President Trump’s incendiary (comparing the “radical left” to Communists during the 4th of July weekend), arbitrary (insisting schools reopen in the face of another Coronavirus surge), and overtly racist (pick your favorite) themes in the last several weeks make it clear that his overarching campaign strategy is to distract Americans from the many instances of his incompetence, most principally his complete failure to effectively manage the COVID crisis. The latest state re-closures due to the Coronavirus surge arguably make it increasingly unlikely that American business will sufficiently revive by November to enable him to rely on the economy. His apparent strategy seems a “Hail Mary Pass”: that inciting a race and culture war will solidify his support among the voting and the heretofore nonvoting members of his base and gain the allegiance of those white Americans who, despite misgivings about him, will heed his call if they believe that “their” America is under attack. In starkly political terms, it appears he really has no other option at this point. Despite his attempt to pin the responsibility for America’s tens of thousands of COVID deaths and millions of virus cases on China, the World Health Organization, Democratic national, state, and local officials, and your Uncle Fred, it has sunk into the American psyche that we’re in this perilous health crisis — now raging in Florida and Arizona, two swing states that the Electoral College math essentially indicates (at least in the case of Florida) that he must win to retain the presidency — because of his denial, inaction, narcissism, and gross mismanagement.
(A COVID aside: While the President and Vice President Mike Pence may now have little choice as to political strategy, they could at least refrain from gratuitously insulting our intelligence. Mr. Pence’s happy talk this week about the status of our response to the virus — against the backdrop of spiking case numbers and state re-closures — struck me as akin to the Captain of the Titanic, after the first half of the ship had already sunk into the Atlantic, assuring the passengers in the back half of the ship that all was well; the President’s demand at the same time that schools reopen this fall seemed akin to the Titanic head chef announcing over the loudspeaker what dinner entrees would be served in the dining room the next evening.)
Although the strategy seemingly smacks of desperation, Mr. Trump has at times effectively used bluster to prod his opponents into unforced errors. I would submit that the manner in which different segments of our people react to his blatant demagoguery could have a pivotal effect on the outcome of the presidential election. A few impressions:
Will 2016 Trump voters who polls indicate have shifted their support to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden be comfortable associating themselves with a candidate who now makes no bones about his racism? Will they recognize that Mr. Trump is seeking to scare and distract them?
Will members of the Black Lives Matter and attendant movements be savvy enough to realize that the President is trying to bait them? Mr. Trump has clearly recognized that he needs to widen the culture war in order to win it. If the monuments controversy he has stirred with relish remains centered on removing Confederate memorials, he presumably loses more support than he gains (although I have not seen state polls as to how the citizens of the two swing states that seceded, Florida [again ;)] and North Carolina, feel about Confederate monuments). On the other hand, if Mr. Trump can bait protestors to expand their assault on the Founding Fathers and monuments like Mount Rushmore, he gains. Can protestors ignore the bait?
Some commentators have declared that the President is “flailing”; while seemingly so to a certain extent, I would submit that in large measure he retains a very good grasp of what he’s doing. He certainly recognizes that the ship has long since sailed on any hope of converting those who voted against him in 2016. Based upon many past Presidential races, it is not unreasonable for him to anticipate that Mr. Biden’s reportedly wide current electoral advantage will narrow in the coming months, and to calculate that if he is successful in squeezing greater turnout from his base (although I’ve seen no commentator that believes that there are sufficient heretofore nonvoting Trump followers to compensate for the support he has apparently lost through his COVID mishandling and incitement of racial tensions) and scaring enough wavering former supporters in the swing states back into his fold, he may – as I (and many others) have ventured was inadvertently the case in 2016 – back into the presidency. But even if he loses, his current divisive approach will serve to solidify a mighty impressive following for a Trump media empire, and perhaps cause a sufficient furor that a Biden Administration seeking to soften our divisions will be disinclined to pursue him for various crimes when such a prosecution will further inflame the country.
In these notes, I dislike simply joining a chorus of others – in this case, those that suggest the possibility that at this point, Mr. Trump’s primary objective may be to use his remaining time in office to build the foundation of a media empire. Here, I see no alternative. Given the country’s current prevailing sentiments, any other explanation for the President’s overtly alienating rhetoric renders him a fool. In matters of his own interest and self-preservation, Donald Trump is no fool. That said, my focus remains on the existential threat that his dictatorial instincts present for our republic if he wins. Democrats cannot afford to get complacent. We’re a long way from Election Day. As the greatest of American philosophers, Lawrence P. Berra, advised us, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”