President Trump appears to be running for reelection on a strategy that strongmen around the world have used for decades: encouraging, provoking, and even — at times — perpetrating violence. That would seem counterintuitive. Who would vote for a candidate who prompts violence in order to promise to end it?
Strongman experiences globally
In Guatemala in 1999, Gen. Efraín Rios Montt, accused of genocide, sold his party as the emblem of law and order. He won. In the Philippines in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte, known for extrajudicial killings, ran as what a Time reporter described as a “bombastic firebrand able to clean up a crime-riddled nation.” He won. In Sri Lanka in 2019, despite lawsuits alleging he had committed war crimes, Gotabaya Rajapaksa projected himself to voters as what his party’s founder called the “leader who [could] ensure their security.” He won.
Running against rule-abiding opponents, these strongman candidates followed a common playbook. They sought votes of relief, arguing they should not be blamed for the suffering but instead should be rewarded for preventing greater turmoil.
Their platforms centered on security, an issue their nations’ citizens widely considered urgent. They sought to prime and own the security issue by warning of and even fomenting a level of anarchy that required a savior. They canvassed in military uniforms; they acted above the law; they issued propaganda to broadcast their narratives. And they targeted their campaigns at security voters.
When facing a choice between law and order and rule of law, voters surprised observers by selecting the strongmen, even those known to have blood on their hands, over untainted candidates. Facing threats of disorder, citizens supported iron-fist policing and authoritarianism, declined protection for civil liberties, and approved of repression.
Trump is betting on this playbook in 2020
Instead of discussing specific policies, the U.S. president has been promising “LAW & ORDER.” Trump and his surrogates are asking people to vote on this issue. “Law and order is on the ballot in November,” asserted Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a key Trump surrogate. Through a social media barrage, Trump supporters say “America is on fire,” as one writer put it in The National Interest. As his former counselor Kellyanne Conway said explicitly, “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety.”
To cast himself as this protector, Trump seeks to signal coercive strength and invincibility. He tries to align himself with the police in statements and executive orders. As strongmen do around the world, Trump has deployed federal forces to “dominate” protests in ways local officials argue further escalates the violence. Vigilante and self-proclaimed militia movements have accelerated under Trump’s reign, something that often signals a strongman’s strength. Trump poses alongside men in fatigues as strongmen do to invoke the psychological reaction to the military uniform. Trump bullies, name-calls and is accused of breaking laws — domestic and international — much as strongmen do to signal willingness to use whatever means necessary to achieve order. Like strongmen elsewhere, Trump asks voters to compare levels of disorder not to an alternative of no violence, but to one in which violence was worse. He recently tweeted, “If I didn’t INSIST on having the National Guard activate … there would have been great death and injury.”
While the disruption has occurred under his watch, he claims it would be much worse under his political opponent. “If you want a vision of your life under a Biden presidency, think of the smoldering ruins in Minneapolis, the violent anarchy of Portland, the bloodstained sidewalks of Chicago, and imagine the mayhem coming to your town and every single town in America.” He said recently, “If our opponents prevail, no one will be safe in our country and no one will be spared.”
The U.S. in 2020 may not be receptive to this strongman playbook
Strongmen succeed when there are several conditions in place. First, a country’s citizens must feel they are living amid anarchic disorder. Polls suggest this is not U.S. voters’ experience, particularly the swing voters Trump courts. Americans fear death not from Hobbes’s “war of all against all,” but from the pandemic that has infected more than six million, killed roughly 200,000 Americans and stripped life of its stabilizing rhythm. Law enforcement cannot cure this threat.
The second condition needed is most of the electorate must be prepared to vote on security, considering it the election’s top issue. In 2020, with unemployment rates elevated, millions losing health care, schools and businesses still shuttered and the Supreme Court hanging in the balance, this seems unlikely.
The third critical condition is that voters have to trust the strongman is the best candidate to keep them safe. That belief tends to track with a candidate’s record of success on defense issues, military experience, connections with a coercive security apparatus and right-wing partisanship. Of these, Trump can check only the last box. He has no military or law enforcement background. He has solid relations only with irregular forces but not necessarily with the U.S. military, which has signaled it will resist partisan exploitation, or with government intelligence services. More than 70 former Republican national security officials publicly asserted Trump has “imperiled America’s security [and] … disparaged our armed forces.”
These officials endorsed Joe Biden as best able to “protect the country.” This points to the last problem with Trump’s plan. His opponents are not weak on security. Biden and former California attorney general Kamala D. Harris’s foreign policy and law enforcement experience suggests they would be well able to handle both domestic and international threats.
Looking at how strongmen have succeeded elsewhere suggests Trump’s strategy could still succeed. If Trump makes Americans fear insecurity, he might attract right-wing, moderate, and even some left-leaning voters in areas enduring unrest. The question becomes what lengths Trump will go to create the anarchic conditions needed for his law and order message to resonate.