This wasn’t the election year summer that President Donald Trump planned.
Set to run on a booming economy and a conservative court takeover, he has seen a pandemic, economic devastation, and race riots intervene. Now hard-pressed for a positive agenda item, Trump is plotting to go even more scorched earth than usual, ginning up national turmoil and painting his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, as sympathetic to left-wing violence.
Republicans concede that the strategy is born from a place of desperation. As cascading crises have dented the president’s re-election prospects, Trump and his political machine have been forced to pause and revise their election strategy. And with no end to the civil unrest in sight, an economy that shows few signs of a quick rebound, and the looming prospect of a new coronavirus wave, they have few options left to use other than the nuclear.
“I don’t know if there is a heck of a lot [Trump] can do to inform people about himself or substantially change his numbers, particularly on favorability,” said Danny Diaz, who ran Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign, making him acutely aware of the arrows coming Biden’s way. “I think the play is a clear one and an uncomplicated one. It’s one that’s been run before. And it’s to absolutely take apart the Biden campaign between now and Election Day, period.”
The throw-it-all-against-the-wall approach, Republicans say, will be unrelenting, personal, and not always coherent. Trump and his team and allies plan to cast the former VP as a cynical D.C. insider who cut international deals to benefit his own family, but also as a clueless dupe, incapable of completing sentences and haplessly manipulated by the radicals in the ranks of his campaign. On Tuesday alone, President Trump and his political team portrayed Biden as weak on crime and in league with violent demonstrators, but also also as a callous, tough-on-crime drug warrior determined to incarcerate the very people for whom demonstrators are rallying.
Trump’s team was always going to run an unrelenting negative campaign against Biden. But they had planned to do it differently. A sustained campaign against the likely Democratic nominee was supposed to take place over months, leading up to the political conventions—much in the way Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign used that time period to bloody and bludgeon Mitt Romney. But real-life events have condensed the campaign season and limited Trump’s ability to maneuver.
“A lot of this is totally out of his hands,” said Dave Carney, a longtime GOP operative and an adviser to several Texas Republicans. “On the economy, for instance, he can be a cheerleader for it. But it’s really up to the states.”
While the coronavirus pandemic has altered the campaign trajectory, the riots in particular have clearly spooked the president, who covets his image as a law-and-order stalwart. Behind the scenes, Trump has complained of the mass civil unrest rocking the nation as at least partially, if not chiefly, an image problem.
“You know when other countries watch this—they’re watching this, the next day, wow, they’re really a pushover,” Trump told a group of governors during a conference call this week. “And we can’t be a pushover.”
In portraying himself as the embodiment of law and order and his opponents as “pushovers,” few approaches have been more effective, in Trumpworld’s view, than efforts to tie Biden and his campaign to the rioters themselves. The campaign has seized on reports that at least a dozen Biden campaign staffers donated to a nonprofit in Minnesota that has put up bail money for protesters arrested there. And Trump himself has said Biden is trying “to get the Anarchists out of jail.”
“I think you can expect the Trump campaign to continually wrap that decision around their neck,” said a Republican close to the White House, “and combine that with the silence about the looting and violence from some Democrats, you can expect the Trump campaign and Republicans at large to really paint the Democrat Party as the political party supporting riots and looting.”
But the efforts to paint the former VP as sympathetic to the looters will likely be edgier, too. In the past few days, Team Trump, and the president personally, have done everything short of saying the former VP is a card-carrying member of the antifa, the loosely organized group of leftist radicals that has was accused by Republicans of causing mass mayhem and property damage during protests (there's no definitive evidence that this is true). And they’re doing so as Trump’s administration seeks to officially brand antifa a terrorist group.
An email sent out on Tuesday by a joint fundraising arm of the campaign and the Republican National Committee blared the all-caps subject line: “ANTIFA.”
“Dangerous MOBS of far-left groups are running through our streets and causing absolute mayhem. They are DESTROYING our cities and rioting - it’s absolute madness,” the email declared. “Please add your name IMMEDIATELY to stand with your President and his decision to declare ANTIFA a Terrorist Organization.”
Petitions such as those have no practical purpose. The number of people who sign them are irrelevant, and the signatures aren’t delivered to anyone in the hope of swaying opinions on the matter. And in a statement to The Daily Beast, Biden's press secretary TJ Ducklo dismissed the attacks as a “pathetic attempt to spin yet another epic presidential failure—this time explaining away Donald Trump ordering gas and pepper balls fired at American citizens so he could denigrate St. John’s church as a political prop. The reason why isn’t complicated. More than 105,000 Americans are dead and over 40 million are out of work because he failed to act, and he’s desperate to change the subject.”
But Trump’s team believes that the attacks can be an effective way of keeping his most dedicated fans engaged. And the hope among Republicans is that they can also dent Biden’s margins among voter groups that he’s already winning, allowing Trump to stay competitive in states he needs.
“Trump just needs to lose less badly among suburban women,” said one top GOP pollster. “If he pairs up on economic security and personal security and safety, that works. It’s kind of back to what happened in ’16. He gets to run against the machine and the politicians fucking the country up. He gets to be a strong man to stop the looting. It’s like his inaugural address: American Carnage.”
Reminded that Trump is now overseeing the carnage, the pollster chuckled. “I know,” he replied. “But now he can say he’s going to end it.”
It’s not actually clear that the Trump administration can, legally or logistically, even designate antifa as a terrorist group. But it’s nevertheless catnip for the president’s political base, and his campaign is determined to extract whatever political value it can from mass unrest that threatens to tarnish his carefully crafted image as a law-and-order president.
For down-ticket Republicans, the riots present a chance to ding any opponent who voices support for those involved in the unrest—or even declines to denounce them—as at best irresponsible and at worst an active supporter of literal terrorists.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has repeatedly hit up its press list this week with emails attempting to tie vulnerable Democratic incumbents to the riots. And some Trump allies went even further, suggesting that those Biden aides who contributed to bail funds should be criminally investigated for supporting antifa due to their efforts to assist with protester bail payments.
“Every single person funding and supporting ANTIFA needs to be investigated. Including @JoeBiden & his campaign for posting bail for these terrorists,” declared Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican House candidate in Georgia, in a tweet on Monday morning. She’s no fringe candidate. Greene has raised more money than four of her five primary opponents, and drawn endorsements from the political arm of the House Freedom Caucus, caucus chairman Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), former chairman Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), and Charlie Kirk, the leader of pro-Trump student group Turning Point USA.
With backing from such mainstream Republicans, Greene has assumed the mantle of antifa nemesis. “We also must... shut down social media accounts, websites, and organizations supporting the terrorist group,” she said in a separate tweet. “We will not tolerate insurrection.”
This story has been updated to clarify the lack of evidence and reporting with respect to who has caused looting at the nationwide protests.