Gangster Politics has Come to America
Trump is a populist demagogue in the spirit of Latin American caudillos of the past. But the future he points to is darker and nihilistic, one that can be found in its later stages in the gangster state of Putin’s Russia.
The period immediately leading up to and following the 2020 elections is defined by the pressure campaign of Trump and his surrogates to ensure the results of the election were in his favor. As has been documented extensively, and convincingly argued by the House impeachment managers, Donald Trump began the process of questioning the election results back in April. Repeatedly, he exaggerated the scope of the expansion of mail-in voting, instituted in response to the pandemic, and falsely claimed that it resulted in widespread voter fraud.
“Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country, because they’re cheaters. They’re fraudulent in many cases.”President Donald Trump, April 7, 2020
This is in keeping with his long-standing use of voter fraud accusations as a campaign tactic, first used in his 2016 loss to Ted Cruz in the Iowa GOP presidential primary.
“Based on the fraud committed by Senator Ted Cruz during the Iowa Caucus, either a new election should take place or Cruz results nullified.“President Donald Trump (@realDonaldTrump), February 3, 2016
Trump primed his supporters to believe that if he lost, it was because the election had been rigged by a Deep State conspiracy to expand fraudulent mail-in voting. This was gradually sown into a narrative of Democratic manipulation to get back at Trump, demonize his supporters, and lead the country towards a dark future. His embrace of the counterreaction to the Black Lives Matter movement and exaggeration of the scope of the riots, which while destructive were limited in scope and did not threaten to overturn governments, contributed to this.
From here, it was easy to convince his most hardcore supporters that American politics was being hijacked by a cabal of Deep Staters, socialists, and race-baiters who wanted to destroy America by destroying Trump. Trump then became a powerful symbol of the Right. By identifying himself with the nation “America” he framed his opponents as “Enemies of the People“, a phrase he used frequently to attack opponents, and thereby galvanized his supporters and inspired incredible levels of personal loyalty from over 70% of Republican voters.
During the 2020 campaign Trump consolidated an un-precedented number of voters behind his politics of personal loyalty, by defining personal loyalty to himself as loyalty to America. He could mold his most devoted supporters like clay to act in his political interest by making his intent just clear enough while maintaining plausible deniability. This was the logic for his personal Twitter attacks; anyone he targeting was inundated with threatening phone calls, emails and messages. It made them think twice about acting against Trump, and the tactic was extremely successful at bending skeptical state and local level politicians to his will.
“I WON THE ELECTION IN A LANDSLIDE, but remember, I only think in terms of legal votes, not all of the fake voters and fraud that miraculously floated in from everywhere! What a disgrace!”President Donald Trump (@realDonaldTrump), December 12, 2020
This intense personal politics has been used in the past by figures such as President Andrew Jackson, but it had never been deployed so violently against real or perceived political opponents by an American president. There is no precedent for any president openly practicing the politics of intimidation. One thing Trump was missing that other caudillos had was widespread military support. But militias and his most intense supporters were fulfilling much of this role by providing a perceived threat of force, as demonstrated by the foiled April 2020 plot by a paramilitary group to kidnap and murder Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
What Donald Trump appears to have been setting the stage for was a bid to maintain power at any cost necessary, first with the destruction of presidential norms of behavior stretching back to George Washington, and then by subversion of the constitutional order by intimidation and violence. Whether this was a cynical bid for power, a belief that he’s fighting a corrupt system out to get him, or anything else is not relevant.
As early voting commenced, Trump ramped up this delegitimizing rhetoric. He claimed repeatedly that the election was being stolen and that he would not accept the result if he lost. This could be dismissed as the ravings of a narcissist but was likely a calculated, cynical political ploy. Interviews with White House officials indicate that the president was very much aware of the “Red Mirage”, or the idea that the election would appear to tilt towards the Republicans at first, but the high numbers of mail-in and absentee ballots would tilt the election back in favor of the Democrats after the extended counting process was complete. He was anticipating this and gaming out his reaction as early as September.
“His former chief of staff Reince Priebus told a friend he was stunned when Trump called him around that time and acted out his script, including walking up to a podium and prematurely declaring victory on election night if it looked like he was ahead.”Episode 1 of ‘Off the Rails’, a series by Axios reporter Jonathan Swan
As election day carried on, the “Red Mirage” theory bore out. Donald Trump jumped out to an early lead, and the states that did not process mail-in ballots before election day slowly tilted back to the Democrats. This was the case in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, Wisconsin, Nevada, Arizona, and North Carolina. However, to maintain his claim to the throne, Trump claimed victory at 2:00 am the next morning with the vote counts still outstanding. The most likely outcome at this point was a Biden victory.
Eventually, Biden did win. But the campaign of intimidation had just begun. First Trump pursued fraud allegations in the courts. When that didn’t work, his legal team switched to a strategy of forcing battleground states to throw out the election results.
“In every one of those states, we have more than enough illegal ballots already documented to overturn the result in that state,”Rudy Giuliani, November 15, 2020
With this goal in mind, the lawsuits that alleged widespread voter fraud and sought to throw out results were part of a campaign to persuade Trump supporters, and not the courts, that these state elections where illegitimate. Lawmakers in these state were inundated with death threats. Armed protestors appeared at state capitols, and the homes of state legislators and judges. At first, Republican state legislatures, like the one in Michigan, refused to entertain decertifying the votes of their states. But eventually they relented and the state parties towed the Trump line.
The pressure became most acute in Georgia. A narrow victory by Biden led to two recounts and signature verification of all mail-in ballots. Donald Trump took to Twitter alleging multiple conspiracies behind his loss in Georgia, and even retweeted a threat from one of his former lawyers, Lin Wood, to throw Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in jail:
President Trump @realDonaldTrump is a genuinely good man. He does not really like to fire people. I bet he dislikes putting people in jail, especially “Republicans.”Lin Wood (@LLinWood) December 15, 2020
He gave @BrianKempGA & @GaSecofState every chance to get it right. They refused. They will soon be going to jail. pic.twitter.com/7PMBLc8L2N
The threats against Raffensperger and his family became so intense that his wife was forced to change her phone number after receiving threats of sexual violence. Accusations against Dominion voting systems led to threats against Dominion employees. Some of these threats, recounted by Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling, were made against a 20 year old Dominion technician who arrived home to a noose hanging from his garage and whose family received threatening messages.
“A 20-something tech in Gwinnett County today has death threats and a noose put out saying he should be hung for treason because he was transferring a report on batches from an EMS to a county computer so he could read it,”Gabriel Sterling, December 1, 2020
This pressure campaign culminated in the infamous leaked phone call between Trump and Raffensperger on January 2, 2020. In it, he repeatedly pressured Raffensperger to do what it takes to find the roughly 12,000 votes needed to overturn the election result, and implied threats of criminal prosecution for not taking this step. The phone call was referred to the Fulton County DAs office, which has opened an investigation into what is possibly a felony.
Georgia did not overturn its results. Neither did any of the other states. Michigan came closest, with a dramatic deadlock on the Wayne county board of canvassers leading to a series of Trump tweets praising the two GOP members of the four member canvassing board for “having courage.” They would eventually certify. At the state level, Michigan State Board of Canvassers member Aaron Van Langevelde voted to certify despite being pressured to do otherwise. Officially, the states certified their votes, but many conducted election oversight hearings to cast doubt on the results, and the state Republican parties in Michigan, Georgia, and other states sponsored alternate slates of presidential of electors pledged to Trump.
How can you certify an election when the numbers being certified are verifiably WRONG. You will see the real numbers tonight during my speech, but especially on JANUARY 6th. @SenTomCotton Republicans have pluses & minuses, but one thing is sure, THEY NEVER FORGET!President Donald Trump (@realDonaldTrump), January 4, 2021
The grand finale of the pressure campaign was the January 6th insurrection. The event was planned for weeks on social media, and included coordination with people in Trump’s orbit like Roger Stone and pro-Trump militias like Oath Keepers. They were assembled there to Stop the Steal with the support of the president and his barrage of conspiracy-laden tweets. The result was a storming of the capitol that threatened the lives of Congress and delayed the ceremonial certification of the presidential election.
During the riot, Trump refused to call in the National Guard, called senators to pressure them on the certification vote, and praised the rioters during a phone call with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Trump not only instigated this mob, he was supportive of what they were doing. The riot did not succeed in stopping the certification. But it certainly succeeded in intimidating Republican members of Congress, and did not result in any erosion of his political base, with most Republicans still supportive of the former president, and a majority in support of his attempts to overturn the election.
“These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”President Donald Trump (@realDonaldTrump), January 6, 2021
From the standpoint of his supporters, when the man believed to be defending America is fought against and defeated, legitimately or not, then violence is not unreasonable. That is the principle that has been ratified by Trump’s acquittal in his second impeachment trial. It also means that the president can incite riots and intimidate election officials to overturn an election he lost, with no consequences. Now there is no downside for trying to overturn and election, and only upside if successful. Let’s hope that when Donald Trump attempts the same thing when he runs for president again in 2024, it doesn’t work.