The Trump Campaign as Protection Racket
by Neil H. Buchanan
With so many things going so horribly wrong in the world, this is not a good time for a politician to be running as an incumbent (at least one who is a member of the party in power). Facing a daunting political environment, losing politicians can turn to a fairly standard set of desperate ploys to turn things around.
Donald Trump is in most ways not at all a standard politician -- and I continue to reject the idea that he has any grand strategies or actual political acumen -- but he most certainly is acting like a standard-issue political loser in the sense that he is flailing about, looking for scapegoats and trying to get out from under the weight of his own terrible decisions.
Much has already been written about Trump's "little green men" gambit -- sending untrained paramilitaries into Portland, Oregon -- but here I want to focus on how that leading-edge-of-fascism idea fits into the "legitimate" side (more on those scare quotes presently) of Trump's doomed reelection campaign. He is, in fact, acting more like a mafia boss than a president.
Even pre-pandemic, Trump's apparent thinking about how to win reelection was completely incomprehensible as a matter of politics. Throughout his time in office, he had done everything possible to drive people away. There is not a single thing that he has done as president that would make anyone who voted against him in 2016 want to vote for him in 2020. Similarly, he had done everything imaginable to animate people who had not voted in 2016 (or who voted for a third party candidate) to turn out and vote for his opponent this year. That is why I said throughout the nominating process that Democrats were choosing among a group of many people who would all surely beat Trump at the polls.
Moreover, one of the NeverTrumpers who is behind the Lincoln Project (which is producing those brilliantly acerbic anti-Trump advertisements) recently noted that because Trump's voting base skews older -- again, even ignoring the age-related pandemic effects -- Trump's voting base from 2016 has been literally dying out. Adding in those pandemic effects (captured in today's news that 74-year-old Trump surrogate and "9-9-9" guy Herman Cain has died of Covid-19), which are both killing more Trump voters and motivating some of Trump's surviving elderly voters to reconsider, we can predict an even smaller vote count for Trump than 2016.
In other words, a guy who became president because of fewer than 80,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania combined, had done not a thing in more than three years to encourage any new voters to come to his side. Meanwhile, his base was shrinking, and he had inspired the most active political opposition that anyone has seen in decades. That is why his preferred candidates kept losing and losing and losing in the three years since he moved into the Oval Office. The House of Representatives flipped, Virginia became a blue state, a Democrat became a U.S. Senator from Alabama, and even Kansas, Kentucky, and Louisiana elected Democratic governors. That is quite a record of political failure.
So we began 2020 with Trump having all but guaranteed that he would not win any of the states that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, which meant that he had to hope not to lose all three of the states that he won by razor-thin margins and that he had to hold every other state that he had won. He had to do so, moreover, even in the face of anti-Republican demographic changes and what would surely be record-setting voter turnout among those who despise him.
To the extent that the Trump campaign had something that could have been identified as a strategy, it appeared that the only fully legitimate part of it was to claim that the economy -- which had continued on the same path that Trump had inherited from Obama -- was a reason to ignore everything else and vote for him. I call that legitimate simply because there is nothing wrong with trying to convince people that a president is responsible for something good (even when he clearly is not) and to get voters to focus on the good and forget about all of the bad.
The only other not-exactly-illegitimate idea that seemed to buoy the Trump campaign was the idea that they could turn out even more of his base by amping up the outrage among his supporters. That is a bit more disturbing, because the ways in which Trump enrages his voters are hateful and divisive, at the very least. Again, however, at least that is not cheating or breaking the law.
But that brings us to the Republicans' long-running campaign to disenfranchise voters and to suppress turnout among those who are likely to vote for Democrats. This is not at all legitimate, but it at least is not a resort to violence or outright fraud. (Note, however, that some voter suppression efforts -- especially those apparently planned for later this year -- involve at least the threat of violence, with in-person intimidation tactics and gun-toting "monitors" to be sent to voting precincts in Democratic areas.)
Even occasional readers of Dorf on Law cannot help but be aware that I have long thought that all of this political analysis will prove to be moot, because Trump has never had any intention of leaving office, no matter the election results. This has been obvious since even before his unexpected eye-of-the-needle Electoral College win, but at least I am no longer one of the only people willing to discuss Trump's upcoming internal coup out loud.
Assume for the moment, however, that somehow Trump will leave office if he loses. Again, he apparently hoped to win through a combination of taking credit for a good economy, motivating his base, and suppressing his opponent's vote. Today, however, he is running on a terrible economy that would be nowhere near so terrible had he actually responded to the pandemic with minimal competence; and this means that he has to increase the outrage even more among his base while counting on Republicans to disenfranchise even more young and minority voters. (His tweet earlier today about postponing the vote from November 3 might have been an attempt to distract from the terrible economic numbers, but it certainly is consistent with the idea that he has no intention of leaving.)
So what else might count as a "strategy" for Trump -- or at least something that might actually help him politically? His base is not going to abandon him if he passively allows military base names to be changed, so his emergence as an aggressive neo-Confederate is a net loser. Attacking Dr. Anthony Fauci is not working. Where does he think the votes will come from?
I am one of those who is certain that Trump's decision to invade Portland on the flimsiest of pretexts is a dress rehearsal for November 3 and after. The inevitable protests in November, December, and January -- as Trump declares the results "rigged" and thus that he has won reelection -- will be met with the kind of crackdown that Trump's people have now test-run in the Pacific Northwest (and in Lafayette Square before that). Once one adds in the inevitable "Second Amendment people" that Trump will call to action, we have the recipe for true ugliness.
But again, imagine that this is not how the future will play out. What is the non-coup explanation for the unidentified paramilitaries in Portland (and that are now apparently being pulled out)? Trump and his Fox News enablers are saying that people need Trump to be in charge of the federal government to prevent everything from burning down.
That argument, however, only works if there is unrest for the federal government to quell. And the people protesting in Portland and across the country have been notably uncooperative in providing Trump with the justifications for cracking down. What to do? Trump and his followers created their own justifications, of course.
In short, even if the little green men have been sent to Portland and elsewhere not as a precursor to a coup, this is still not a matter of bringing law and order but to instigate violent conflict, which becomes its own excuse to do more of the same.
Again, this is the most extreme version of what the most standard-issue political losers do. Indeed, it is not merely what desperate wannabe dictators do; it is what organized crime has done forever. Thugs go to a shopkeeper and tell him that they will protect him from criminals. The shopkeeper says that he has no problems with crime, but thanks anyway. And then, lo and behold, a brick flies through the window of the shop, or the shop is robbed, or the shopkeeper is attacked by anonymous assailants.
This was most memorably depicted in a classic Monty Python sketch, where Michael Palin and Terry Jones play dime-store gangsters who say to Graham Chapman's befuddled straight man: "You've got a nice Army base here, Colonel. Wouldn't want anything to happen to it." Hilarity ensues.
In the real world, however, this is anything but funny. Even after it became clear that Trump's paramilitaries were making matters worse -- creating confrontations where none would have existed, emboldening far-right actors to commit acts of violence -- Trump used the worsening situation as an excuse to increase the size of his invading force. Even as Portland now seems to be out of the (literal) crosshairs, this is being expanded into other cities (conveniently in swing states).
At best, then, Trump’s campaign has become a protection racket. "Hey, white voters! Look at all these endlessly repeating pictures of fires and violence in Portland. Only we can stop this." In that one way -- that Trump has the ability to stop this -- they are right, just as mafiosi have the power to stop the violence from which they are profiting. Perhaps we should not be surprised that a man whose mentor was the mob-connected Roy Cohn would gravitate toward the oldest, cheapest trick in the book.
Again, this is actually the quasi-legitimate reading of Trump's decisions about Portland. It says only that he is willing to create violence in order to win at the ballot box, which need not also mean that he will rely on violent crackdowns after losing the election (although I fully expect that he will follow that path). The not-entirely-unconstitutional reading of Trump's campaign, then, boils down to this: suppress votes, enrage the base, and offer white people the equivalent of a protection racket. What could go wrong?