Over the last four days, Republicans have painted a bleak portrait of life in Donald Trump’s America. Cities are on fire. Race relations are at an all-time low. Free speech is under attack. The economy is teetering on the edge of collapse. The country itself is rapidly becoming a dystopia—and is on the verge of revolution. With just a little push, the United States will be over, for good. The country itself is about to become the Soviet Union, controlled by China, undone by crooked far-left Marxist agitators like Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden.
That push could occur in just over two months’ time. Elect Biden and, as Representative Matt Gaetz tells it, Democrats will “empty the prisons, lock you in your home, and invite MS-13 to live next door.” Rudy Giuliani, raving even by his standards, told viewers that the opposition was “just waiting to execute their pro-criminal” agenda. “Don’t let Democrats do to America what they have done to New York,” he said. Giuliani and New York Police Benevolent Association president Pat Lynch suggested that Democrats were purposefully letting crime rise in their cities for reasons they never got around to articulating. (Reading between the lines, it seems they just really like crime, you know, like Paul Manafort.)
It is more accurate to say that Republicans are exploiting protests of police killings and violence in cities, and are much more hopeful that the mayhem might be sustained for the near-term. This isn’t conjecture: “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety, law and order,” senior adviser Kellyanne Conway told Fox News on Thursday, giving away the game.
Four years ago, Donald Trump ran a “law and order” campaign that was a barely disguised dog whistle: Contrary to his claims, crime was not actually rising, but it was a useful way of articulating his desire to turn back the clock to a time when America had, among other things, a whiter ruling class. Naturally, he couldn’t manage this impossible feat of time-travel. But he also failed at a great many possible things, such as adequately responding to a pandemic and not destroying the soaring economy he inherited. It’s all left Trump and his enablers in a position they perhaps didn’t foresee: They need to cheer on, if not actively exacerbate, anarchy and misrule. They are rooting for failure, in the desperate knowledge that Trump’s electoral success depends on it.
Rooting for chaos is the Trump brand, of course. In 2016, he painted a similar portrait: a country collapsing under corruption, outsourcing, and rising crime. Back then, throwback law and order messaging was the theme that tied together the threads of his otherwise improvised campaign—it unified all of his slapdash focus on immigration, racial resentment, foreign policy, and Hillary Clinton. It was also a useful way of grounding an outsider candidate with an out-of-control temperament and no qualifications for the job in an idea that felt relatively normal. As my then-colleague Jeet Heer wrote back in 2016, “His primordial message is one of imminent risk: You could be killed, and I’m the one who can save you.” But for all the dystopian edge, Make America Great Again was also utopian, albeit in a David Duke kind of way. Trump was promising that only an outsider like himself could solve intractable problems. The country was falling apart and needed to return to an ill-defined Golden Age when problems like immigration, globalization, and diversity were nonexistent. He alone could fix it.
Trump won and, instead, America experienced the natural and predictable consequences of putting an amoral dullard who only cares about himself and how often he can get on television in charge of the free world: massive corruption, a deterioration of foreign relationships, an uptick of racial resentment and white nationalist violence, a free-floating cloud of general incompetence on the good days, and total economic collapse and the supreme cocking-up of a pandemic response on the worst.
But the president has one good trick, and he’s determined to make it work. Crime is once again the president’s organizing concept. In 2016, it was somewhat easier to do, given that conservative groups had been priming tens of millions to think of Hillary Clinton as a Bond villain for three decades. With Joe Biden running a campaign focused almost entirely on the fact that he is a nice, reasonably competent guy, that’s harder to do—which is why the favorite metaphor of the 2020 convention is that he is not a man, but a Trojan Horse, filled with antifa, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and various other boogeymen.
It’s a tricky balancing act: Trump has to make use of the crime that’s happening in America as a result of his failures and somehow attribute them to a Biden who hasn’t yet been elected and who has mostly been lying low in his Delaware home. So it goes something a little like this: “Despite all of our greatness as a nation, everything we have achieved is now in danger. This is the most important election in the history of our country,” Trump said on Thursday. “Your vote will decide whether we protect law-abiding Americans or whether we give free rein to violent anarchists and agitators and criminals who threaten our citizens. And this election will decide whether we will defend the American way of life or whether we will allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it. That won’t happen.”
“If the Radical Left takes power,” he continued later in the speech, “they will apply their disastrous policies to every city, town, and suburb in America. Just imagine if the so-called peaceful demonstrators in the streets were in charge of every lever of power in the U.S. government, just think of that.”
In Trump’s telling, he must be reelected because only he can hold back the onslaught of the assumed Democratic voters—essentially coded as nonwhite throughout this convention—who are currently tearing apart cities while being applauded by Democratic leaders. The president and his allies have relentlessly hyped this issue during the convention, making the case that Trump is a necessary bulwark between the country and chaos. Without any accomplishments or a second-term agenda, this is all Trump has: Vote for me, or Democrats kill your family. It’s a significantly more authoritarian vision than the one he advanced in 2016, because it posits that voting against Trump is, in itself, an act of illegitimacy.
These efforts to portray America as fragile and on the brink of collapse were at times undercut by the convention’s other theme: That Donald Trump is not only very different from the way he comes across on Twitter (as a sunburnt blancmange with constantly foaming anger issues), he is actually a quite humble, deeply focused, and empathetic individual. It’s very head-snapping to see—after all, his main appeal in 2016 was that he was a politically incorrect meathead who’d say the things everyone else was afraid to speak aloud, freer by dint of his reckless, insult-comic schtick. But four years later, it seems it’s become necessary to give Trump the Dear Leader treatment. Much like the way Pyongyang propagandists depict Kim Jong Un as a kind of superhero who excels at whatever task is put in front of him, Trump isn’t just very good at some things, he’s maximally great at everything. When he has to be tough, he is tough. When he has to be gentle, he’s gentle. When he has to awkwardly talk to truck drivers about things he clearly doesn’t understand, he does so with total and ultimate authority.
But there was a second head-snapping irony on display at the convention. The convention has used, in blatant violation of the Hatch Act, the White House grounds to advance the ideas that are central to his campaign: that the president is a uniquely American strongman who will single-handedly stop the Democrats from destroying America (even though things are proceeding further toward collapse with each passing day of his presidency). Trump’s message—his entire political identity—is now wholly dependent on the state and its imagery. As my colleague Matt Ford has pointed out, Trump tends to covet the power of American symbols and often attempts to make them his own.
That Trump has become so co-dependent in this way is pretty astonishing. After all, he ran in 2016 as the ultimate political outsider, a guy far removed from Washington’s base mechanics, who was going to show all the career losers how it was done with his superior dealmaking and management skills, breaking through the perpetual logjams of partisan politics, and defying the pundits and critics. Four years later, Trump is now more than just a consummate political insider: There’s no daylight between him and the state.
Trump would like to pretend otherwise. His convention speech reached back to old themes about the swamp he never drained. “I did what the political establishment never expected and could never forgive, breaking the cardinal rule of Washington politics, I kept my promise.” But Trump is not just part of the Washington establishment, he is nothing without it. This week, he needed the trappings of Washington to sell his campaign. Tomorrow, he’ll continue to need his Justice Department to protect him from Congress, federal police to let him walk the streets, the office of the presidency to keep prosecutors at bay, and a taxpayer-funded bunker to retreat to when it all gets to be too scary. Far from breaking Washington and returning it to the people, Trump has become entirely dependent on it. Whatever his life was before, there’s no path back to it now.
This is a campaign of absurdities and corruption and death. But despite Trump’s promises to keep America safe, the only person whose safety he cares about is his own.
And that’s the ultimate irony: Trailing in the polls, he needs chaos to prevail to hold onto power and continue his unprecedented presidential crime spree. He needs the promises he made to continue to go unfulfilled. To effect his reelection, he must be effectively ineffective. Somewhere under all that Hatch Act–violating bunting, Donald Trump has lost the plot. But he still might win.