Here it comes, the triumph of good over evil. Trump will fall. There is unrestrained glee throughout the land (well, until they get a little more of Mike Pence, perhaps).
So that’s it, right?
Not so fast, you liberal tree-huggers.
Yes, it’s true that Trump has been revealed as shallow, and narcissistic, and maybe even evil (in a “child holding a gun” kind of way). Yes, the appointment of a special counsel – and one with ironclad integrity and intellect credentials – means that the facts will likely come out, and it seems clear that they will not be pretty. Yes, members of both houses of Congress are going to start to fear for their political futures. You can already see the softening of their support for the President.
Is the end of this inevitable? Not really. Oh, no question the good guys are winning right now. If you can accept a basketball analogy, it’s 72-44 at half-time.
But as Yogi Berra famously said, “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over”.
We know what the Washington bureaucracy has done to respond to the excesses and missteps of this presidency. No surprise that they responded carefully, by keeping their eye on the constitutional ball. The U.S. system is one of checks and balances. So far, those checks and balances appear to be working, or at least going in that direction.
The other side of the game, though, is: What will Trump do?
Of course, he could become a hero by a smashing success in his upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, and NATO. He could convince Bibi Netanyahu to “let my people go”, i.e. the Palestinians. There is a deal there to be had, and certainly Trump supporters would be happy to trade New York City for Middle East peace. (Good riddance, perhaps.)
Or, maybe the Donald finds he has a lot in common with the Saudi princes: just another rich kid who treats women as chattels.
And as for Pope Francis? Imagine what Trump could convince the Pope to do.
Best of all, there is the possibility that Trump will deliver a boatload of money or troops to NATO to beef up defences against Russian aggression in eastern Europe.
(Spoiler alert: I thought the interesting thing here was going to be the Trump vs. Putin matchup, but that appears to be all but over. Putin is already winning the tactical battle with the US. Just ask yourself whether anyone in the Ukraine – or Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania – still thinks that the US is going to have their back against Russian expansion.)
But, in the alternative (as lawyers say), what is Trump’s strategy if he doesn’t return from Europe to Washington as a conquering hero? Further, just to make it interesting, let’s just assume that Trump is smart. (It’s a hypothetical.)
If you’re being dragged down into the narrative of the “Washington establishment”, what do you do? The obvious answer is, you get ahead of that narrative by creating your own.
Remember the Trump voter base, who just very recently elected him to be the one person in Washington who would understand their needs, and get shit done. They haven’t changed their view that someone needs to drain the swamp, and they haven’t changed their view that Donald Trump is the only person they really think can achieve that.
If you’re Trump, you stop trying to play the Washington game, which is a game in which the other players are professionals, and you are a complete amateur. If your game is badminton, get off the football field. It may not be the best place for you.
On the other hand, there is a game in which you have recently demonstrated some expertise. It doesn’t have a name, but you can call it “demagoguery” for short. Catchy, eh?
The obvious Trump strategy is, get out of Washington, and organize the biggest rallies you can in places around the country where you still have strong support. Go back to talk to the people who elected you, and are still dying to lock someone up. Not just one rally. A couple of times a week. Tens of thousands of people. Make the presidency an election campaign.
And your pitch? “I told you draining the swamp was not going to be easy. Those guys in Washington, they’re very good at protecting their own interests. They have now again shown that they’ll do anything – lie, cheat, even hang all you guys out to dry – to prevent real change from happening.”
He needs to get his base riled up. He needs to get them upset once more over Washington insiders.
To what end, you say?
The immediate thought is that he wants them energized for the mid-term elections, protecting the Republican majorities in the House and Senate.
Ah, but that would be to underestimate President Trump. He doesn’t give a rat’s ass about Congress, or Republicans generally. He’s made that abundantly clear. They are, in fact, part of the swamp, and they need a bit of draining too.
He does need to get Republicans onside, however, if he wants to actually be President. To do that, he has to instill in the members of Congress not gratitude for his political support, but fear of the Trump voters, and therefore fear of Trump. Much like true demagogues everywhere. Govern by fear.
The Donald’s pitch to his rallies around the country, therefore, should be one of holding all members of Congress to account. It should be one of seeking the support of the masses for his fight against the Establishment.
This has to become Us against Them. The theme has to be “We’re taking back our country”, the same theme that won the election. He has to appeal to his supporters to back him actively, to personally stand up to the evil politicians in their midst.
It has to have drama, too. Trump thrives on drama, so this should be right in his wheelhouse.
Just take one example. In Raleigh, North Carolina, Trump gets 15,000 supporters into a football stadium to hear him fulminate about Washington, and also about what’s going on right up the street in the North Carolina state legislature. Open the concessions. A little beer won’t hurt the mood. He rails on about the new governor, who is doing all the wrong things. As if spontaneously, he suggests to the crowd that they follow him to march on State House and demand that the politicians listen. “Right here, right now, let’s do this.” The video of 15,000 people, led by the President, marching on the North Carolina legislature, will be the biggest news in years.
Here’s another example. Trump threatens to resign. He tells the crowd “I am trying to fight the corrupt Washington insiders, but they are closing ranks, making up fake stories to discredit me. I need your support to do this. I need you to stand up and be counted. Otherwise, I might as well resign and go back to being a successful businessman.” (And you can hear the cries – “No, no, don’t go” – prompted by shills in the crowd.)
And what does he ask them to do? Well, maybe he asks them to come to Washington, generate a huge rally that will show the politicians just who is standing up for change. He goes for the crowd on the Mall that he says he got at the inauguration.
In short, his tactic, and perhaps the only one that can salvage a win out of his presidency, is to rile up his supporters.
The problem is that if you actually get enough people truly upset, this is not a situation anyone can control.
On the one hand, the USA has some fundamental divides, whether socio-economic, religious, racial, or geographical. A demagogue is starting with fertile ground. The Trump supporters will be susceptible to lighting the fire.
On the other hand, the Americans who lost the last election despite winning the popular vote are not going to roll over and say “tickle my tummy”. Not this time. They were too nice last time, and they lost. They’re itching for a do-over, and this time, they’ll fight back.
Imagine Trump’s big rally in Washington, a million strong Trump supporters packing the Mall. Now, imagine thousands of busloads of Trump opponents, from New York, Philadelphia, Boston, even California – also a million strong – showing up to oppose the destruction of their democracy.
In a previous article, I downplayed the possibility of civil unrest in the US as a result of the Trump presidency. Maybe I was too hasty. Maybe, in fact, Trump’s only viable strategy for winning his battle with the Washington establishment that has never liked him anyway is to risk a violent confrontation between Americans.
Trump is a narcissist because no-one likes him, so he has to like himself. He has always been shunned by the very people he so desperately wants to impress, people in power who are in his subconscious mind just surrogates for his own father (who also apparently never liked him).
He can’t keep trying to play their game. He’ll lose, and they still won’t like him. He can’t walk away, because then he is admitting his own failings. He has to fight, but it turns out the power of the office doesn’t give him enough strength to win that fight. The only real weapon he has, in fact, is his support base.
There is a lot left to happen, much of it still pretty unpredictable.
Sadly, though, the possibility of violent conflict, pitting American against American, is more real than ever.
– Jay Shepherd, May 18, 2017