Beneath all the trappings of campaign season, two fundamental and connected questions will determine whether President Trump wins a second term. The first is whether there will be, or can be, a free and fair election with Trump on the ballot; the second is whether the large anti-Trump majority of the country is resilient and public-spirited enough to vote him out.
At the moment Trump shows single-minded determination to answer both questions in the negative, while the anti-Trump majority is either paralyzed in the aftermath of impeachment or mired in the factional fights driving the Democratic presidential primary.
Despite this alarming disparity Trump remains in an uncommonly weak position for an incumbent president seeking re-election—but that weakness isn’t guaranteed to last, particularly if Democratic leaders and rank and file voters lose sight of how he seeks to overcome his deep unpopularity. In a profound sense the election is an endurance test for the anti-Trump majority and its political leaders, which is why Trump treats it not as a majority-building exercise, but as a campaign of psychological warfare against people who will never vote for him.
The immediate crisis is Trump’s impunity.
Congressional Democrats correctly anticipated that Trump would assert dictatorial power in the wake of his impeachment acquittal, but did not prepare to confront his fresh abuses, leaving him free to purge the government of his enemies and commandeer the prosecutorial powers of the Justice Department, all over the course of a single week.
In the moment, he has deployed these powers to intimidate witnesses and override the neutral administration of justice against at least two of his cronies, Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, who both perjured themselves to protect Trump. This would have been a ruinous scandal in all past presidencies, but the full scope of the abuse is more horrible still. Attorney General William Barr has taken personal control of all legal matters of interest to Trump. He has also established a back channel for Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani—who remains under investigation by federal prosecutors—to funnel DOJ disinformation about Trump’s political enemies. Finally, Barr has asserted sign-off authority on all investigations of presidential candidates.
These powers combined don’t simply protect Trump’s cronies, and leave his enemies exposed to sham investigations. They are the tools Trump and Barr need specifically to quash enforcement of campaign law against Trump while fielding pretexts to investigate Trump’s eventual opponent.
As much as House Democrats would rather make a stink about Trump’s budget than aggressively deploy their oversight powers, and as much as Democratic presidential candidates see Trump’s abuses of power in Washington as Congress’s problem, both halves of the Democratic power structure have lost sight of how critical confronting Trump’s corruption is to their immediate political survival. It should go without saying that these are impeachable offenses, and while House Democrats are clearly loath to reconvene the impeachment inquiry so soon after Trump’s acquittal, they should consider what lies in store if they disarm: Pardons for Stone, Flynn, and other conspirators; further purges of government witnesses; the announcement of a baseless criminal investigation of the eventual Democratic nominee; criminal sabotage of Democratic campaigns by foreign autocrats with an interest in Trump’s re-election.
A president doesn’t have to be a full-fledged strongman—shutting down polling places or hacking voting machines—to foul an election, and the ultimate aim of all Trump’s coming abuses may simply be to demoralize his opponents through legal and illegal means of information warfare.
Trump could be an impeccable steward of federal law enforcement, and his approach to re-election would still be scandalous. He and his loyalists have established a multibillion dollar propaganda machine, which serves the dual purpose of siloing his supporters in a realm of partisan disinformation, and weaponizing bad faith to depress Democratic enthusiasm. In a political system where voting is at best discretionary and in many cases actively discouraged, candidates have obvious incentives not just to mobilize their supporters but to demobilize the opposition. But Trump makes no pretense of attempting to convert opponents into supporters; his campaign operates on a single channel designed to work Republican voters into a paranoid lather while convincing Democratic voters that the whole system and all of its leaders are illegitimate.
Trump will both assert that Democrats have rigged the nomination process against Bernie Sanders while his allies organize Republican voters in states with open primaries to boost Sanders’s candidacy, stoking a crisis of legitimacy however the primary shakes out—a naked effort not just to influence the outcome of the primary, but to demobilize the Sanders vote if he loses the nomination or the non-Sanders vote if he wins.
The Trump disinformation machine whirred to life this week to feign outrage at Michael Bloomberg for championing racist stop-and-frisk policing policies that Trump himself supports. Bloomberg’s candidacy is troubling for a variety of reasons, but Trump’s general goal—whether it’s pretending to be a racial justice champion or pretending to oppose nepotism or pretending to oppose corruption—is to assert dominance over liberals by reveling in shameless double standards, while convincing as many anti-Trump voters as possible that the opposition is just as unsavory as he is. Like 2016, but with the full powers of the presidency at his fingertips.
This is a deeply contemptuous, antidemocratic way to campaign, but it attracts little if any condemnation because both opposition leaders and the mainstream media have come to take his abdication of responsibility to the whole country—his appeals only to those who will support him no matter what—for granted. Vigorous pushback from Democratic leaders in Congress and candidates on the campaign trail would be bracing for rank and file voters on its own. But the best inoculant would be a response that also prepares them for the assault on their minds Trump has just begun to unleash.
Quinnipiac’s latest poll finds Trump’s approval underwater, 44-53, but like basically all such polls since Trump became president this masks a key asymmetry: Trump’s supporters tend to support him pretty strongly, as you’d expect, but nearly everyone who opposes him strongly disapproves. Trump is widely loathed, and the durability of that intense opposition is the perhaps the most powerful force in all of politics.
Trump knows this, and is desperate to neutralize it as a liability. It’s why he’s campaigning not to convert supporters but to make those who despise him give up. There’s some solace to take in that—it’s a tacit acknowledgement that his fate is in the hands of those who want him out of office, not those who wish him a second term. Democrats can harness this by campaigning wisely, advancing popular ideas, registering new voters, motivating existing ones, but standing up to Trump is a galvanizing tactic Democrats would be foolish to ignore, if only to set an example: Don’t let the bastard grind you down.