A Tale of Two Candidates and Parties (Part 1)

In only a few months the status of Trump’s presidency has changed more than it had in the previous three years. Since his election, I thought that it was only a matter of time before people would catch onto the poisonous nature of his presidency. And there have been moments when it seemed the jig was up. But each time I ended up disappointed.

Charlottesville, the Mueller investigation and report, unabashed collaboration with Putin, the caging of infants and children at the border, and the impeachment hearings and subsequent impeachment were moments in Trump’s presidency that, I thought, would greatly weaken if not doom him. But to my surprise each time these moments came and went with negligible movement in public opinion polls and left him sturdy in the White House.

When the House impeached him in mid January, there was blowback, but not so much that he found himself on the ropes and struggling to survive. In fact, when Senate Republicans stood by their man and acquitted him of any wrongdoing, he began a revenge tour. A purge of career government employees and inspector generals critical of him followed.

I found this exasperating and worrisome. What made it worse was the accepted wisdom, according to some, that Trump, notwithstanding his outrageous rhetoric and dictatorial behavior, could ride to a second term on the strength of the economy, voter suppression, an unmatchable war chest, the daily deployment of racism and white grievance politics, and, not least, a hyper-energized base.

Talk about depressing!

That was late January. But then unexpectedly, seemingly out of the blue, the world shifted as a coronavirus that Trump said would disappear and wasn’t that lethal turned into a deadly global pandemic. As of this writing, over 190,000 people have died and over 6 million people have been infected in the U.S.

And no easing is in sight as the virus, like a ping pong ball, bounces from city to city, state to state and region to region. And nearly everyone outside of the White House, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and rabid Trumpers worries about a second wave this fall.

As the coronavirus spreads, the economy froze up, unemployment soared, the public square (from schools to sports events to churches to restaurants) emptied, and people found themselves quarantined in their homes and isolated from friends, loved ones and their communities.

In the middle of this catastrophe, George Floyd was  murdered in Minneapolis by a white cop with three other cops looking on indifferently at this cruel execution and modern day lynching. But thanks to a young African American woman with a smartphone, tens of millions watched this heinous act almost in real time and heard George Floyd desperately and despairingly plead, “I can’t breathe.”

Almost instantly, the streets filled with protesters, first in Minneapolis, and then in big cities and small towns across the country and worldwide. In 1789 it took the people of Seville, Spain, six weeks to learn of the storming of the Bastille in Paris, but it took no more than a few seconds for people across the globe to see with their own eyes the assassination of an innocent Black man by an “upholder of the law.”

While millions, especially the young, marched in the streets, even more people watched at home and were similarly shocked by the death of George Floyd as well as the rioting of police that followed in the guise of protecting property.

If this rogue policing wasn’t bad enough, Trump took his autocratic behavior to a new level with his (and Attorney General William Barr’s) decision to use federal troops to forcefully clear Lafayette Square of peaceful protesters in order to stage a photo op of Trump with a bible in hand (upside down) in front of one of the capital’s oldest churches.

Trump hoped this staged spectacle and show of force would allow him to reassert his power and regain the narrative that he had been losing since the outbreak of the coronavirus. But much to his dismay, it did neither. It only made things worse.

The blowback from the American people was immediate and severe. It came from many quarters, including a number of well respected retired generals and admirals, former presidents, and corporate executives. The most damning was the statement of Gen. James Mattis, former Defense Secretary in Trump’s cabinet, who assailed Trump’s judgment and commitment to constitutional norms.

“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” wrote Mattis, a retired Marine four-star general. “Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander in chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”

These rebukes and the negative fallout from the coronavirus and its companion, a cratering economy, left Trump lashing out at his critics and falling behind Joe Biden in the polls as summer pushed out spring. No matter how you slice it, this isn’t a good place to be if you’re running for reelection in the fall. 

It could have been different. Trump could have showed empathy for the victims of the virus and George Floyd and his family. He could have spoken truth to the country. He could have appealed for unity. He could have followed the advice of scientists, like Anthony Fauci. He could have reached across the aisle. He could have brought the full weight of the federal government to bear on these interlocking crises. He could have, in a nutshell, acted “presidential.”

But he didn’t. And he won’t. Because he can’t.

Instead, he doubled down and went dark. He provoked racial discord. He rushed to “open up” the economy and country. He did nothing to move along a second stimulus package through Congress. He peddled quack solutions to the coronavirus, while acting as if it was behind us. And he lied, shopped conspiracy theories, and blamed everybody else for this unmitigated disaster and flood of human suffering and sorrow.

He also floated the idea of postponing the election until the virus receded. Then he hinted that he might not vacate the White House even in the event that he loses the election.

Trump’s daily twitter messages, even now in the midst of so much suffering, and mourning, are rhetorical flame-throwers designed to heighten tensions, exacerbate divisions, and encourage thuggery. If anybody else made such inflammatory statements while on the job, they would have been fired and their mental stability questioned.

This behavior, as outrageous, anti-democratic, authoritarian, and over the top as it is, elicits barely a word of protest from Republican leaders. They are, as they have been, on the same page and operate from the same playbook as Trump. If they have any differences, they are differences of style and tone, not substance.

The present day Republican Party long ago stopped being the party of Eisenhower or Gerald Ford or Nelson Rockefeller, who look moderate compared to what we see today. Even Nixon might feel out of place in its current iteration. In a process that began in the 1960s and reached a new level with the ascent of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, the Republican Party was taken over and colonized by its extreme right wing. While zealous extremists in Congress and on right wing media – and, of course, Trump himself – may dominate the news, quietly at the apex and firmly in control of this formidable movement is a far-right section of the billionaire class. Not only do these billionaires have deep pockets, but they also control an expansive network of organizations and think tanks that set the agenda and frame the politics of the Republican Party in accord with their interests. Indeed, they give proof to the adage that “whoever pays the fiddler calls the tune.”

Trump may seem like an outlier, an out of control rogue, a committee of one, and he is, to a degree. But any examination of the policies of the Trump administration, and even Trump’s politics of white resentment, racism, and election rigging, reveals not so much a break, but a continuation, albeit in exceedingly dangerous and brazen forms, of this authoritarian political movement. If you don’t believe me, check out “Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Equality,” written by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.

But here’s the rub.

While Trump tweets, his poll numbers are dropping. Seniors and suburban women are breaking with him. His much touted election rally in Tulsa was a bust. His appeals for law and order haven’t registered with the majority of people so far. His suggestion that the election might have to be postponed finds few supporters. And his hollowing out of the Postal Service is meeting stiff opposition, including from some Republicans.

Even John Roberts’ Supreme Court has ruled against him on a few occasions.

It is fair to ask if Trump’s complete failure to lead the country in these trying times has landed him in a governing and reelection crisis? Is he an emperor without clothes to the vast majority of Americans? Is he in a zone of unpopularity, where, except for his zealous supporters, everything he says sounds hollow, insincere, duplicitous, self-serving?

Unfortunately, the simple answer is no. Thanks to his loyal base, a supportive right wing media, a supine Republican Party, his control of agencies of repression, and the resonance of racism among white people, Trump still is a formidable force. His status and standing is diminished for sure, but he still remains an existential danger, and a path to his reelection, as narrow as it might be, exists.

It was the hope of Trump’s image makers that the recent Republican Party convention would make Trump more palatable to white women, suburban voters, and seniors. But that was a difficult needle to thread when the main story of the convention was Trump the “law and order candidate,” the vanquisher of looting in the streets and riots in “Democrat” cities, the heroic knight slaying the forces of chaos and darkness that if given a chance would overrun the country. Meanwhile Biden was cast as weak on crime, slow at the switch, and in the pocket of Bernie and AOC.

So far if polls are accurate, the coronation, oops convention, gave him little, if any, bounce in the polls. Nevertheless, the apocalyptic, end times messaging since the convention remains the same.

In fact, Trump has become more strident, more dangerous, more unhinged in the convention’s wake. Racism and conspiracy theories ooze from his mouth, like poison from a viper’s fangs. The pandemic and imploding economy have disappeared from his vocabulary. And he is quick to sic his paramilitary dogs on peaceful protesters.

We saw this in Portland, Oregon, and Kenosha, Wisconsin. In Kenosha, Jacob Blake, a young African American man – in a recurring story – was shot seven times in the back by police and left paralyzed. In the shooting’s aftermath, Trump expressed not a word of sympathy to the hospitalized Blake or his grieving family, while unapologetically defending a 17-year-old white vigilante killer who shot with a high powered AR-15 rifle and stole the lives of two, noble minded protesters, not yet out of their 20s.

We should expect more provocations of this kind by Trump in the next two months. What other option does he have? He understands that the only way to change the election math that isn’t on his side is to encourage and then exploit to his advantage violent confrontations between BLM and peaceful protesters on one side and right wing, paramilitary thugs on the other. In short, his aim is to activate and heighten racial fears of white people to the point where they, even reluctantly, vote for him, the self-proclaimed law and order candidate.

This hyper racialization of politics combines with a systematic campaign to suppress the vote. To this end, Trump’s latest betes noire is the U.S. Postal Service. His battle against one of the most essential and popular institutions in our national life is more than rhetorical. He’s taking steps to dismantle it in the hope of crippling voting by mail in the coming election.

Well aware that tens of millions want to fill in their election ballot in the safety of their own home and that more Democrats than Republicans will likely vote by mail, his obvious aim is to disrupt and incapacitate the very institution that makes this possible. And in doing so, give him an advantage over Biden. Meanwhile, he claims, with not a scintilla of evidence, that voting by mail would result in a fraudulent outcome, whose results he couldn’t accept.

This assault on the post office is of a piece with a larger effort to suppress the vote, especially in the battleground states. In the calculus of Trump and his acolytes, they have no chance of winning the popular vote. But they believe that the overperformance of Trump’s base supporters – especially high school educated white workers – on election day compared to 2016 on the one hand and the suppression of the vote for Biden-Harris on the other is his pathway to a second term. Trump and the modern day Republican Party, in effect, understand that they can no longer hope to win the support of a majority of voters. Only by rigging the elections and taking advantage of an anti-democratic and outdated feature of the Constitution – the electoral college – do they stand any chance of winning in November and consolidating their version of white nationalist authoritarian rule.  

In the meantime, as Trump and the Republican Party take a deep dive into the sinkhole of virulent racism, indifference to human life, voter suppression, and authoritarianism, as the spectre of democracy’s death and dictatorial rule hangs over the country were Trump to win in November, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the Democratic Party, and the larger democratic coalition are tacking in a positive direction. But to cross the finish line the winners will take an even more vigorous and in real-time response to the main lines of attack of Trump and the entire right wing apparatus, while offering a vision and proposals that address the triplets of our time, racial reckoning, the coronavirus,  economic insecurity, and climate change. But more about that in Part 2.