What Donald Trump is doing on the campaign trail

MANCHESTER, NH - NOVEMBER 7: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at SNHU Arena in Manchester, NH on Monday November 07, 2016. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

After the FBI cleared Hillary Clinton once again late yesterday, Donald Trump did not permit this inconvenient new set of facts to knock him off stride. Instead, he effortlessly converted it into more evidence for the argument he’s made all along — the system and the election are both rigged, and any Clinton victory in this election will by extension be illegitimate.

“You have to understand, it’s a rigged system,” Trump said last night, after FBI Director James Comey advised Congress that the newly discovered emails will not change the FBI’s recommendation against charges. “And she’s protected.” Trump also dismissed the possibility that the FBI had examined the emails in such a short time: “You can’t do it.”

In so doing, Trump laid bare the core of his whole argument for the presidency. But he also revealed that in the end, Trump’s own argument, objectively described, constitutes the strongest possible argument against electing him.

I’m going to attempt to demonstrate this with a chart — it is below — that, I believe, objectively captures the sum total of Trump’s arguments, and why those arguments, taken on their own terms, compellingly demand a vote against him.

At the heart of Trump’s case for the presidency lies two components. The first is a hyper-exaggerated narrative of national decay and decline — skyrocketing crime, rotting inner cities, decaying factories, a festering terror threat from within, a border that is being breached by dark hordes of invaders. The second is the notion that our elites are both fecklessly responsible for that perilous state of national decline and too corrupted to fix it — they’ve rigged the system against you, undermining American sovereignty to enrich themselves, while allowing American identity to be degraded by immigrants who are at best parasitic and at worst a lethal threat.

But Trump’s diagnosis runs deeper than that. His argument is not simply that elites are ripping you off from above while enabling those subgroups to rip you off and threaten you from below. Rather, the truly pernicious component of Trump’s argument is that our institutions and our democracy have themselves grown so hopelessly corrupted and compromised that they are no longer even capable of arresting and turning around that decline via conventional democratic processes. The only outcome that can change this state of affairs is electing him president. Any other result would only confirm that our system has been so corrupted that it is fundamentally no longer capable of producing legitimate political outcomes.

Trump sometimes expresses this idea explicitly, and sometimes implicitly. But it is the thread that runs through everything he has been saying and promising for months:

Before discussing this chart, let’s contrast it with Trump’s final restatement of his argument in his two-minute closing ad, which is running in multiple battleground states:

This ad portrays a “global power structure” that conspires with American elites to enrich themselves with trade deals and economic policies that have “bled our country dry.” (The antisemitic overtones here have already been widely noted). The ad also pictures literal images of decay and decline in the form of rotting factories. Some of this overlaps with Bernie Sanders-style populism’s indictment of a government that has been taken captive by “the billionaire class.”

But Trump’s spot also blames elites for “massive illegal immigration,” while displaying images of shadowy, lurking figures and teeming hordes. Trump is scapegoating what historian John Judis calls “outgroups,” a key feature of right wing (and, to be fair, previous iterations of left-wing) populism, which tells the people (whoever the target audience happens to be) that they are being squeezed between elites above and parasites below.

Crucially, Trump’s ad airbrushes out of his worldview its more obvious authoritarian elements. The Muslim ban is gone, and the ad shows Trump telling a crowd (an overwhelmingly white one) that only “you” can break the power of this corrupt “machine” and “save our country.” That seems to suggest that our democratic institutions can break elite corruption and arrest our precipitous national decline.

But the unavoidably authoritarian elements in Trump’s worldview have been on display everywhere — in less controlled settings. Consider the key elements from our chart above:

* Trump’s narrative of national decline is rank propaganda. Trump’s regular claims about skyrocketing crime and soaring murder rates are distortions and lies. His relentless claim that the border is being overrun is a Big Lie, too — immigration rates have leveled off and experts have said the border is being managed.

Trump speaks to legitimate economic grievances. But his trade bluster suggests he would likely start destructive trade wars, and his promise to bring back coal mining jobs to suffering communities is a cruel hoax. He is both selling an agenda that is pure fraudulence and exploiting legit grievances with xenophobia, nativism, and white nationalism, all of which rest upon a narrative of national decline that is a fever dream of invention. Which leads to the fact that…

* Trump has repeatedly and explicitly said that if he is elected, he will have no choice but to resort to measures well outside our political norms and democratic processes. The vow of mass deportations promises unthinkably cruel disruptions that even many Republicans who oppose legalization have rejected. He’s banned media organizations from his rallies, egged on supporters against reporters just doing their jobs, and promised to somehow open up libel law to restrict criticism. His proposed ban on Muslims would impose a religious test for entry. He’s flirted with closing mosques and a Muslim registry.

In a quote that never got the attention it deserved, Trump even explicitly said this of the terror threat: “We’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.” Why should we not believe he means what he says? And who wants to find out what “unthinkable” things Trump has in mind?

* Trump’s narrative charges that elites are complicit in enabling outgroups to fleece you and weaken our American (and white) identity. Trump says the media is covering up the truth about the thousands of American Muslims who celebrated 9/11. That our elections officials are allowing rampant voter fraud in “certain areas” (wink, wink), in order to throw the “rigged” presidential election to the candidate not legitimately chosen by the American people. And that our political leaders are letting in illegal immigrants so they too can nefariously influence the election’s outcome, a story that the media is also suppressing.

The sheer volume and truly destructive nature of his demagoguery and lies about our institutions is alone — or should be — disqualifying.

* All roads lead to “I alone can fix it.” That was probably Trump’s single most telling declaration of the campaign. But it must be understood in the broader context of Trump’s ongoing claims that our democratic institutions are so corrupted and corroded that they are no longer capable of solving our problems.

Thus, “I alone can fix it” has two interrelated meanings. It means that, if elected, he would likely shred political and constitutional norms and resort to extreme measures to deal with terrorism and immigration (which our institutions can no longer cope with) and our treasonous media. It also means that, if he is not elected, it will prove that our system is no longer capable of not just addressing our problems, but of producing political outcomes that are legitimate.

This is intimately bound up with Trump’s shifting reactions to the FBI’s treatment of Clinton. Back when the FBI originally declined to recommend charges, Trump went on a tear about how the “corrupt” FBI is participating in rigging the election. Then, when the FBI announced its new discovery, Trump said the FBI was heroically trying to correct its original wrong. And now that the FBI has not found anything to derail her candidacy, Trump is back to claiming that she is being “protected.” Trump regularly says Clinton is a criminal who never should have allowed to run for office at all. But his argument goes farther still. He is claiming that our institutions cannot legitimately clear his political opponent of criminality.  That is an objective description of his argument.

All of this is plainly designed to badly undermine faith in our institutions — no matter who wins the election. Trump has explicitly said that he may not accept the outcome if he loses, which raises the prospect of further disruptions. But if he does win, he has already made his intentions — to conduct his presidency in full accordance with his contempt for those institutions — absolutely clear. Maybe Trump is just putting on a big show. But why should we not entertain the possibility that he might mean what he says?

There has been a great deal of debate over whether our institutions are strong enough to withstand a Trump presidency. We can only hope that a majority of voters are horrified by the prospect of ever discovering the answer to that question, and make their choice accordingly.