Somehow Trump’s unhinged and obnoxiously aggressive debate performance, where he again refused to accept the results of the election, directed his supporters to invade polling stations in order to prevent others from voting, and gave permission to his far-right white supremacist supporters to engage in political violence, has prompted the pillars of mainstream media to finally take the threat of an autocratic takeover by the Trump Republican party seriously. After years of normalizing Trump’s abuses and ignoring authoritarian experts like Masha Gessen and Sarah Kendzior, somehow Trump’s debate performance became a moment of awakening. As Brian Beutler writes, Trump has continually committed “offenses so unconscionable that if we traveled back in time to tell the January 2017-version of ourselves about them, they would interpret it universally as a sign that the guardrails had failed. Yet overnight, the media’s general disposition toward these outrages morphed from something like ‘it doesn’t matter if his voters don’t care,’ to a general sense of shock and fear”.
Perhaps the most insightful illustration of this awakening came from one of Frank Luntz’s panel of “undecided” voters. Post-debate, one of them had become a Biden supporter because Trump’s performance was like trying to “win an argument with a crackhead”. Of course, Trump’s unhinged and incoherent rantings have been going on for years, but most voters have always had those filtered through the normalizing translation of the media. As one Australian journalist noted when she first covered Trump, “I realised how much the reporting of Trump necessarily edits and parses his words, to force it into sequential paragraphs or impose meaning where it is difficult to detect”.
In 2016, Trump could litter his ramblings with a few slogans that at least conveyed potential policies. “Build the Wall”, “Drain the Swamp”, “Bring Back Coal”, and “MAGA” highlighted a plan, unfeasible as it may have been, for an outsider to come in and return the country to the white patriarchy and “American century” of Trump’s youth. Today, the Republican party doesn’t even have a platform other than Trump should be king and Trump himself can not even provide a slogan, much less coherent and detailed plans, that even hints at policies he would try, and probably fail as he usually does, to implement in the next four years.
The media’s brief focus on the threat to our democracy has now been overtaken by the President’s hospitalization with COVID-19. Even at his age and with his comorbidities, Trump still has about a 90% chance to survive the infection. But his recovery will, at minimum, take weeks and those are weeks he will not be able to use to change the trajectory of the upcoming elections. Unlike Hillary, Biden has not been pilloried by the press for the prior quarter century and whatever Bill Barr has up his sleeve will not have anywhere near the same effect of the Comey letter. At this point, God forbid, the only thing that could shake up this race is for Biden to also contract the virus.
With that in mind, there is even more reason for Trump and his Republican allies to make good on the threats that Trump made during the debate and throughout his campaign, to disrupt actual voting and engage in political violence on election day and beyond. This may become especially important to down-ballot Republicans if Trump can not mount a viable campaign between now and election day because of his health issues. The Republican party is Trump’s party and there are many Trump voters who could care less about Thom Tillis, Martha McSally, or John James beyond the fact that they will religiously support Trump.
Armed right-wing gangs have already responded to calls from Trump and other Republican leaders. Trump’s calls to “LIBERATE!!” Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia resulted in armed gangs attempting to invade the capitol buildings in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Virginia. Roger Stone has been shown to have worked closely with the Proud Boys. Randy Credico took Stone’s threats against his life seriously because of Stone’s connection to the Proud Boys and Stone himself worked with two members of the Proud Boys in his threat against the life of Amy Berman Jackson, the judge who was presiding over Stone’s trial. Attorney General Barr’s rationale for reducing the original sentencing recommendations for Stone included eliminating the enhancements for Stone’s threats against Credico and the judge, essentially dismissing them as irrelevant and clearly indicating where the administration’s sentiments lie. The administration’s acceptance and even encouragement of right-wing political violence is also illustrated by the fact that DHS was instructed to make positive comments about right-wing assassin Kyle Rittenhouse, even proposing that he only travelled to Kenosha and “took his rifle to the scene of rioting to help defend small business owners”.
Clearly the Proud Boys and other armed extremist right-wing gangs took Trump’s call to “stand by” to heart, with the Proud Boys adopting it as part of their logo. One Proud Boys’ leader declared, “Trump basically said to go fuck them up!…this makes me so happy”. A prominent neo-Nazi chimed in, saying, “I got shivers. I still have shivers. He [Trump] is telling the people to stand by. As in: get ready for war”. And many of these right wing extremists are familiar with war, having served or currently serving in the military or law enforcement. According to Mike Giglio, the membership of the far-right group Oath Keepers “hailed from every state. About two-thirds had a background in the military or law enforcement. About 10 percent of these members were active-duty. There was a sheriff in Colorado, a SWAT-team member in Indiana, a police patrolman in Miami, the chief of a small police department in Illinois. There were members of the Special Forces, private military contractors, an Army psyops sergeant major, a cavalry scout instructor in Texas, a grunt in Afghanistan. There were Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, a 20-year special agent in the Secret Service, and two people who said they were in the FBI”.
The Republican party has dedicated $20 million to amassing an army of poll watchers and fighting legal battles related to the election. During the debate, Trump invited his untrained supporters to invade the polls in order to monitor the election, declaring, “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it”. Don Jr. followed that up with his own, similar plea, posting, “We need every able-bodied man and woman to join Army for Trump’s election security operation…We need you to help us watch them, not just on Election Day but also during early voting and at the county boards”. This “army” will be more focused on voter and election board intimidation than on the real business of poll watching.
In fact, we have already seen Trump’s supporters take these messages to heart even as the election has barely just begun. In Virginia, Trump supporters temporarily blocked early voters from entering the polls, forcing the polling station to expand the protected area for voters waiting in line. And just in case Trump’s “army” and Republicans’ poll watchers can’t do the job, Bill Barr is apparently preparing to deal with “the possibility of violence leading up to the election and occurring at polling places”. In that regard, two red states, Arizona and Alabama have allocated around 600 National Guard troops to be ready to deploy around the country if requested by another state. This deployment is reminiscent of the “red state army” that Barr put together this summer in order to put down the peaceful protests in Washington DC.
Of course, the backdrop of all this preparation for violence are the myriad Republican efforts to restrict the voting rights of American citizens. While courts have largely rejected any Republican claims about potential voter fraud, the legal chaos in determining the actual rules for voting just weeks before the election is unlike anything we have ever seen before. Right now it is almost impossible to know whether a voter’s usual polling station will be open or where and when a ballot drop-box will be available.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s decision to limit absentee voter drop-off locations to just one per county is just a straight up effort at voter suppression but also a remarkable change in election procedures just weeks away from the election and after state officials had argued in federal court that any change in the straight-ticket voting procedures should not be allowed this close to an election. More importantly, it is less designed to help Trump than it is to ensure that Democrats don’t flip the Texas House. In Georgia, a state renowned for its voter suppression and electoral system malfunctions, the state has authorized software changes to its voting machines just weeks before the election where two Senate seats are up for grabs, leaving no time to fully test those changes for other potential bugs or vulnerabilities. Both issues in Texas and Georgia are still being litigated. The larger point here is that down-ballot Republicans are just as vulnerable as Trump and might be equally committed to creating electoral chaos in order to stay in power, just as Trump plans to do.
American democracy has become more and more sclerotic over the last half century, corrupted by money, rigged by gerrymandering, and paralyzed by the choke points afforded the minority. Unsurprisingly, then, over 50% of Americans are now dissatisfied with democracy itself. The Trump presidency, however, has seen an unprecedented rise in the percentage of Americans who feel justified in using violence to achieve their political goals. In November, 2017, just 8% of the electorate felt that way. Today, over one-third of both Democrats and Republicans see political violence as justified. Currently, only one party’s leaders are openly encouraging violence if they lose. Earlier this week, five Republican congressmen voted against a House resolution that reaffirmed the “commitment to the orderly and peaceful transfer of power called for in the Constitution of the United States”, considering it an attack on the President.
As noted above, we have already seen Trump supporters interfering with the election in Virginia. The Republican party is engaged in continuous efforts at voter suppression across the country. The President has called out his armed gangs and they have signaled they are ready. Trump’s illness may make it more likely that our democracy will survive the current onslaught. But it really does nothing to reduce the chances of political violence during the election. In some ways, it may increase those chances because that will be all that’s left for a weakened would-be autocrat and the party he commands to stay in power and avoid facing the consequences of his criminal behavior.
Originally published at https://thesoundings.com on October 4, 2020.