President Trump seems to believe that stirring up “American carnage” benefits him. He imagines he’ll be better off as things get worse for the rest of us. Is that a winning strategy?
It would be a mistake to overestimate Trump’s ethics (non-existent) and to underestimate his political talent (considerable). He beat down the Republican establishment and defeated a favored opponent in 2016. Four years ago, he knowingly took advantage of foreign interference in the campaign. Back then, Americans wondered whether the Russian intervention was about Trump or about chaos. It was about both.
Chaos was the plan. The worse for America, the better for Russia.
Today, Trump faces a totally different situation in this campaign than he did in 2016, and he knows it. Four years ago, he did not have to win. Had he lost, he could have claimed victory, mocked Hillary Clinton on Twitter, and schlocked his way to retirement. The carefree attitude he evinced back then is notably absent today. The advisers of 2016 are now convicted felons or charged with felonies. By now, Trump himself has been thoroughly investigated, and the prosecutors are lining up. Only the office of the presidency saves him, as he understands.
Like all authoritarians, he aims to die in a comfortable bed rather than in prison. He cannot bear to lose, and he is smart enough to know he is losing. Since he cannot coast and expect victory, he has two options: the democratic one of making things better to attract votes, and the lawless one of courting strife.
He is certainly not making things better. He let covid-19 spread on the logic that it would spare “his people,” but does nothing now even though it is killing his constituents. He could save countless lives by modeling good hygiene, but he will not. He could improve the economy by insisting on meaningful unemployment compensation, but he will not. A democratic politician would work against pestilence and depression; Trump understands that rage can be redirected.
The worse, the better: from the Leninists to the Putinists, one tyrannical tactic has remained the same — let people suffer, transform the anger into killing, blame an invisible conspiracy for your own deeds, and then try to pick up the pieces.
From the Oval Office, it is easy to make things worse by defying two basic purposes of democratic government. One is to ensure fair elections. But now we see the president (and his attorney general) undermining the necessary infrastructure and calling the results into question in advance, repeating Russian propaganda memes all the while. By commuting the sentence of Roger Stone, an intermediary between Russia and the Trump campaign last time (and one of those many felons), Trump has given Moscow a clear signal that he welcomes its interference this time as well.
Government must also ensure the rule of law. Our president has tried to use the military against protesters, has deliberately escalated conflict, and now encourages right-wing extremists to kill. Experts have been warning us that domestic right-wing terrorism is a far greater threat than any foreign variety. The Department of Homeland Security, which once accepted this reality, now ignores it.
The president hopes the chaos will favor the most ruthless, which is to say himself.
Law enforcement has a problem when the president takes the side of the terrorists. Officers will have to resist a logic that draws them toward breaking the very rules they are meant to enforce. As we know from the history of Nazi Germany, political terrorism wins when the paramilitaries and the police merge in the service of a leader who opposes law. Citizens must vote and be ready to defend their votes. Americans should speak to their neighbors who disagree with them, even if there is no hope of persuasion: That act of human contact is one of resistance to the deadly spiral of “the worse, the better.”
Those who support democracy and the rule of law must be ready to mobilize. Protest breaks the spell of paranoia and reminds us that together we can have a much better future. In this climate, we should recognize that Kamala D. Harris and Joe Biden have shown personal courage in agreeing to run for high office. They will win if they can offer a clear vision of a brighter American future, an image that shines through Trump’s chosen darkness.
“The worse, the better” means the worse for everyone else and the better for one man. Defeating the man and his tactic is a first step away from tyranny.