Donald Trump
Credit: The White House/Flickr

“Make America Great Again, Again.” “You Won’t Be Safe In Joe Biden’s America.”

If the themes of the Republican National Convention seemed preposterous and confused, it’s because to any rational observer they are. Despite nearly four years in office, Trump has so obviously failed on the job that his own vice president is asking for a do-over. The president and his campaign are trying to project the sense of unease and violence taking place under his reign onto a hypothetical Biden administration—including by using footage of protests not in the U.S., but in Barcelona.

Is this the sign of a failing campaign deeply behind in the polls, responsible for an unprecedentedly disastrous response to a pandemic and a tone-deaf answer to protests against police violence? Yes, certainly. But there’s also a deeper subtext: Trump is implicitly promising a no-holds-barred authoritarianism if he wins a second term.

There is a throughline between the joyfully flagrant lawbreaking in putting campaign signs right in front of the White House, the scuttling of any actual RNC platform in favor of whatever Trump wants, the “jokes” about ruling for another 12 years, the lack of any coherent policy vision for a second term, and the implication that the protests will somehow stop if Trump wins re-election. It’s the same message Fox News talking heads are sending by celebrating a teenaged Trump supporter who allegedly crossed state lines with the intention of shooting protesters and murdered two people. It’s the same implication QAnon makes about why the long-promised “storm” hasn’t happened yet.

The message is that Trump will break free of the meager constraints that have shackled him in his first term, to unleash a full authoritarian nightmare in his second—and beyond. The RNC doesn’t need a platform because it will be whatever Trump wants. There won’t be any more racial justice protests because Trump will just put them down as brutally as Putin does, with the help of the “very fine people” in the far-right militias to whom he gives tacit or not-so-tacit consent. There won’t be any more Constitutional constraints on his becoming president for life, because he doesn’t intend to follow that law any closer than he follows the Hatch Act. There won’t be any check on the ability of his personal vizier Attorney General to lock up political opposition on any supposed pretext. He will lead the final charge and conquest by Red America over Blue Non-America.

It’s a standard authoritarian playbook, and Trump is broadcasting it as openly as he dares in the last election year that his opposition has a chance to do something to stop him. The message only seems confused because he and his Republican allies don’t quite dare to say it full aloud just yet. But his base can hear it loud and clear.

It’s no exaggeration to say that this is the most important election in modern American history. Democracy itself is at stake.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.