Trump’s debatable re-election strategy

28 oktober 2020Leestijd: 5 minuten
Trump in Florida, tijdens zijn eerste campagnerally nadat hij werd getroffen door het coronavirus. Foto: Reuters

In mid-September I spent some time reformatting an academic article I wrote on Trump’s foreign policy that will be published early next year in the journal Politics & Policy.  In the process of double-checking all my sources, I discovered that some remarks and speeches on the official White House website were no longer available.  Previously working links instead said, “That page cannot be found, or is located on an archived web page.”

This struck me as odd and annoying.  But, most of all, it strikes me as misleading.  It appears that Trump wants to erase any evidence of the former members of his administration that he no longer likes.  Perhaps he thinks if he deletes them from his official website everyone else will forget.

Nothing to see here
A particular webpage that went missing since previous drafts of my manuscript was a transcript of the remarks Trump made after swearing in General John Kelly as his new White House Chief of Staff in July 2017.  In typical Trump fashion, the President spoke about Kelly in glowing terms, saying that the general would do a “spectacular job,” and that Kelly had “amazing” and “tremendous results” as the previous Secretary of Homeland Security.  But, in less than two years, during which he was forced to deny that he called Trump “an idiot,” Kelly was forced to resign.

Thus, Kelly joined a long line of former officials who were jettisoned by Trump when they clashed with the president.  More recently, Kelly refused to defend Trump after The Atlantic reported that the president called fallen service members “losers” and “suckers.”

Potemkin Villages
Every political machine spins the truth.  A fact that was reinforced by my recent introduction to the documentary film about Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign entitled The War Room.  But, while every political machine “spins” in order to show their candidates’ best side, most do not create an entire alternate reality or scrub whole persons out of existence.

Moreover, most political machines in the U.S. do not attempt to construct a new reality with the precise intention of undermining the very legitimacy of the institutions they are designed to uphold.  Most political machines in America do not throw the entire election process into doubt as Trump has done with his attack on mail-in ballots.  Trump’s own FBI Director, Christopher Wray, felt compelled to warn that “the steady drumbeat of misinformation … will contribute over time to a lack of confidence of American voters and citizens in the validity of their vote.”

But that is precisely Trump’s goal in making accusations that mail-in ballots are fraudulent.  Trump wants to undermine confidence and divide the American people as they prepare to vote.  As Harvard University Professor Stephen M. Walt wrote recently, “In Trump’s world, one cannot imagine legitimate differences between equally patriotic and responsible Americans, the sort of honest disagreements that democratic systems exist to accommodate and reconcile. You are either with him, or you are evil, insane, crazy, nasty, a traitor, et cetera.”  If Americans start to think that those who hold views different from their own are evil, America loses the social fabric that holds it together.  America is, after all, an ideal that exists because Americans share that ideal.

The MAGA man (and woman)
When I speak to my friends in different parts of the U.S. it is clear that the emotions tied to this election are the strongest in my living memory.  I hear of guns being used on Biden signs in Iowa and shouting matches at the dinner table in South Dakota.  I see in my Facebook feed the accusations that if you do not support Trump you do not love your country and that if Democrats win the House and the Senate the result will be the destruction of the constitution (in particular the Second Amendment and the right to carry a gun).  I see Catholic friends wrestle with pro-life compassions and the recent directives from Pope Francis that are clearly critical of Trump.

I also know that Trump supporters have real reasons for championing the man who promises to Make America Great Again.  They are the part America that feels the era of exceptionalism is over, especially after the many botched wars in the Middle East.

They are the part of America that experienced a crisis of confidence in government and leadership as the result of the 2007-08 financial crash in which welfare for bankers took priority over help for middle-class mortgages.  They are the part of America that did not benefit from the soaring wealth brought about by globalization; who instead bore the brunt of trade policies that fostered China’s rise and hollowed out U.S. manufacturing.

They are the part of America that experienced a physical insecurity driven by a fear of crime and drugs that plagued decaying urban and rural communities.  It was not that long ago that the prescription opioid epidemic filled newspaper columns rather than covid-19 deaths.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that from 1999 to 2018, over 750,000 people died from drug overdoses.  In 2018 alone, almost 70,000 people died from prescription opioids.

Pangloss and the virus
The ache of the men and women who want to make America great again is real.  But, the question is whether Trump is the man who will bring about genuine and lasting relief.  A whole set of books coming out right before the election written by former Trump staff members or family and former friends of the president reveal a character that is flawed, that hungers for praise and recognition and that is willing to lie constantly to achieve his goals.  Unfortunately, the members of Trump’s rock-solid base are not book readers.

As I wrote in April, Trump’s Pangloss-wishful thinking policy towards covid-19 is backfiring, with more Americans dying than in 18 other high-income countries.  Instead of changing course or de-politicizing the pandemic, Trump doubled-down on his minimizing and creating a false sense of security.  It is as if he believes that his only hope to recapture the White House is to sow as much division and hatred in America as possible between now and the third of November.

While European countries, including the Netherlands, head back into a partial lockdown Trump heads back on the campaign trail after his bout with covid-19, telling a large, non-socially-distanced and unmasked crowd in Florida that he felt “powerful.”  It is truly puzzling to me why Trump’s continued endangerment of his own supporters along with his disastrous handling of the pandemic has not yet resulted in significant losses for him amongst his base.  Even if today being American is reduced to whether you like guns or not, it makes no sense why Trump is not punished for telling untruths about what actually is killing people.

Truth will win out
While populism and book-reading do not often go together.  Scholars will keep investigating the facts and they will continue to research and explain.  Today, Trump might be able to scrub the White House website but that does not mean his words disappeared.  A group of non-partisan historians, who focus on American politics, had the foresight to make a record of his words because they care about how current events will be analyzed by future historians.  Whoever America choose on the third of November, the truth will eventually win out.