The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s strategy: If you feel uneasy enough, you’ll turn to the strongman

President Trump speaks at the Republican National Convention at the White House on Thursday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Most of us have never experienced a period of uncertainty and unease quite like this one, between the pandemic and the economic crisis and everything they bring with them. We can’t feel secure in our jobs (those of us who still have them); we don’t know if we’ll get sick; we don’t know when our kids will be able to go back to real school; and “normal” life is an increasingly distant memory.

The president of the United States understands what we’re going through. His response? That’s perfect. Now I’m going to make you feel even worse.

This, it is becoming clear, is his strategy for the final two months of his reelection campaign: Heighten the sense that things are spinning out of control and there’s nothing we can rely on, then hope that in our panic we will turn to a strongman who promises to restore order through the use of ruthless authoritarian measures, even brutality.

His strategy has a lot to do with violence that has broken out in certain cities — which has now become the centerpiece of his reelection campaign — but it goes deeper. Wherever you look, President Trump is undermining institutions, heightening anxiety and encouraging voters to feel unmoored, then telling them the only solution is a leader like him who is “strong” enough not to care what laws he breaks as long as he reimposes a particular brand of order.

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Many have asked, quite reasonably, how Trump can paint a picture of American cities in flames and say that they represent “Biden’s America” when these episodes of violence are occurring on Trump’s watch; the idea that we need a second Trump term to reverse what’s happening during the first Trump term is nonsensical.

But this is not supposed to be a logical argument. Trump is promoting a feeling, the feeling of fear and uncertainty. Will violence come to my town? Are anarchists coming to burn down my house? It’s no accident that Trump and Republicans repeat the word “anarchists” so often, despite the fact that you could probably fit all the actual anarchists in America into a couple of school buses. It’s the idea of anarchy — lawlessness, chaos, the breakdown of social order — that Trump wants us to have in our minds.

So on Saturday, he retweeted a message from the lunatic conspiracy television network One America News claiming that violence at protests is organized by “a well funded network of anarchists trying to take down the President.” The next day, he retweeted a 20-second video of a Black man on a subway platform violently shoving people, including a White woman. Neither Trump nor anyone else who saw it knows who it was, when it happened (last week? five years ago?) or what it was about — it was nothing more than a grunt of racialized fearmongering.

The picture one gets from his Twitter feed — the purest and most distilled essence of his thoughts — is of a society spinning out of control, full of violence and conspiracies, on the brink of civil war.

Meanwhile, the Postal Service is being undermined so you can’t rely on the mail, Trump insists that the election is rampant with fraud, and his director of national intelligence suspends briefings on foreign interference in the election to reduce the ability of Congress and voters to make sense of the disinformation they may encounter. Local and state governments are already laying people off and cutting back services, and Trump refuses all calls to help them avoid their budget catastrophes.

This week Trump will be going to Kenosha, Wis., where protests over a police shooting of a Black man turned deadly when a 17-year-old Trump supporter traveled to the city on a vigilante mission with his AR-15 and allegedly wound up killing two people and injuring a third. That young man has now become a hero to some on the right, who defend him for trying “to maintain order when no one else would,” in the words of Tucker Carlson. Whether you despise or admire the vigilantes Trump encourages, their existence signals the breakdown of established authority.

The Trump campaign and the White House know full well that his trip to Kenosha is a provocative act, meant not to calm things down but to inflame them. We all know that he is hoping his visit will cause more unrest.

What he wants is not simply to tell people that they and their families will be murdered if Joe Biden is elected (“If our opponents prevail, no one will be safe in our country and no one will be spared,” he said recently), but to illustrate to them that the horror has already begun. You can’t rely on the police, your local government is failing you, you can’t even get your mail, and the violence creeps ever closer.

Amid this horror, Trump believes, you will turn to him. You won’t care how corrupt he is, or how many of his cronies have committed crimes, or if he’s vulgar and immoral. Indeed, his contempt for the law will assure you that he’ll do whatever is necessary — round up subversives, tear gas peaceful protesters, run right over any limits to his power — if that’s what it takes to stop this nightmare.

There’s an actual nightmare we’re living through, one that has claimed over 180,000 American lives. It has left us all feeling uneasy and frightened, and the president who brought it about through his indifference and incompetence thinks that the way for him to win is to make us feel more anxious.

Give Trump this: He somehow found a way to fashion an election campaign even more despicable than the one he ran four years ago.

Read more:

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Max Boot: Trump cannot be allowed to incite his way to reelection

Colbert I. King: Trump used manipulation and race-baiting four years ago. He’s at it again.

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