Trump Deploys the Strongman’s Playbook

Trump Deploys the Strongman’s Playbook

Trump Deploys the Strongman’s Playbook

There seems to be no limit to the damage he’s willing to inflict on the country’s democratic structures in his efforts to save his chances for reelection.


Three weeks from the election, the Signal is that the Trump campaign, and its acolytes across the country, are escalating their attacks on voting rights in key states.

In early October, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order restricting to one the number of drop-off sites for ballots that each county in the state could operate. In Harris County, home to Houston, the country’s third-largest city, the order meant that 10 of the 11 early-voting sites would have to close.

Abbott’s order was quashed by a federal judge last Friday. But  the good legal news was short-lived: On Saturday, in response to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s emergency appeal, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued a stay on the ruling, allowing Abbott’s order to go into effect while the court considered the case on its merits, which it will likely do over the coming week. But with early voting scheduled to begin today in the Lone Star State, that means that at least for now, voters’ options for dropping off their ballots remain severely limited. [Update: A Fifth Circuit ruling late Monday night upheld Governor Abbott’s order, so Texas voters will indeed be restricted to one ballot drop box per county.]

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania—one of six swing states where, according to Salon and The Atlantic, Trump’s people have been hoping to convince GOP legislators to simply appoint Trump-loyal electors should the popular vote in those states go against No. 45—the Trump campaign suffered a setback late last week when a judge ruled against it in a lawsuit aiming to have ballot drop-boxes declared unconstitutional. But, as with Texas, that’s not the last of it; Team Trump has already announced that it will appeal the ruling.

Republican efforts to make voting more difficult also extend into the realm of intimidation. Shortly after Trump tweeted his request for an “Army for Trump” to turn up at the polls to watch for fraud, private companies leapt into the act. On Friday, The Washington Post reported an extraordinary story about a private security company based in Tennessee that posted on a jobs website for the defense industry that it is seeking to recruit retired Special Operations personnel to “protect” polling places in Minnesota against purported antifa threats. The article indicated that the men would likely be armed and would be paid a per diem of $910, with their assignments to last between 15 and 30 days.

Trump and his support crew aren’t just trying to make the voting process harder and scarier; they’re also using a number of tricks from the strongman’s playbook, including using public moneys on a vast scale to demonstrate his personal largesse to wavering voters.

Last month, millions of Farmers to Families USDA food boxes, including those going out to school districts to feed the families of low-income students, began carrying letters, in both English and Spanish,  signed by Donald Trump. In those letters Trump explained to recipients how he had prioritized nutrition and other food assistance so poor families could survive the hardships wrought by the pandemic—the clear implication being that he had personally intervened to send food to hungry families.

According to food distribution networks, these letters have been included in boxes episodically for months now; but last month the USDA actually mandated that all agencies with government contracts include these letters if they wanted to keep their contracts.

Trump’s effort to claim credit for these boxes is, of course, a far cry from reality; the multibillion-dollar program was congressionally authorized, and the food is being distributed as part of the first Covid-19 relief package. Many Democrats say the letter appears to be a clear violation of the Hatch Act, which prevents executive branch employees from engaging in political activity. Trump has repeatedly pushed extreme cuts to the food stamp program and has worked to limit immigrants’ eligibility for public relief; for him to claim any concern for hungry Americans is an act of hypocrisy bordering on the surreal.

On a related theme, billions of dollars in Medicare funds could soon be raided for another preelection political stunt, this one involving the vow to send drug prescription vouchers, worth $200, to tens of millions of seniors around the country. Enactment is not likely, but if it occurs, Trump’s name will be directly associated with the largesse, despite the fact that Medicare funds are raised by the country’s taxpayers (and Trump, as The New York Times recently documented, pays notoriously little into the country’s coffers), and despite the fact that Trump has done everything in his power to undermine the Affordable Care Act and access to medical coverage for tens of millions of Americans.

On the non-fiscal side of things, Trump has recently upped the pressure on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to release troves of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails before the election—and Pompeo cravenly promised to oblige. Trump demanded that Attorney General Bill Barr announce preelection indictments of Clinton, ex-President Obama, and Joe Biden for allegedly spying on his campaign in 2016; so far, however, Barr, who seems to have gone into hiding this past week, hasn’t followed the Pompeo route of publicly genuflecting to the boss’s latest authoritarian whim.

All of this is caudillo politics of the worst sort. Sure, some of it is just the residual Noise that Trump seems pathologically unable to avoid spewing. But at this stage of the game, where there’s noise, there’s signal too. Trump is desperate to dodge an electoral loss that would likely catapult him from the White House into the courthouse, and there seems to be no limit to the damage he’s willing to inflict on the country’s democratic structures in his efforts to succeed.

Three weeks out, it’s absolutely vital that he not be given an inch in this fight. That’s the Signal this week. It is vital that every propaganda step be countered, every legal maneuver intended to suppress the vote be called out and fought, every effort to use government resources illegitimately to bolster Trump’s campaign be challenged.

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