President Trump’s critics see him as impulsive, willfully ignorant, devoted to immediate self-gratification, and even mentally deranged. He is all of that. But he is something more, too. He is canny and calculating, more skillful at playing the long game than generally recognized.
Even as he appears candid and unscripted, Trump has cleverly laid the groundwork in managing both public opinion and government for enhancing his power and shielding himself from the consequences of his ethical and legal corruption. And for an heir to moneyed privilege, he is remarkably perceptive about the anxieties and grievances that have driven millions of working-class Americans into his cult of personality. Many thought they were voting for a non-politician, but they got a president with the political instincts of a marksman—at least when they are his target.
In his first significant play, beginning even before his election, he took a hammer and chisel to chip away at whatever trust Americans retained for news organizations that inform citizens on the workings of society and government. “Fake news!” he cries whenever a press report exposes his lies, incompetence, bigotry, self-dealing, spasmodic policies, defiance of law, and the like. “The enemy of the American people!” he brands the news media, reviving the wording employed by Mao, Lenin, Hitler’s Joseph Goebbels, and Stalin. To anyone who knows history, the phrase is chilling, for millions of Russians under Stalin went into the Gulag or before firing squads after conviction of the charge “enemy of the people.”
Trump, who is ahistorical, seems untroubled by the parallel. He has another purpose, by his own account. His anti-press rhetoric may be partly inspired by momentary exasperation, but its serious aim is to groom the public’s skepticism, he told Leslie Stahl of CBS in 2016. “You know why I do it?” she quoted him as saying off-camera. “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”
In this, he has been shrewd enough to push on an open door. Polls showed faith in the news media declining sharply, from 55 percent in 1999 to 32 percent in 2017. Earlier this year, Gallup found, newspapers were trusted by only 24 percent of surveyed Americans, and television by 18 percent. Trump has helped this decline along, but so have some major news outlets by sliding deeply into the pitfall of politicization, where viewers and readers interested in straight, unbiased reporting can only despair.
This defect is one of the country’s most harmful, and Trump has exploited it. He has coupled his denunciations of the press with lies frequent and expansive enough to make facts and truth disappear behind a veil of uncertainty, rendering reality ethereal. The technique makes one wonder whether he has, after all, read Orwell.
If anyone wrote a how-to Manual on Dictatorship, hobbling the press would be a prominent step. In country after country, the free flow of information, so inconvenient to autocratic rule, is cured by censorship, imprisonment, or outright government ownership of the print and broadcast media.
Trump, born in the wrong country, has no such draconian options, so far. The constitutional system still restrains him, to a point. So he has words instead—his own negative press-bashing on the one hand, and on the other, his supporting megaphones of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and other rightwing propagandists. These are calculated to demolish the credibility of the indictments against him by investigative reporting and insider books. As already witnessed in the nonchalant reaction to The New York Times’s blockbuster expose of his tax evasion and debt-ridden finances, the strategy succeeds with a very large minority of the citizenry.
In other areas, too, Trump has been more methodical than he appears on the surface of his invective. Although he told Bob Woodward that he played down the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic to avoid creating panic, it seems clear that his playbook included an effort to keep the stock market rising and the economy booming for the sake of his reelection, and then to blame others for the deadly spread (China, the World Health Organization, various health officials and Democratic-run states). It was in line with his usual practice of scapegoating. He thereby set the stage for several hoped-for results: One, to avoid responsibility for whatever failures his administration committed. Two, to project the society’s severe political and cultural polarization onto the pandemic, so that Democrats would be vilified for shutting down the economy. Three, perhaps initially unforeseen, to scare those who took the pandemic seriously—more Democrats than Republicans—from going to the polls.
That led to another obvious example of Trump’s methodology: his strategy to undermine public confidence in the accuracy, honesty, and therefore legitimacy of elections, the jewel in our crown of democracy. Broadcasting fears of ballot fraud in advance, without a scintilla of evidence, he and his Republican operatives poison the nation’s mindset into distrusting and perhaps even disregarding the final counts. This is done as the Republicans themselves are corrupting the balloting by suppressing votes, silencing parts of the citizenry, and thus laying the building blocks of anti-democratic maneuvers to distort and manipulate the electoral process. The clear design is to create an atmosphere of doubt on both sides, to foster a mood that tolerates extraordinary and unprecedented measures, which might end with some states’ legislatures choosing electors or, finally, at the Supreme Court with Trump’s new conservative justice on the bench.
Or, it must be warned, goading his rightwing, heavily armed supporters to resort to insurrection in some form: “policing” polling places, threatening voters, even gathering in Washington with their guns if election results are disputed. Trump, their idol, has given them a wink and a nod and a blessing, explicitly in the first presidential debate, when he told the right-wing Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” which the organization immediately adopted as a slogan
In refusing to promise a peaceful transition of power, in slandering the election in advance and preparing the ground to dismiss it if he loses, he journeys close to sedition, unprecedented for a president of the United States.
The wheels of pluralistic democracy are greased by consensus, goodwill, common respect for facts, shared beliefs in institutional legitimacy, and the civil balance of competing interests. Donald Trump has found that his narrowest interest in growing and preserving his power are best served by eroding these principles. He is not doing so as erratically as his tweets suggest. Watch him. He is progressing step by deliberate step.