On August 24, President Trump was officially nominated for a second term at the Republican National Convention. While party officials were busy conducting boring party official business, Trump decided to make a surprise speech. As a crowd of hundreds of delegates in Charlotte, North Carolina chanted “four more years!” Trump offered a grim reply. “If you want to really drive them crazy, you say 12 more years!” he suggested.
In the early days of the Trump administration, suggesting that Trump was a true blue autocrat sounded facetious. It was one thing to admit to being fearful, to acknowledge that the players and ideology that built up the Trump campaign and eventually his cabinet were a nationalist wet dream; but assertions that we were officially living in a full-blown fascist state akin to Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale came across as dramatic. Even after the failed family separation policy, the watered-down “Muslim ban,” the Mueller investigation, impeachment trial, and subsequent Senate Intelligence Committee report, released in August, confirming Trump campaign collusion with Russia during the 2016 election, a nugget of melodrama still—somehow—threatened to saturate these claims. But 2020 has more than validated the autocrat crowd: The last several months show that Trump not only considers himself above the law, but as evidenced by his administration’s increasingly brazen attempts to make the upcoming general election as tumultuous as possible, he holds himself above legitimate elections as well.
Trump has occupied American cities with federal police forces, threatened the already thin fabric of American voting by defunding the post office, and has even alluded to the possibility of installing law enforcement at polling locations. It’s a 2020 re-election strategy that relies on state violence, chaos, and obfuscation, and if that doesn’t work, it’s hard to predict what will come next in Trump’s apparent attempt to clinch a second term by any means necessary.
Policy agenda is of little importance to the Trump campaign right now, despite his meandering speech Thursday suggesting otherwise; in fact, the Republican party opted out of drafting a new party platform for 2020. And covid-19—the biggest and deadliest crisis in the nation—is already being treated as an afterthought as the Republican National Convention trudged ever onward. Why bother? There is only one strategy in the works by the Trump campaign from here on out: Delegitimize the election before it even starts.
“This November we must turn the page forever on this failed political class,” Trump said during his overlong speech closing out the RNC Thursday night, referring to the Democratic Party. He gestured toward the White House behind him, noting that “we’re here, and they’re not.”
“To me one of the most beautiful buildings anywhere in the world, it’s not a building, it’s a home, as far as I’m concerned,” Trump continued. “But it’s all because of you. Together we will write the next chapter of the great American story.”
The fascistic scene that played out did little to help quell concerns: Ivanka Trump calling her father the “people’s president” despite the majority of American voters opposing his candidacy; Trump, happily violating the Hatch Act by hosting a political campaign on the White House lawn before 1,500 guests; few of those guest wearing masks as they clustered together in the middle of a deadly pandemic, effectively thumbing their noses at the more than 180,000 Americans who have died from covid-19.
It was the behavior of a man, a family, and a party that not only has every intention of sticking around for a while regardless of the election’s outcome but of eschewing censure as well.
From sabotaging vote-by-mail efforts, to threatening military intervention in America’s cities in response to protests, to claiming that his Democratic competitor is controlled by “people in the dark shadows,” the Trump campaign would like nothing more than for the public to see each of these actions as isolated decisions completely independent of one another, that breaking from norms is simply Trump’s impulsive brazenness at work. But taken collectively, a more sinister plot emerges, that this was Trump’s plan all along: An attempt to use every tool at his disposal to steal the general election. Timing has been fortuitous: A pandemic that spurs a mail-in election with ballots to tamper with or delegitimize; protests that justify his call to send national forces, who waste no time forcing dissidents to heel.
Trump didn’t create this Petri dish of chaos that America finds itself in; he doesn’t deserve that much credit. But while he is no evil genius, he is a master manipulator surrounded by power-hungry nationalists, all eager to take advantage of the calamity laid bare before them. This is how an already fragile democracy falls apart: opportunism, violence, and the exploitation of
Last week, Trump laid out his ideal election day ground game to Fox News’s Sean Hannity. It included law enforcement at voting locations, a move he calls a voter fraud deterrent, but anyone who understands history knows it is actually an intimidation tactic frequently used against Black voters in the Jim Crow-era South. Making voters feel uncomfortable or unsafe at the polls is a surefire way to drag down turnout—or, at worst, can turn a peaceful polling location into a battleground.
“We’re going to have everything,” Trump told Hannity. “We’re going to have sheriffs, and we’re going to have law enforcement, and we’re going to have, hopefully, US attorneys, and we’re going to have everybody. And attorney generals!”
As much as Trump distances himself from the Bush administration, he’s actually taking a page out of the Bush playbook: Using the powerful connections at their disposal—in Florida state government to the Supreme Court of the United States—to cement a controversial victory in the 2000 general election.
It is against federal law for Trump to send armed personnel to a polling place, and Trump does not have authority over any local law enforcement. Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolfe said he does not have the authority to install federal troops at polling places either. But perhaps the tens of thousands of poll watchers the Republicans have recruited will suffice: right-wing vigilantes and minutemen don’t need much coaxing when it comes to extracurricular harassment of black and brown people they view as a threat to their way of life. A way of life Trump always insists is in danger of the Democrats on their way back into power.
Trump wasted no time in Charlotte accusing the Democrats of using covid-19 and vote-by-mail to “steal the election.” The ultimate example of the pot calling the kettle black.
“They’re using covid to defraud the American people, all of our people, of a fair and free election,” Trump warned, without evidence. “The only way they can take this election away from us is if this is a rigged election.”
This isn’t new: Ahead of the 2016 election, Trump cautioned that mass voter fraud would deny him an election victory. And for the last year, right-wing group Project Veritas has worked with the Trump White House on a national anti-absentee ballot operation tying mail-in ballots to voter fraud. The only difference now is that Trump can tack on his fear-mongering charade to a more tangible concern: the true chaos of the United States Postal Service.
The covid-19 pandemic has encouraged voters to vote-by-mail, en masse, a move that provides flexibility to millions of voters who may otherwise struggle to get to the voting booth on election day. But for Republicans, any attempt to make voting easier puts their political future at risk. So they pull the fraud card, building up stray anecdotes of dead cats receiving voter registration forms as indicative of a systematic problem that doesn’t actually exist.
But there is a growing systemic problem emerging that is making voters wary: USPS budget cuts, which have only been amplified since Trump appointed Louis DeJoy as Postmaster General in June. Since his takeover, DeJoy has overseen the elimination of hundreds of mail sorting machines. While DeJoy, a wealthy Republican donor, insists that this is not a politically motivated move and has long been in the works, the number of machines lost under DeJoy’s short reign has jumped significantly. And despite the importance of mail sorting ahead of an election cycle that will heavily depend on it, DeJoy has no plans to restore the hundreds of machines that have recently gone out of commission. This, on top of other cuts to the USPS, has caused a domino effect, prompting widespread delays and diminished service.
This works just fine for Trump: He doesn’t want the USPS to receive additional funding—including money that will improve mail-in-voting—because it will make it easy to vote, which he finds fraudulent by default. (It’s worth noting that Trump is certain that mail-in-voting is fine in Florida because the state is run by “a great Republican governor.”)
Conveniently, all of this offers little in the way of confidence for the system millions will to depend on to cast our ballots in November. And it’s this skepticism, too, that Trump will feed on as the election cycle continues. And when he’s not using confusion to spur the election results in his favor, he’ll use fear.
Influential Democrats have already sounded the alarm: During a steely speech at the Democratic National Convention, President Obama said that democracy is at stake in this election. “They know they can’t win you over with their policies,” he said. “So they’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote, and to convince you that your vote doesn’t matter. That’s how they win.” And on Tuesday, Hillary Clinton chimed in, advising Biden not to concede if the election results are close.
But Trump is just getting started.
“The radical left will demand [Joe Biden] appoints super-radical-left wild crazy justices going into the Supreme Court,” Trump said during his impromptu North Carolina speech. “Your American dream will be dead.”
And to Trump, this determination to dismantle the American dream lives on in the protesters in Portland that he vows to destroy. And it lives on in the undocumented immigrants he hopes to disenfranchise. And it lives on in the black Americans he pretends to care about for cheap political clout. And last week’s RNC will be nothing more than a chauvinistic testament to this fantasy, one that will rely on calamity and distrust of Trump’s making to become a full-blown reality.