Last week’s Republican National Convention gave us a muzzled Donald Trump. Although his concluding speech had some red meat for the base, it wasn’t a freewheeling rant of the sort the president usually delivers when he has a crowd in front of him. Instead, Trump stuck to script and kept to his best behavior, in keeping with the larger thrust of the convention, which was to win back wavering Republicans. A recurring theme of the convention was to focus on Trump’s actions delivering results for Republicans—rather than his incendiary tweets. “I recognize that my dad’s communication style is not to everyone’s taste, and I know that his tweets can feel a bit unfiltered, but the results, the results speak for themselves,” Ivanka Trump said.
But now that the RNC has ended, Trump is unmuzzled and in full frothing form, particularly on Twitter. As Peter Barker of The New York Times noted on Sunday,
President Trump unleashed an especially intense barrage of Twitter messages over the weekend, embracing fringe conspiracy theories claiming that the coronavirus death toll has been exaggerated and that street protests are actually an organized coup d’état against him.
In a concentrated predawn burst, the president posted or reposted 89 messages between 5:49 a.m. and 8:04 a.m. on Sunday on top of 18 the night before, many of them inflammatory comments or assertions about violent clashes in Portland, Ore., where a man wearing the hat of a far-right, pro-Trump group was shot and killed Saturday after a large group of Mr. Trump’s supporters traveled through the streets.
Some of Trump’s tweets are pure incitement. Trump “liked” a tweet that praised Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old who has been arrested for killing two protesters last week in Kenosha, Wis.
The incitement sometimes has a racist dimension. One retweet is of a short video clip of a black man shoving a white woman in the subway. The video is from a year ago and is not political but simply an image of a street crime. The caption on the video reads “Black Lives Matter / Antifa.” The person whose tweet Trump is elevating is a white nationalist.
The election is a little over two months away, and it’s natural to see Trump’s incendiary comments purely in electoral terms. New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman notes, “Trump is trying to change the focus to violence and unrest in cities from months of coverage of COVID.” That’s a fair enough analysis, since Trump’s behavior does indeed spring in large part from a campaign gamble. Trump and his advisers are forthright about the fact that they see the upsurge in political violence as a winning issue.
Last Thursday, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told Fox News, “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.”
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But it’s by no means clear that Trump and Conway are right that rioting will be their ace in the hole. After all, protests, sometimes including riots, have been continuous since George Floyd’s killing on May 25. But in the three months since that pivotal tragedy, Joe Biden has maintained a solid national lead.
Polling maven Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight offers five reasons for thinking that protest violence won’t help Trump: “1. The unrest is happening while he is president; 2. Trump’s standing in the polls WORSENED in June amid outbreaks of violence; 3. Polls show voters give Trump poor marks on protest handling; 4. Polls show voters give Trump poor marks on race relations; 5. Trump is often careless in his messaging and in crisis management.”
Harry Enten of CNN, another close poll watcher, is skeptical that there is any solid evidence of a Trump bounce even from the convention, let alone from urban unrest. “What I see right now is Ipsos favs indicating no movement for Trump, YouGov panel indicating 2.5 pt movement to Trump, MC indicating 4 pt, USC (only partially post-convention) indicating no movement,” Enten says. “Not exactly screaming BIG BOUNCE.”
Biden has shrewdly underscored the two most obvious objections to Trump’s attempt to blame Democrats for violent protests: This is happening on Trump’s watch—and he is clearly and visibly trying to make the situation worse.
In a statement released on Sunday, Biden asked:
What does President Trump think will happen when he continues to insist on fanning the flames of hate and division in our society and using the politics of fear to whip up his supporters? He is recklessly encouraging violence. He may believe tweeting about law and order makes him strong—but his failure to call on his supporters to stop seeking conflict shows just how weak he is. He may think that war in our streets is good for his reelection chances, but that is not presidential leadership–or even basic human compassion.
Biden’s case is convincing enough, and has a good chance of blunting Trump’s efforts to exploit rioting and looting. But the point about failed leadership can be pushed further, especially if we ask why Trump is engaged in incitement.
Aside from the obvious political advantage Trump is trying to extract, his incitement of violence serves another purpose that goes beyond simple electoral calculation. Trump is trying to make the United States ungovernable in order to rob his political foes of any meaningful victory.
Inciting violence is Trump’s Samson option. Like the biblical hero who famously brought the Philistine temple down on his head, Trump would prefer that everything collapse around him rather than to surrender.
The Samson option fits naturally with Trump’s personal narcissism and also his political racism. Trump’s motivation for his presidency all along has been to erase the achievement of the first African American president and to reassert white dominance of American society. Now facing the prospect of electoral defeat, Trump is pursuing actions that would render any Democratic restoration tainted and difficult. Voter suppression and chaos at the post office will make the results of the election murky. Conspiracy theories will cause further doubt. The proliferation of violence will make America ungovernable and hobble any successor regime.
Trump has turned an election into a low-intensity civil war, which will ensure that the racial strife he thrives on will dominate American politics for years to come. Trump’s current campaign of incitement isn’t just about the election but also the long-term future of Trumpism, which will now be a chronic condition of the body politic.
As Trump tries to tear down the temple of American democracy, his political opponents have to realize that the task they face goes beyond winning the fall election—as urgent as that is. The securing of civil peace will require Biden, the Democrats, and whatever allies they can find among disaffected Republicans to focus their political energies after Trump is defeated on marginalizing Trump’s message of hate-mongering.
Trump himself has to be treated as not a normal ex-president but a uniquely destructive political figure who deserves no respect and no forgiveness. Any calls to “move on” by shutting down investigations into Trump’s crimes or offering him a pardon have to be resisted. Social media networks that irresponsibly spread hatred and lies, notably Facebook, should come under increased congressional scrutiny. Federal law enforcement will have to be given a clear mandate to investigate right-wing political violence and treat it as a systematic problem.
In sum, Biden has to be prepared to wage a long war on Trumpism, one that goes beyond the election.