro-Trump militias in the same breath as he attacks rioters. Or possibly disavowing the ludicrous QAnon conspiracy theories. On one hand, it shouldn’t be surprising—these are, after all, of a piece with his refusal to condemn neo-Nazis after Charlottesville. But this close to an election he looks poised to lose, shouldn’t he do the politically expedient thing?
Well, no. For one thing, as I’ve already pointed out, he loves the adoration of his base too much to ever do anything that might ameliorate their ardour. But he is also by nature a provocateur and an agent of chaos. It’s tempting to quote Littlefinger’s “chaos is a ladder” speech from Game of Thrones, except that would be entirely inappropriate to the example of Trump—Littlefinger is a character of comparable amorality, but one who sees five moves ahead and foments chaos to further his own plans.
Trump, by contrast, doesn’t plan. In the present moment, chaos isn’t a ladder—chaos is the point. Chaos is an end in itself.
As we’ve learned from innumerable articles and books about Trump, his “management style” has always been to pit people against each other and see what comes of it. His multiple bankruptcies speak to the fact that, however many times he refers to himself as a “builder,” he’s never really been interested in building (indeed, his entire election campaign isn’t so much asking voters to be amnesiac about the past few years as it is an attempt to declare Chapter Eleven and start from scratch in January 2021). And there’s a reason he was so adept at reality television, a form that privileges conflict for the sake of conflict, and rewards cruelty and betrayal.
This is my fear: for months now, Trump and his acolytes have been laying the groundwork for abject chaos in November. The pandemic—or rather, Trump &co.’s catastrophic mismanagement of the response—might be the principal torpedo in the hull of Trump’s re-election, but it is also providing him his best means to disrupt the process and the results. Trump and his people have been banging the drum for weeks now about widespread mail-in voting fraud. The fact that this claim is itself demonstrably fraudulent is immaterial—the point is to make the claim as loudly and often as possible. Couple that with the fact that a preponderance of mailed ballots will almost certainly mean that the election won’t be called on the night of, but will take days or even weeks to tally votes, and there is a wide window for Trump to make mischief. I fear that the “Brooks Brothers Riots” of the 2000 recount in Florida—when Republicans organized preppie mobs of lawyers and political operatives (something Roger Stone had a key hand in, let us not forget) to harass the poll workers—will come to seem a genteel exercise. Imagine instead mobs of Trump supporters, many armed, descending on polling locations to denounce the “rigged” election; imagine also counter-protesters, and imagine what side law enforcement will take in such confrontations.
We’re seeing the first glimmers of such a scenario now. Why on earth would Trump make any move to de-escalate the violence of this latest round of protests? Why, indeed, would he discourage wannabe militiamen like Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two people in Kenosha with his friend’s AR-15, or the “caravan” who went to Portland to shoot paintballs and pepper spray at Black Lives Matter protesters? As John Cassidy observes in The New Yorker,
By cheering on the members of the Portland caravan—“GREAT PATRIOTS,” he called them on Twitter—and defending Rittenhouse, despite the fact that he has been charged with two counts of first-degree homicide, the President has crossed a threshold. Faced with the prospect of losing an election, and power, he has gone beyond mere scaremongering and resorted to fomenting violent unrest from the White House.
It doesn’t help matters that Trump obviously sees chaos and disorder as helping his re-election prospects. In keeping with her boss’s habit of saying the quiet part out loud, Kellyanne Conway said on Fox and Friends, “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.”
Trump thus has several reasons not just to abdicate any obligation to cool temperatures, but to actively raise them; but the central and unavoidable reason is that he knows no other way. As he has made painfully clear in everything he has ever done, his worldview is zero-sum. You’re either a winner or a loser, a predator or a mark; to be a loser is the worst fate, and so he has crafted his self-image with a single-minded determination to always be a winner, at least in his own eyes. While he obviously fears losing the presidency and, with it, legal immunity from the various investigations currently being pursued, it’s obvious that his greatest fear is being seen losing on the largest and most visible stage he’s ever been on.
And I think—I fear—he will do literally anything to avoid that.