The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s latest rally stunts are designed to get you to surrender

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

In the end, many of President Trump’s ugliest degradations — the nonstop lying, the constant efforts to undermine faith in our political system, the relentless delegitimization of the opposition — often seem to converge in some sense on a single, overarching goal:

To get you to give up.

To give up on what, exactly? On the prospects for accountability for Trump, via mediating institutions such as the media, or via other branches of government, or even via the next election, and more broadly, on the very notion that our political system is capable of rendering outcomes that have not been thoroughly corrupted to their core.

Trump displayed all these pathologies at his rally in New Hampshire on Monday night:

  • Trump predicted that “a lot” of Republicans will cast crossover ballots (which GOP-leaning independents could do in this state), for the “weakest” of the Democrats in Tuesday’s primary. Trump didn’t merely encourage this; he said it will happen, which seems designed to sow doubts among Democrats about the outcome, and to get them to fear Republicans’ ability to tamper with it.
  • Trump again shouted the monumental falsehood that he lost the state in 2016 only because of enormous numbers of illegal voters. This doesn’t merely prep Trump’s voters to see a 2020 loss as illegitimate. It also lets Democrats know that Trump has prepped Trump Nation not to accept a loss, and thus to lose faith in the likelihood of a peaceful transfer of power even if Trump is legitimately defeated.
  • Trump advisers told the Associated Press that they hoped his rally would create logistical obstacles for Democratic candidates there. The obvious intent here is again to psych out Democrats with the suggestion that Trumpworld has the capability to sabotage their political processes.
  • Trump ridiculed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for “mumbling” during his speech to Congress, then visibly approved as the crowd chanted: “Lock her up!” Trump has similarly delegitimized the opposition in all kinds of ways, at one point even scripting a rally speech to render the voters who elected the Democratic House as literally nonexistent.

Such delegitimization of the opposition strikes at the core of our system. Recognizing the opposition’s legitimacy is a key pillar of accountability in government: It sends the message that a president grasps that he is in some sense beholden to all Americans, not just those who voted for him.

But the opposite message is precisely what Trump wants the other side’s voters to take away from such displays: He does not recognize that he is beholden or accountable to them in any way. Thus, this is also about demoralizing them in a forward-looking sense as well.

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This effort runs deeper than it often seems. Former presidents Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton both provided the country with gestures designed to conclude their scandal dramas — Nixon with the helicopter liftoff, Clinton with a public apology.

The House impeached Trump, but it was a victory for alternative facts, Russian disinformation and Fox News, says columnist Dana Milbank. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Susan Walsh / AP/The Washington Post)

By contrast, Trump continues to assert that his corrupt conduct in the Ukraine shakedown was entirely above reproach — and has explicitly stressed that he hasn’t learned anything from his impeachment and trial.

As Quinta Jurecic notes, the key here is that Nixon and Clinton acknowledged they had put the country through a searingly difficult moment — which Trump refuses to do. Indeed, only he and his voters have been victimized, by the impeachment “coup,” this effort to disenfranchise them, which in turn formed the justification for GOP senators to corrupt Trump’s trial beyond recognition.

But something else is going on here as well. By refusing to offer any recognition of wrongdoing, by shutting down all cooperation with the House, by unapologetically corrupting his own trial, Trump is in effect rendering as dead letters impeachment itself, accountability itself, and even the very idea that the amassing of such an enormously compelling fact record detailing Trump’s misconduct should have any significance at all.

You should give up.

It’s no accident that Trump went out of his way to draw attention to this quote from a Democratic voter, buried in this New York Times account of Democratic worries about turnout in Iowa:

“A lot of people feel defeated,” said Danny Villazon, 54, a lawyer. “Trump always wins. The Mueller report and then impeachment. It seems like nothing can stop him.”

The link between demoralization and low turnout is not lost on Trumpworld. When the Iowa caucus suffered its meltdown, numerous Trumpworld figures spread conspiracy theories about it, an obvious effort to depress confidence in the result of the nomination battle among supporters of the losers, perhaps sapping turnout in the general election.

Similarly, Trump regularly “jokes” about staying in office beyond two terms — at least 27 times, by Rick Hasen’s count. The subtext is that legitimate constraining institutions will fail.

You should give up.

None of this is to concede magical powers to Trump. He remains vulnerable for reelection. And we don’t have to succumb to any of this. As Jurecic says, the impeachment asserted that the Constitution matters in the face of nihilism.

What’s more, the enormous fact record produced by impeachment and the special counsel’s investigation has tremendous inherent value — not just as statements in the face of such nihilism that presidential corruption, accountability and facts themselves matter, but also as road maps for further revelations.

Similarly, the success of House Democrats in assembling this fact record under tremendous duress — and the parade of patriotic witnesses who smuggled out the truth at grave risk of retribution, which Trump openly advertised truth tellers will face — reminds us that public service matters, as well.

Whether by instinct or design, Trump and his propagandists plainly see their successful sowing of doubt in the integrity of our political system — their sowing of a kind of sneaking dread that Trump is successfully corrupting everything in sight — as being in some basic sense a positive for him.

But we don’t have to succumb to any of it.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Trump just saddled himself with a major campaign liability

Jennifer Rubin: New Hampshire may answer these five key questions

E.J. Dionne Jr.: The two battles that will define the New Hampshire primary

David Byler: The Democratic primary has been a mess. At least New Hampshire is acting normal.