There may be a better, clearer way to make sense of what we’re experiencing.
Though the news and information ecosystem plies daily assaults on our senses, threatening to exceed our collective bandwidth, we have the means to process what’s happening with greater clarity. This isn’t in reference to the events directly related to COVID-19 or the Black Lives Matter protest movement, though they do play indirect, byproduct roles. The onslaught at hand is the President’s War on the 2020 Election; specifically, all the ways he’s been laying the foundation to degrade and de-stabilize our county’s relationship with the electoral process.
Some of these methods have been months in the making, others for years. Now, we’ve entered a new and distinct phase – one where Trump tells us daily, in plain sight, in plain terms, that he’s actively seeking to corrupt this Election. He’s even telling us how – undermine our faith in the Elections so as to pre-emptively invalidate the results. The strategy isn’t subtle: explode the power of suggestion by telling the country ad nauseum that the fix is in months before a single vote is counted. So whether Joe Biden wins the Electoral College by a single vote or 3 million, Trump’s damage will have been done: can’t trust an election unless he wins. His planting the seeds of doubt have now manifested as daily headlines:
Except, these are barely headlines anymore; explicitly un-democratic pronouncements by an American President are no longer topline news. Normalization has relegated them to the midline section of news sites. This is no longer an erosion of norms – these are eroded norms.
The question then, is not if this is happening, but rather, how can we process it to better understand and make sense of what is happening?
In Frank Rich’s evergreen July 2017 New York Magazine article “Everything Trump Does Must Be Viewed Through This Single Lens”, he wrote, “At this juncture the priorities of Donald Trump have winnowed down to a single agenda item: saving himself and his family from legal culpability for their campaign interactions with the Russians and their efforts to cover up those transactions ever since. Almost everything this president does must be viewed through this single lens. If you do so, you’ll find his actions usually make sense.” Three years on, this take has only grown in acuity, much as the crimes to cover up have grown beyond the Russia batch. The goal of winning the election isn’t to run the country for another four years – it’s to stay out of prison. Just ask New York’s AG Tish James or DA Cy Vance.
If we view Trump’s actions through a newer lens, a lens of war-like behavior, then we might better understand what he’s done, is currently doing and may well do. Seen through this war-like lens, his primary election strategy appears to be waging battle on the results of the 2020 Election (the largest of his wars) via several key fights –
- The War on Vote by Mail (VBM) / the USPS
- The Cold / Trade / Otherization War with China
- The Culture / Civil War
- The COVID-19 War
The War on VBM (Vote by Mail) / The USPS
The war on VBM (i.e., absentee ballots) may be the most pressing. Less than 60 days out, tangible damage has already been wrought. Letter sorting machines (to the tune of millions of dollars) have been deactivated, others removed and others disassembled, irreparably destroyed and thrown in dumpsters. Letters piled up. Bags of letters being dumped in parking lots. Live animals shipped by mail, including thousands of chicks destined for farms, ending up dead at Postal Service processing centers due to new methods designed to slow and stop processing. Congresswomen prevented from performing their oversight responsibilities by being blocked from entering multiple letter sorting facilities. All these things track when internal USPS documents announcing sudden, inexplicable changes are leaked with phrases like, “‘This will slow mail processing.”
The organized chaos began once Louis DeJoy was installed by Trump as Postmaster General this May. DeJoy, a multi-million dollar Trump campaign donor, had no previous federal experience and his only connection to the USPS was that they’ve paid $286 million to XPO Logistics (since 2013), where he served as an executive until 2015 and was a board member until 2018. (In 2014, XPO acquired DeJoy’s company, New Breed Logistics, for $615 million). DeJoy has not fully divested from XPO.
Like nearly every other Trump administration cabinet appointee, from the EPA to the State Department, DeJoy was tapped to dismantle the very agency he is supposed to serve. The other trait they consistently seem to share are conflicts of interest. Just last week, multiple investigative reports allege serious campaign finance law crimes with comically damning on-the-record quotes that don’t leave much room for ambiguity, ““Louis was a national fundraiser for the Republican Party. He asked employees for money. We gave him the money, and then he reciprocated by giving us big bonuses,” said David Young, DeJoy’s longtime director of human resources.”
With a morally scrupulous yes man in place, the plan, as simple as it is harrowing, could proceed: grind the mail to a halt so that absentee ballots posted by mail will grind to a halt. Add in an unfounded conspiracy theory that the President and Attorney General Bill Barr amplify in conjunction: who’s to say absentee ballots couldn’t be mailed in by malicious foreign actors? (There is no historic precedent in the U.S. for absentee ballots being mailed in by hostile foreign actors). However, hostile foreign actors like Russia are engaged in active operation efforts to ““amplify” concerns over the integrity of U.S. elections by promoting allegations that mail-in voting will lead to widespread fraud,” according to our intelligence community. The Washington Post summarizes a fairly problematic for democracy moment, “Many of the claims made by Russian sources are identical to repeated, unsupported public statements aired by President Trump and Attorney General Barr, who have said that mailed ballots aren’t trustworthy while warning of the potential for rampant fraud in November’s elections.”
If any of this was too subtle, now the President, on camera, is encouraging Americans to vote twice to prove that VBM will generate widespread fraud. When his AG was asked on live television to defend an American President telling citizens to commit voter fraud, the best that the head of the DOJ could come up with was, “I don’t know what the law in the particular state says.” When the chief lawyer of the federal government can’t bring himself to say it’s illegal to vote twice in the U.S. Election, that’s what a war on VBM, and by extension, the Election looks like.
The Cold / Trade / Otherization War with China
Like any Cold War, the one against China has been a slow burn. Trump’s hankering for both a trade war and storylining for enemy countries began before even taking office. In 2012, he tweeted his infamous climate-change-as-Chinese-hoax propaganda, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” In June 2016, as candidate he announced his plans to counter trade practices from China, threatening to bombard them with tariffs – which he subsequently did upon being elected. His go-to line was, “China’s entrance into the WTO has enabled the greatest jobs theft in history.”
Except Trump ended up enabling the jobs theft once his supporters could no longer be spared by his trade war. American farmers (no small contingent of Trump voters) as well as the farms themselves, have been some of the biggest casualties of this war. Despite China’s role as one of the largest purveyors of countless U.S. agricultural exports, the tariffs on fruit, meat and grains decimated their livelihood. Which in turn required Trump to bailout farmers to the tune of billions of dollars (multiple times), a disproportionate amount of which went to the biggest and wealthiest farmers, not the smallest. The domino effect of his trade wars have hit countless industries – spanning energy, tech, retail, vehicles, equipment, steel and aluminum markets.
There are now too many fronts on the China Cold War to track, as the back and forth retaliations have become part of our new foreign policy, generating more collateral damage from Trump’s wars. By the time COVID-19 took hold, China-U.S. relations had already spiraled out of containment. Now they’re in hyperdrive: the whiplash TikTok ban (now unbanned), tit for tat consulate shutdowns, journalist expulsions. This whiplash towards China isn’t new, with Trump having spent the last three years praising, appeasing and supplicating President Xi when he wasn’t denigrating him. It’s hard to see how Trump can pivot back to bending over backwards for Xi before the Election now that he’s staked so much on blaming China for all things COVID-19.
There’s not much dispute that Xi blew the response when the pandemic broke out in China. His government clamped down on whistleblowers like Dr. Li Wenliang who “warned authorities of a potential “SARS-like” outbreak in December 2019, but was reprimanded instead” and died in February from COVID-19 at a Wuhan hospital; they didn’t share information and data with us at the outset, as they once had during previous outbreaks like N1H1 (which The Atlantic’s James Fallows painstakingly laid out in his seminal piece, “The 3 Weeks That Changed Everything”); Xi was not forthcoming about what they knew and when they knew it, to say the least.
Yet rather than lead our country, or use this moment to urge unity, we have a President who calls a global pandemic “The China Flu” or when he’s feeling extra racist, “Kung Flu”. In 2018, when Trump re-tweeted a clip that edited his 2007 WWE performance (a CNN logo clunkily placed atop the head of someone Trump was “pummeling”), it was one of the clearer insights into his black and white thinking, how the world is made up of good guys and bad guys. Trump: good guy protecting American jobs. The Chinese: bad guys coming to take American jobs and destroy our economy. The otherizing he’s cultivated towards China for the last several years has now morphed from bad guys on the other side of the world ruining our economy to finding the perfect foil to blame for his failure to contain this pandemic. Recent reporting only confirms the racism-as-election strategy, “his campaign aides have made aggressive rhetoric on China a pillar of their strategy, believing it could help energize voters.”
There’s an ever bigger problem and unintended byproduct at the root of this Cold War: Trump’s lack of credibility on making basic truthful statements means that even
when there are legitimate issues to press China on, there’s no way of knowing if he’s only doing it to distract with another “Trump hits China on X” headline, or perhaps to show his supporters how tough he is. From human rights abuses to national security threats to IP issues, his actions and decisions are tainted from having exhausted all benefits of doubt when it comes to his motives.
This breakdown of trust in how our President runs the country has calcified to the point where the default is to not expect truthful statements, well-intentioned decisions or honest actions. Whenever this President says or does anything, what reason have we got to believe he’s not being dishonest or acting on malicious intent? How often are we able to read his tweets and land on the possibility that he’s offering good faith arguments and not disingenuous takes? After three and a half years as President, what evidence do we have that nearly anything he does is meant to help Americans as opposed to hurt, divide or distract us? When the Washington Post’s daily fact check section has clocked “20,055 false or misleading claims” by a President before his first term has ended, it’s difficult to be open to more generous takeaways.
The Culture / Civil War
The culture war is the one war he’s been sowing since entering the public eye. From his like-father-like-son discriminatory rental tactics in 1973 deemed too racist for a Nixon DOJ to his 1989 unasked for opinion on the Central Park Five – placing a full-page ad in the New York Times calling for the death penalty – he’s been nothing if not consistent. Not even the cold hard facts of their exoneration gave him pause to reconsider publishing an Op-Ed titled, “Donald Trump: Central Park Five settlement is a ‘disgrace’.”
Even if there had been no pandemic or post-George Floyd nationwide reckoning with race, his message has been consistent; telling us for years that a civil war was brewing and that he’ll do whatever is needed to keep the fires of division burning. Now though, he’s locked in on his final list of bad guys: socialists, antifa, thugs, anarchists, BLM “as a symbol of hate”, “people in the dark shadows” controlling Biden, and “people that are controlling the streets”.
However, the last weekend of August in Portland marked a stark turning point. For the first time since the BLM protests started in May (93% peaceful according to a recent study), an entirely new type of agitator emerged. Not Boogaloo, Proud Boys, generic alt-righters or militias showing up “to keep the peace”.
That weekend saw the emergence of visually self-identified Trump supporters descend upon a BLM protest in Portland. Nearly 600 cars turned out, driving (in a caravan, no less), filled with armed supporters, wearing Trump regalia and flying Trump 2020 flags. Videos show his supporters driving through crowds, shooting paintballs from their cars and hosing protesters with pepper spray. Trump defended the shooting as “paint as a defensive mechanism, paint is not bullets”, praised them as “GREAT PATRIOTS!” and hasn’t denounced the rest of the violence in Portland.
Fatefully, one of the Trump supporters (wearing a hat with the insignia of Patriot Prayer, a far-right group) was shot and killed that weekend, setting up a potential martyr moment. The acceleration for more violence was further triggered that week when 17-year old Kyle Rittenhouse (photographed in the front row of a Trump Rally in January), arrived bearing a military-style semi-automatic rifle to a BLM protest in Kenosha, Oregon to apparently protect businesses. Instead, he allegedly shot and killed two BLM protesters and injured a third. He’s since been charged with two counts of murder and one count of attempted murder. When asked at a press conference if he’d condemn Rittenhouse’s actions, Trump, like Tucker Carlson, defended the shooting.
Just as our relationship with China has spun out of control because of Trump’s us vs. them policies, so too has the long promised violence of Trump’s America. Ongoing fighting in the streets in broad daylight has arrived. Police standing by and watching these brutal clashes is happening. And now the bloodshed at these protests has led to murder; the much feared spark to this long-gestating powder keg.
This is all taking place at the end of a summer that’s seen Trump send un-identifiable paramilitary forces to Portland who throw protesters into unmarked vans when they’re not tear-gassing Walls of Moms; the state-sponsored violence at Lafayette Square in D.C.; the hundreds of videos showing police, unprovoked, brutally attacking peaceful protesters around the country.
While there’s no way of knowing how this plays out now that a Trump soldier (so to speak) has fallen, we can take note of the general outline when people like Kellyanne Conway give up the game, “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 and law and order”.
The COVID-19 War
The 4th battle is more complicated than the others. If VBM and China are viewed as Trump’s enemies, and the culture / civil war is a battlefield where he fancies himself as a Red States General (see “LIBERATE MICHIGAN”), then it appears he views Coronavirus as a foe so powerful he can’t be bothered to meaningfully engage. Instead, he’s decided to pretend (lie) that, impossibly, a global pandemic poses no threat to human life. Bob Woodward let Trump put the lie into his own words on March 19, “Well I think, Bob, really, to be honest with you, I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Fighting a virus would require a plan – any plan – and not gaslighting, tossing out fake statistics and displaying misleading charts. Battling a pandemic would mean leveling with the nation that lethal plagues do not vanish into thin air and cannot be fought off with bleach injections into the human body. Defeating COVID-19 would necessitate placing value on human life, so that when discussing Americans stuck on a cruise ship during the beginning of a pandemic, definitely not saying on camera, “I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship.”
This is another one of those wars with overlap, just as the convergence of COVID-19 and VBM has taken hold. Trump is now scapegoating a virus as a nonsensical, magical thinking excuse to prevent Americans from casting mail-in ballots. He’s managed to turn a lethal virus into many things: an excuse to otherize, a tool to distract from his grifts and just another reason to keep wearing down institutional guardrails. Six months in, 190,000 Americans dead and 6.3 million testing positive – this administration’s unique combination of alternating between anti-approach and non-approach makes it difficult not to wonder if their lack of actions are inadvertently aiding and abetting the virus’ spread.
Even Thomas Friedman, in his June New York Times Op-Ed, titled “Is Trump Trying to Spread Covid-19,”, wondered, “It is absolutely devilish — like Trump wakes up every morning and asks himself: What health expert’s advice can I defy today? What simple gesture to reduce the odds that the coronavirus continues to surge, post-lockdowns, can I ignore today? What quack remedy can I promote today?”
A recent CNN piece, titled, “Many leaders used Covid as cover to dent democracy. Trump may be the first to openly admit it” addresses his politicizing a virus, “In the months since Covid-19 swept the globe, leaders the world over have been accused of exploiting the pandemic for political gain while laying waste to democratic norms. Few, if any, have gone as far as to reveal those plans publicly. A notable exception is President Donald Trump, who has openly admitted that he is trying to block much-needed funding for the USPS because he wants to limit the number of Americans who can vote safely by mail in November’s election. The reason? Trump says postal ballots will hurt his campaign, and has repeatedly made the unfounded claim that widespread mail-in voting will result in the “most fraudulent election in history.”
The least ideal way to attack a pandemic would probably be conceding defeat with a nihilistic, “it is what it is” response. But the herd immunity theory that failed the UK is now on course to level more Americans at a much faster clip, if recent reports bear out. Although new pandemic adviser Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist has no background in infectious diseases or epidemiology, he does have the professional experience required to become a must-hire in this administration: a Fox regular who says words that affirm the President’s talking points. If herd immunity turns out to be the only articulable federal plan or response that this administration and the GOP go with after six months, than the choice to surrender will force them to abandon the pretense of being the pro-life party and figure out how to defend against being the pro-death party.
Throughout it all, one straightforward question has seemingly gone unaddressed by this administration and the elected GOP: if a once-a-century deadly plague is not the best case to be made for voting by mail, then what is?
We may not have known the specific form it would take (amidst a once-a-century-pandemic and the most definitive, widespread recognition of racial inequality since the 1960s civil rights movement), but we’ve had plenty of warnings and trial balloons to know that Trump has been pushing the country in one general direction: distraction, division, discord. He even spelled out his belief in chaos-as-weapon strategy in a 2014 Fox interview, “When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster, then you’ll have riots to go back to where we used to be when we were great.”
By putting a name to this long con election strategy, the less surprised we may end up being towards what we already know will be a chaotic outcome to the Election. We can’t eliminate uncertainty, but we can reduce it. Naomi Klein’s 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, tracing all manners of different kinds of chaotic outcomes, illustrates how governments exploit national crises by capitalizing on the shock factor when disasters (economic collapse, natural disasters, wars) strike in order to jam through fairly undemocratic policies while citizens are too distracted to meaningfully protest or resist. She offers a helpful takeaway –
“There’s one other thing I’ve learned from my study of states of shock. Shock wears off. It is by definition a temporary state. And the best way to stay oriented, to resist shock, is to know what is happening to you and why.”
****Cover photo via Doug Mills/NYT