The President as Political Hit Man

Donald Trump at the Kentucky Air National Guard Base in Louisville, Ky., Aug. 21, 2019. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Dale Greer)

Donald Trump filed his paperwork to run for reelection only hours after his inauguration in January 2017, setting a presidential record, the first of his many dubious achievements. For a man who relished the adulation and bombast of campaigning, it should have surprised no one that he charged out of the starting gate so quickly for 2020 as well. After all, he’d already spent much of the December before his inauguration on a ”thank you” tour of the swing states that had unexpectedly supported him on Election Day — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin — and visited Florida for a rally only a couple of weeks after he took the oath of office. In much the same way that Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky once embraced “permanent revolution,” Donald Trump embarked on a “permanent campaign.”

But The Donald was fixated on 2020 even before he pulled off the upset of the century on November 8, 2016. After all, no one seems to have been more surprised by his victory that day than Trump himself.

According to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and his personal attorney Michael Cohen, even on election night 2016, the billionaire tycoon didn’t think he’d win his first presidential bid. His wife, Melania, assured by her husband that he’d lose, reportedly wept as the news came in that she would indeed be heading for the White House. Before his surprise victory, Trump described the election many times as “rigged” and seemed poised to declare the vote illegitimate as soon as the final returns rolled in. The attacks he’d launched on Hillary Clinton during the campaign — on her health, her integrity, her email account — were not only designed to savage an opponent but also to undermine in advance the person that everyone expected to be the next president.

In other words, Trump was already gearing up to go after her in 2020. And this wasn’t even a commitment to run again for president. Although he reveled in all the media attention during the 2016 campaign, he was far more focused on the economic benefits to his cohort, his businesses, his family, and above all himself. He understood that attacking Clinton had real potential to become a post-election profession.

Before Election Day, for instance, Trump was already exploring the possibility of establishing his own TV network to cater to the anti-Clinton base he’d mobilized. The relentless stigmatizing of the Democratic standard bearer — the threats of legal action, the “lock her up” chants, the hints at dark conspiracies — could easily have morphed into a new “birther” movement led by Trump himself. With Clinton in the White House, he could have continued in quasi-campaign mode as a kind of shadow president, without all the onerous tasks of an actual commander-in-chief.

Thanks to 77,744 voters in three key states on November 8, 2016, the Electoral College not only catapulted a bemused Trump into the White House but eliminated his chief electoral rival. Hillary Clinton’s political career was effectively over and Donald Trump suddenly found himself alone in the boxing ring, his very identity as a boxer at risk.

As president, however, he soon discovered that a ruthless and amoral executive could wield almost unlimited power in the Oval Office. Ever since, he’s used that power to harvest a bumper crop of carrots: windfall profits at his hotels, international contracts for his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s family business, not to speak of fat consulting gigs and other goodies for his cronies. Trump is a carrot-lover from way back. But ever vengeful, he loves sticks even more. He’s used those sticks to punish his enemies, real or imagined, in the media, in business, and most saliently in politics. His tenuous sense of self requires such enemies.

Even as president, Trump thrives as an underdog, beset on all sides. Over the last three years, he turned the world of politics into a target-rich environment. He’s attacked one international leader after another — though not the autocrats — for failing to show sufficient fealty. At home, he’s blasted the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives with a special focus on Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He’s lashed out against “deep state” opponents within the government, particularly those with the temerity to speak honestly during the impeachment hearings. He typically took time at a rally in Mississippi to besmirch the reputation of Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Supreme Court aspirant Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. He’s even regularly gone after members of his inner circle, from former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to former Pentagon chief Jim Mattis, blaming them for his own policy failures.

Those relentless attacks constitute the ambient noise of the Trump era. But a clear signal has emerged from this background chatter. Since committing to run for a second term, he’s mounted one campaign of political assassination after another against any would-be successor to Hillary Clinton. Just as he ran a unique campaign in 2016 and has governed in an unprecedented manner, Donald Trump is launching what will be a one-of-a-kind reelection effort. This is no normal primary season to be followed by run-of-the-mill party conventions and a general election like every other.

Trump isn’t just determined to destroy politics as usual with his incendiary rhetoric, his Twitter end runs around the media, or his authoritarian governing style. He wants to destroy politics itself, full stop.

Last Man Standing

Over the course of 40 seasons, the American reality show Survivor has been filmed at many different locations and in a variety of formats. Still, the basic rules have remained the same. Contestants are divided into different “tribes” that must survive in adverse conditions and face extraordinary challenges. A series of votes in Tribal Councils then determine who can stay on the island. Sometimes, tribes or individuals win temporary immunity from expulsion. As the numbers dwindle, the tribes merge and individuals begin to compete more directly against one another. A Final Tribal Council determines the winner among the two or three remaining contestants.

What makes Survivor different from typical game shows — and arguably explains its enduring success — is that contestants don’t win simply by besting their adversaries in head-to-head battles as in Jeopardy or American Idol. Instead, they have to avoid getting voted off the island by fellow contestants. You win, in other words, through persuasion, negotiation, and manipulation.

The first season’s victor, Richard Hatch, “was not the most physically able of the contestants,” psychologist Vivian Zayas once explained. “In fact, out of the twelve individual Challenges, he only won one. Richard was also not the most liked. He was perceived as arrogant and overly confident, and even picked by some to be one of the first to get voted off the island.” Ultimately, what made Hatch successful was his ability to form alliances.

To put it in Trumpian terms, you win Survivor by being best at the art of the deal. At times, this requires ruthlessness, wheedling, and outright lies. It makes perfect sense that Trump would revive his stagnant career by translating Survivor into the business world in his show, The Apprentice. Less predictable perhaps was his application of this strategy to electoral politics.

The 2020 election resembles nothing less than a political version of the Survivor franchise. Donald Trump fully intends to be the last man standing. To do so, however, he must contrive to get everyone else voted off the island. The first to go was the tribe of Republican rivals he defeated in the 2016 primary and who no longer pose a political threat. Next to exit, in the general election, was the leader of the rival tribe of Democrats, Hillary Clinton.

In 2020, having won the equivalent of Survivor’s immunity prize, Trump has earned a pass to the final round in November. He faces no significant challenge within the Republican Party. In fact, nine states — Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Minnesota, Nevada, South Carolina and Wisconsin — have scrapped their primaries altogether and pledged their delegates to him. In the remaining primaries, he’s racking up the kinds of results that only totalitarian leaders typically enjoy like the 97% of caucus delegates he captured in Iowa, the 97% of primary voters in Arkansas, and his 86% margin of victory in New Hampshire.

As befits a political survivor, Trump has excelled at forging alliances. An irreligious and profane man, he still managed to win over the evangelical community. Despite his previously liberal record on social issues, he successfully courted the anti-abortion vote. A draft dodger, he’s effectively pandered to veterans and active-duty soldiers. And though he’s a billionaire given to grossly conspicuous consumption, he even managed to woo the disenfranchised in the Rust Belt and elsewhere. After capturing the Republican Party in this way, he then purged it of just about anyone without the requisite level of sycophancy to the commander-in-chief. In 2016, he also fashioned informal alliances with disgruntled Democrats and independent voters. Since then, he’s tried to make further inroads in the Democratic Party by persuading a few politicians like New Jersey Congressman Jeff Van Drew to switch parties. His pardon of corrupt Democratic pol Rod Blagojevich might even win him some additional crossover votes in Illinois.

Trump hopes, of course, that the 2016 alliances he forged among Democratic and independent voters in key swing states will produce the same results in 2020. Indeed, those voters may well pull the lever for him again, even if they supported Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections. It’s not just his politically incorrect personality that has won them over. During his presidency, he’s used the power of the state to direct significant resources toward such constituencies.

To compensate, for instance, for losses incurred in his trade war with China, he’s provided $28 billion in farm subsidies over the last two years. Even with the first part of a Sino-American trade deal in place, the president has promised critical rural voters yet more handouts in this election year. Although his tax cuts have certainly put plenty of extra money in the pockets of his wealthy supporters and affluent suburbanites, there’s evidence that those cuts have also advantaged red states over blue ones, just as job growth has favored such states, in part because of the help his administration has given to specific economic sectors like the oil, coal, and chemical industries.

All of this, however, could mean little if Donald Trump faces a popular Democrat in November. So the president has gone into overdrive to ensure that those he considers his strongest potential rivals are voted off the island before the ultimate contest begins.

Going After Biden

Joe Biden formally threw his hat into the presidential ring on April 25, 2019. But Donald Trump’s anxiety about running against him had begun much earlier. In July 2018, according to campaign advisers, the president was already fretting Biden might win back some white, working-class voters in swing states like Pennsylvania. However, the president promptly began to insist that Biden would be a “dream candidate,” resorting to his common and often effective strategy of saying the opposite of what he really thought.

That summer, Trump was well aware that, in election 2020 polls, he was seven points behind his possible future Democratic opponent. So he began to go after “sleepy Joe” (as he nicknamed him) on Twitter. He insulted Biden’s age, intelligence, and political record, but a true hatchet job required a sharper hatchet.

Trump had long sought a lawyer who could do some of his hatchet work for him, a figure akin to Roy Cohn, the anti-Communist huckster who assisted Senator Joe McCarthy and later served as The Donald’s mentor. Several people aspired to play that very role, including Michael Cohen, who became the president’s personal lawyer. But like former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in the end, he proved insufficiently loyal in the president’s eyes.

Rudy Giuliani has emerged as the latest in this line of fixers. He endorsed Trump in 2016 and then entered his administration as an adviser on cybersecurity. In April 2018, after the FBI raided Michael Cohen’s office, Giuliani joined Trump’s legal team. He immediately went to work exploiting his past connections in Ukraine as part of an effort to shift blame to that country for Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections. At some point in the fall of 2018, hooking up with two shady operators, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, he began to investigate Biden, his son Hunter, and the latter’s links to the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. When Volodymyr Zelensky became that country’s president in April 2019, Trump felt emboldened, thanks to Giuliani, to press the new leader to relaunch an investigation into the Biden family even though the previous effort had produced nothing.

It was an extraordinarily risky move, coming just after Special Counsel Robert Mueller, in his long-awaited report, had described Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump administration’s attempts to cover up its Kremlin connections. But that’s how much Trump worried about the man he then expected to be his foremost political rival in 2020. For reelection, Giuliani and Trump knew that nothing illicit actually had to be nailed down when it came to Hunter Biden’s Ukrainian activities. They simply had to damage his father’s reputation through insinuation.

Trump was furious at the impeachment inquiry that followed his “perfect” phone call with Zelensky on July 25, 2019. In the end, however, even though the House investigation exonerated Biden and implicated Trump, it was the Democrat’s reputation that suffered the greater hit.

As Peter Beinart wrote in The Atlantic:

By keeping Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine in the news, they have turned them into a rough analogue to Hillary Clinton’s missing emails in 2016 — a pseudo-scandal that undermines a leading Democratic candidate’s reputation for honesty. The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee last fall launched a $10 million advertising blitz aimed at convincing Americans that Joe Biden’s behavior toward Ukraine was corrupt.

Biden’s national poll numbers didn’t actually suffer much during the impeachment investigation, but his leads in the early state primaries did. Beginning with an ad campaign in Iowa, the president seemed determined to kneecap Biden in those very primaries. True, the Democratic candidate did himself no favors with lackluster debate performances and his usual verbal gaffes. Trump’s strategy, however, helped ensure that the residents of Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada nearly voted the competing tribe’s leading candidate off the island before the big Tribal Council on Super Tuesday. Only a resounding victory in South Carolina kept Biden in the race, propelling him to a surprising comeback on Super Tuesday.

Targeting the Rest

Trump deployed his traditional strategy of attack to minimize the other Democratic candidates for 2020 as well. He ridiculed Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas,” made fun of Mike Bloomberg’s height, and intentionally garbled Pete Buttigieg’s last name. But the candidate Trump seemed most worried about replacing Biden as the party’s nominee was Bernie Sanders.

After all, Sanders has some of the very strengths that made Trump such an attractive candidate in 2016. The Vermont independent is a political outsider who can credibly distance himself from the failings of both major parties. He has an authentically populist agenda that targets the very corporate fat cats who are Trump’s closest friends, allies, and supporters. He can potentially appeal to voters who didn’t go to the polls in 2016, those who voted for Trump but haven’t been able to stomach his performance in the White House, and young people who otherwise might not bother to turn out at all.

This profile has, for instance, attracted the endorsement of popular libertarian podcaster Joe Rogan. Former Republican Congressman Joe Walsh, who voted for Trump in 2016 before challenging the president for the party’s nomination this year, has already pledged to vote for Sanders if he becomes the nominee. Even far-right pundit Ann Coulter, once an ardent Trump supporter, declared last year that she’d consider voting for Sanders if he took a harder stance on immigration. “I don’t care about the rest of the socialist stuff,” she told PBS. “Just: can we do something for ordinary Americans?”

Trump himself has expressed concerns about taking on Sanders. “Frankly, I would rather run against Bloomberg than Bernie Sanders,” Trump told reporters last month. “Because Sanders has real followers, whether you like them or not, whether you agree with them or not — I happen to think it’s terrible what he says — but he has followers.”

A significant number of those followers in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania switched parties to vote for Trump in 2016. If they were to go back to Sanders in 2020 — and if the Democrats who voted for Clinton generally maintained their party loyalty — the Vermont independent could win those three states and probably the election in November.

Of course, in his worrying about Sanders, Trump could well be using his simplistic version of reverse psychology. The president could be pretending to be scared of Sanders when he really wants to run against a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” next fall. Citing Republican Party sources, for instance, the New York Times concluded in January that “President Trump’s advisers see Senator Bernie Sanders as their ideal Democratic opponent in November and have been doing what they can to elevate his profile and bolster his chances of winning the Iowa caucuses.” These advisers are well aware that, according to a November poll by NPR/PBS and an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last March, only 20%-25% of Americans are enthusiastic about a “socialist” candidate. For these reasons, Trump urged South Carolina Republicans to cross the aisle to back Sanders in the Democratic primary in order to shut down Biden once and for all.

To play it safe, however, the president has also begun to focus a portion of his considerable ire on Sanders. He’s already mounted vigorous attacks on his approach to health-care reform, his opposition to the assassination of the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, his supposed hypocrisy as a “wealthy, fossil fuel-guzzling millionaire,” and above all that socialism of his. It’s just a taste of what’s to come. According to someone who saw the opposition research the Republicans compiled on Sanders in 2016, it “was so massive it had to be transported on a cart.”

And that’s before Trump blows all this material out of proportion through outright lies and misrepresentation.

And the Winner Is…

At the end of August, Donald Trump heads into the Republican Party’s nominating convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, with some advantages he didn’t have four years ago.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton had raised nearly twice as much money as he did. This time, the president has already collected more than $100 million. (Barack Obama had $82 million at this point in 2012.) A war chest like that supports a large ground operation eager to flip some blue states like Minnesota, New Hampshire, Nevada, and even New Mexico. Trump has the authority of incumbency, plus a reputation for invincibility that’s been enhanced by his surviving both the Mueller investigation and impeachment by the House. As long as a coronavirus pandemic doesn’t truly shut down the global economy, he will continue to claim, misleadingly, that low unemployment figures and modest growth are his personal achievements.

In a normal political contest, Trump would have to deal with a raft of negatives, including his relative unpopularity, his many policy failures, his embarrassments on the global stage, and of course, the cuts his administration has made in funds to prepare for a possible pandemic. Election 2020, however, is anything but a normal political contest. Trump has been busy gaming the system, focusing virtually all his efforts on Electoral College swing states, while Republicans do their damnedest to purge voter rolls, suppress turnout, and ignore warnings from the U.S. intelligence community of coming Russian election interference.

Donald Trump has also been hard at work stripping politics of its content, a longer-term trend for which he’s anything but the sole culprit. Still, more than any other candidate in memory, he’s boiled elections down to pissing contests and personality clashes. In addition, his nonstop barrage of lies has thoroughly confused voters about what his administration has and hasn’t done. In the process, he’s delegitimized the mainstream media, placed himself above the law, and reduced American politics to a litmus test of loyalty.

It’s not yet possible to predict the winner of the 2020 election, but the loser is already clear: the American public. Trump has sabotaged in a significant way the normal give-and-take, compromise, and negotiation once at the heart of everyday politics. He believes only in power, the more naked the better. He long ago gave up on elite opinion. Now, he doesn’t want to take any chances on the vagaries of popular choice either.

Trump believes that he already owns the island, that he’s now the survivor-in-chief. To maintain that illusion, he’ll do anything in his power to ensure that he’s never voted off the island, certainly not by something beyond his control like actual democracy.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest novel is Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original and book two of his Splinterlands series.