Is it not obvious what Donald Trump wants? He knows now that he stands a good chance of losing. He tells Chris Wallace “fake polls,” but he knows. And you can practically feel the conviction rising inside him: If I’m going down, I’m taking the country down with me.
He wants police confrontations with protesters. And he doesn’t want them in Portland. I mean, it’s fine. But Portland is the equivalent of that town in Connecticut where they do summer stock in some old musical. Trump wants confrontations in New York. He wants to play Broadway!
I’m sure that some of you, even some of you who don’t particularly like him, think I’m being unfair. That he couldn’t be that malevolent. That maybe Tuesday’s presser and his endorsement of masks, however equivocal, indicates that he can be serious, is capable of change. If this is you, I have one question for you: When, since he rolled down that escalator five years ago, has Trump pleasantly surprised you or impressed you as having risen to an occasion?
The answer is never. There have been rare occasions when some TV pundits decided he looked “presidential,” by which they really meant that they were expressing their amazement at the fact that he managed to read a script for a change without heaping schoolyard abuse on people he hates. But those few episodes just prove how embarrassingly low the bar for “presidential” has become.
No—he’s been this way since 2015, he’s been this way his entire adult life, he’s been this way since he was 3. He needs for everything to be about him, and he needs to divide the rest of the world into winners who love Trump and losers who hate him. And he wants to inflict pain on the losers.
Think of the people he admires. Putin. Xi. Kim. Erdogan. Al-Sisi. What do you think he likes about them? Their ties? Their tastes in opera? No—he likes that they are thugs. They’re strong. They mean business. They know how to handle the hippies. Or the Uighurs, as the case may be.
Actually, it’s worth taking a brief detour here down the Uighur road, because it brings us inside Trump’s brain in a way that’s useful to keep in mind between now and November. China has set up a network of reeducation camps for the Muslim Uighur population. The regime in essence counts them as traitorous, or at least presumed disloyal, because of their ethnicity and religion. Nearly a million people are thought to be detained there—without charges or trial.
The Commerce Department did take some measures against China over this in October 2019. But remember what John Bolton wrote in his book. In late 2018, Trump asked aides why sanctions were being considered, and in a later meeting with Xi, Bolton recounted, Trump, as usual undermining his own administration’s official policy, “said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.”
Exactly the right thing to do. Contemplate a president of the United States uttering that sentence to a dictator of “Communist China,” which right-wingers would surely be emphasizing if a Democratic president had said such a thing, about the internment of citizens on the basis of their religious faith.
Of course Trump thought that was a grand idea. He’d love to be able to do it himself. But he can’t, at least now, in this first term. Who knows about a possible second term, when he’d think he’d been given a mandate to do absolutely anything he wanted. But for now he can’t pull a Xi and put protesters in camps.
So he’ll do the next best thing from his point of view. He’ll create a situation where the violence escalates. Where—or so he thinks—it’s the Chinese majority versus the despised Uighur minority, and he’s the leader of the Chinese, and he positions Joe Biden as the leader of the Uighurs. And that’s how he thinks he might be able to win.
I think he’s wrong, and I think he’s wrong because in a nutshell the United States of America is not the People’s Republic of China, and public opinion still matters here, and public opinion is growing more and more against him every week.
Sure, some awful, lawless event could turn public opinion back in his direction. But it’s more likely that it will fail. That’s good, because it means Biden would win. But it’s bad, because it’s terrifying to think about what Trump would do in the closing weeks of an election he secretly figured he was going to lose.
He will encourage violence. Don’t roll your eyes. He already did it, several times in 2016, when he encouraged his crowds to throttle the occasional protester. This time, he’ll ramp that up to scale. He’s not capable of better behavior.
He already hates half the country he took an oath to defend and serve. Always has. Once he decides that that half has become an insurmountable majority that he can’t win back, look out. He’ll burn the whole house down.