With 100 days to go, Trump is in a tight spot. If history is any guide, he is most likely going to lose to Biden this Fall and his loss will take many other Republican politicians down with him. But despite his historically bad polling numbers going into August in an election year, there are several tactics Trump could employ that would allow him to win the election in November. Some of these tactics are fully above board, politically prudent, and normal within a well functioning democratic society. Others, not so much. Unfortunately for America, Trump is already showing a predilection for the anti-democratic options, and even more worryingly, they seem to be working with most of his base.
To begin, let’s ask the question: what is Trump’s reelection strategy? He has shown us enough already to discern the answer. All we need to do is examine actions he has already taken and extrapolate from them his motivations. One thing to keep in mind is that for Trump and politicians generally, the most important things to focus on in an election campaign are appearances. And if we look at Trump’s strategy through that lens, it becomes clear that it is actually a highly effective one according to conventional wisdom. The only problem is that it is not a very democratic strategy.
According to what we have seen from the Trump administration and his reelection campaign so far, the strategy he is employing relies on developing three key features of his messaging: a feeling of safety, duality of good and evil, and suppressing the vote. Let’s examine each of these in turn.
First, as we have seen from events in Portland, Trump’s strategy for dealing with the protesters is not one of de-escalation. Almost from the beginning, Trump has sown discord and inflamed racial tensions in the public. In early June, in the midst of the initial waves of protests, Trump ‘accidentally’ retweeted a video of one of his supporters saying “white power” at a rally. Later on, he ordered governors to quell protests with heavy-handed tactics and sent in the National Guard to face off against peaceful protests. Now, he has authorized federal agents to abduct people off the streets of Portland in unmarked minivans. Many people have criticized him for these tactics, concluding from his actions that he is inept and does not know how to handle protesters. After all, his actions clearly run counter to the recommendations laid out in military handbooks for dealing with protesters. Heavy-handed government responses always provoke a backlash from protest movements and add to their momentum. But in such cases where Trump’s actions look like ineptitude, it is prudent to ask what he gains. In this case, by escalating the protests, Trump benefits in several ways.
The first and most important way he benefits is by generating imagery in the media of chaos in the streets and associating that chaos with the Left. Many of his supporters will see the tear gas and bloody protesters, and being naturally predisposed to favor the police and security forces, they will conclude that Trump is doing the right thing by sending in federal security forces to face off against the protesters. The protesters will not look peaceful to his supporters.
Trump will contrast that imagery with hyper-nationalistic images of himself and his inner circle. He stood in front of Mount Rushmore on July Fourth. He makes sure to portray himself and his inner circle as in control and strong. On top of that, Trump glorifies the military and security forces. He vows to do what is in the best interests of our security forces even as he allows Putin to pay bounties for dead American Soldiers in Afghanistan. Of course, no one can see those bounties, and Trump knows that the only thing that matters in this game is imagery. And so, to this glorification of the military and portrayal of himself and his inner circle as strong and in control, he also adds religious imagery, such as when he held a bible in front of St. John’s church in June. The point of that photo op, and indeed the point of all of these actions was to project one clear message: safety.
By contrasting himself and his administration with the protesters using such nationalistic imagery, he is building the narrative that he represents safety while Democrats represent danger. The Democrats are the ones in the streets. The Democrats are the violent anarchists. Trump represents safety, and he will protect you. This is what Trump wants his supporters to see. To drive home the message, he will periodically trot out corporate business leaders to show their support for his administration. These people are never in short supply thanks to his generous tax cuts. They joined him on stage during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, and more recently, Trump touted Goya Beans after the CEO of Goya signaled his support for Trump’s reelection. The purpose of all of these moves is to show his base that Trump represents the safety they want while Democrats represent chaos.
Second, Trump will continue to signal to the American people that there exists within the nation a duality between good and evil. In order to do this, Trump must name the evil side, and he seems to have landed on the term “radical left” as the name he uses to address the Democrats. The term is just vague enough that no one really knows what he means by it, and this allows his supporters to fill in the blanks in their heads. Other terms function similarly: “violent anarchists,” “Antifa,” and “the opposition.”
Trump has further ingrained this idea of the duality between good and evil in most of his media appearances and tweets in June. Along with the defense of monuments (which also plays into the hyper-nationalistic imagery), Trump has touted traditional family values, something which lies near and dear to his supporters’ hearts. They will follow his lead when he opposes family planning even though Trump himself, with his ex-wives and philandering, is the antithesis of these family values. The point, despite this hypocrisy, is to build the narrative that Trump is the good guy, and Democrats want to attack families.
One tricky spot for Trump will be how to deal with labor unions. He must find a way to oppose labor unions in order to maintain this narrative of good and evil, since unions are on the “evil” side in his scheme. That is tricky given how powerful unions are, but Trump will find clever ways to denigrate them nevertheless. For instance, he has already damaged the teacher’s union by sowing discord over school reopenings in September. He will most likely continue to find ways to undercut other unions who oppose him as the election draws nearer. Just about the only union he will support is of course the police union, since they are already staunchly in his corner.
Unsurprisingly, Trump will continue to drive the narrative that mainstream media is fake news. But the fake news attack line is more than just a cudgel against journalism. Anyone who disagrees with Trump is now fake news. Anyone who says anything Trump does not like is fake news. This tactic goes so far as to render any critics whatsoever as illegitimate fake news. Along these same lines, Trump will continue to chide universities and academia in general, since he knows that universities are hotbeds of dissent. Trump will seek to exacerbate weaknesses in the university system brought about by coronavirus by, for instance, criticizing Harvard and other universities for taking stimulus money and moving classes online.
Lastly, and perhaps least surprisingly, Trump will attempt to gain an edge in the election by suppressing the democratic vote. He has already signaled that he might not accept the outcome, which is obviously only the case if the outcome does not go his way. Trump has also attacked mail-in voting and will almost certainly demand recounts, perhaps pushing these cases all the way to the Supreme Court, as Bush did in 2000. Trump and the GOP will also make sure that polling stations in democratic territory are closed or drastically reduced.
These are the tactics that Trump can and most likely will use to attempt to win in November. He has already deployed most of these tactics. Over the next few months, he will only ramp them up. And make no mistake: these tactics are effective. They are tried and true in other countries, and they absolutely could hand Trump a victory. Democrats have been worrying about the 2020 election practically since the day after the 2016 election. Now, with just 100 days to go, we are in the end game. Trump might be down in the polls, but we must remember that was also the case last time. He could definitely win again.