Don’t Believe Trump’s Latest Con: The Strongman

If you’ve spent time on social media, you’ve probably been scared into thinking that Donald Trump and the Republicans have the 2020 election in the bag. Cheri Jacobus, a Democratic political strategist and pundit, recently tweeted that “Trump’s Supreme Court will overturn the election results when Biden wins. America is dead.” Joe Lockhart, former White House press secretary under President Bill Clinton, asserted that we are witnessing a “precursor for a militia style takeover of our cities sanctioned by Donald Trump.”

Trump himself wants you to think he can control the election outcome. Last week, he refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. And on Monday, after the New York Times broke a story showing Trump is beset by enormous levels of debt and has essentially paid zero income taxes for several years, the president claimed on Twitter, without providing any evidence, that things are already going wrong with counting mail-in ballots.

The Atlantic reported last week that part of Trump’s potential plan to claim victory even if he loses at the polls is to throw the results into doubt and persuade Republican-held state legislatures to reassign their electoral votes for Trump. According to the article, three Republican leaders in Pennsylvania acknowledged that the Trump campaign had in fact discussed this with them.

Interestingly, this “scoop” was also corroborated by a Trump “legal adviser,” who assured Barton Gellman, who reported and wrote the piece, that the state legislatures would jump to do Trump’s bidding:

“The state legislatures will say, ‘All right, we’ve been given this constitutional power. We don’t think the results of our own state are accurate, so here’s our slate of electors that we think properly reflect the results of our state,’ ” the adviser said.

It’s clear the Trump campaign wants people to think that the Republican-led legislatures will ignore the results of the election and declare Trump the winner.

While chilling, there are major problems with this scenario. While the Constitution allows states to determine how to allocate their electoral votes, every state has already passed laws on how their elections will be monitored and certified. Every state has given the power to determine how the electoral votes are cast to the voters. While it’s true that state legislators have the power to change their rules, Trevor Potter, former commissioner and chairman of the United States Federal Election Commission, explains that they cannot change the rules pertaining to a particular election after the election, which makes sense. A state must count its ballots and certify its results according to the rules in place at the time of the election. It cannot change those rules after the election because it doesn’t like the outcome. Even if state legislators could change the rules for certifying an election after the election (or after voting has begun), they’d have to pass legislation to do so. In states like Pennsylvania with a democratic governor, the governor would simply veto the legislation. The Pennsylvania legislators do not have the votes to override a veto.

Similar problems would arise in Wisconsin and other states. The Atlantic piece notes these limitations too: “Republicans control both legislative chambers in the six most closely contested battleground states. Of those, Arizona and Florida have Republican governors, too.”

Trump, though, wants you to think that laws no longer matter, especially those that pertain to him. He pretends he is all mighty and all powerful, and he wants the public to buy into it. He wants you to think that all he has to do is give the word, and states will violate their own laws. He wants you to think he can crush the laws and declare himself the winner. He wants you to think that it doesn’t matter how people vote because the Supreme Court will install him as a dictator.

The Strongman Con

It’s time to talk about the Strongman con.

Consider this: Thomas Rid, an expert in Russian disinformation tactics, said that the extent of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election was “designed to be overestimated.”

Q: Why would someone like Putin want to be overestimated?

A: Because being overestimated is how strongmen and wannabe strongmen appear invincible. It makes them feared and respected. It elevates their stature, which gives them power.

Sociologist Max Weber, in his classic essay, Politics as a Vocation, outlined three sources of authority for government. They are

  • Traditional (the authority underlying monarchies)
  • Legal-rational/rule of law, (the authority underlying democracies), and
  • Personal charisma (the source of authority underlying totalitarian and fascist regimes. Today we’d probably say demagogue or cult leader.)

The third source of authority describes the classic strongman. Yale Professor Jason Stanley calls the third form of authority the leadership principle. The idea is that the leader is infallible, that his intuition is better than the academics and experts, and he personally embodies the mystic destiny of the nation. Trump, who makes no secret that he draws his authority from his own instincts, has claimed to know more about military matters than the generals, more about money than “anyone,” and “more about renewables than any human being on Earth.” He has said that “nobody knows more about taxes than I do, maybe in the history of the world.” The list goes on.

Trump doesn’t hide his aspirations to become an authoritarian strongman, a leader for life. However, some Trump critics have trouble with the “charisma” part of Weber’s “charismatic leader” as it pertains to the president. Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen, in his recent book, Disloyal, explains the hold Trump has on people. Cohen explains that his attachment to Trump was more than “the obvious lures of money and power, although those were crucial factors. It was physical, emotional, not quite spiritual, but a deep longing and need that Trump filled for me.” He goes on to say that, “Around Trump, I felt excited, alive, like he possessed the urgent and only truth, the chance for my salvation and success in life.” Part of the thrill for Cohen was that rules and norms were no barrier for Trump. Nothing stood in his way. Trump grabbed what he wanted. Being in Trump’s orbit meant experiencing the thrill of thinking anything was possible.

Much of the Republican Party leadership and base is also mesmerized by the idea of a strongman who doesn’t care about rules (or laws), and who can beat the Democrats and install a conservative agenda.

What’s important to understand is that the charismatic leader is based on a myth: No mortal embodies the mythic destiny of a nation. No one person knows more about everything across various fields than the generals, the epidemiologists, and other experts. No leader is infallible.

It’s a con.

While comparisons are always problematic—particularly when comparing figures from different eras and cultures—the best historical comparison to Trump may be Italy’s Benito Mussolini. Mussolini promised to return Italy to its mythic past, and cultivated a cult of personality.

Mussolini spun elaborate lies and presented himself as invincible. He insisted on unadulterated adoration. When asked his ideology, Mussolini said, “My ideology is to break the bones of the liberals and socialists, and the sooner the better.” He also said, “Yes, a dictator can be loved, provided the masses fear him at the same time. The crowd loves strong men. The crowd is like a woman.” Mussolini was first to use the phrase “drain the swamp.”

For years, Mussolini seemed invincible and adored across Italy. Then he made his error: He got greedy and wanted some of the spoils from the war he thought Germany would win, so he entered a disastrous partnership with Adolf Hitler. He led Italy to ruin.

This was a problem for Mussolini because he had promised “winning,” and Italy did not win. When it was clear he was losing, he crumbled. (Well, let’s not get into the details). Weber explained that it’s impossible to predict how long the charismatic leader will retain his emotional hold over people.

We all know Trump is a conman. His main con is to present himself as a winner. “I am a successful businessman,” is one of his most successful lies, and it is upon that lie that he built his political career. In fact—as has been widely reported—he declared bankruptcy multiple times, and squandered the fortune his father built through bad business ventures. Now, thanks to new reporting from the Times, we have even greater insight into how his finances are under stress.

It’s also been widely reported that Trump got where he is by cheating, but his supporters either don’t care or don’t read or believe the reports that document Trump’s misdeeds. Trump’s fans think he is a winner because he accumulated wealth (and it doesn’t matter how), he fights with their enemies (liberals, the “elites,” Democrats, and immigrants they perceive are stealing their jobs), and he breaks rules. Anti-democratic movements are generally marked by cynicism and the belief that everyone lies and cheats, so the winner is the one who is best at cheating.

The Strongman con works on a feedback loop. In a nutshell, here’s how the cycle works:

  • Trump does outrageous and shocking things: He politicizes the Justice Department; he openly violates laws.
  • The rule-breaking stokes his base. They think: “Our team will win!”
  • At the same time, the rule-breaking creates panic in the opposition. They tremble in fear.
  • Trump supporters and Republican leaders see these meltdowns and the trembling, and they think: “Wow, Trump really is a strongman.”
  • This makes them love (and fear) Trump even more.

Trump has built his image on winning, but he is losing in the polls. If Trump was ahead in the polls, he’d be talking about the polls constantly. Instead, he wants us talking about his plan to “win” the election by “throwing out the ballots.”

Just as the strongman exerts an emotional control over his supporters, he also seeks to control the emotions of his critics. His tactic is to keep his opponents spinning and sputtering with rage so that they forget what happened yesterday and can’t imagine a different tomorrow.[i]

The outrageous behavior terrifies those who look to the rule of law as the basis for government authority. They’re bewildered and worry Trump has already succeeded in establishing an autocracy. The “we are already in an autocracy now; American democracy is dead” crowd forget that the Republicans lost the midterm election in 2018 by 7.9  percentage points, and they’ve lost elections since then. They forget that Trump and the Republican Party went all out to win the April 13, 2020 primary in Wisconsin. They did all they could to suppress the Democratic vote, including requiring in-person voting during a pandemic and ensuring overcrowding in Democratic areas. But, to quote Ben Winkler, chair of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, “voters, who don’t like being suppressed, rose up. Organizers worked magic.” The Republicans lost.

If Trump could steal an election, Nancy Pelosi would not be Speaker of the House.

The “it’s probably all over” crowd forget that Trump had trouble filling a stadium in Tulsa in June. They forget that for months Trump has been on average more than seven points down in the polls, and that no incumbent has won from such a position since 1948, when polling was less accurate. They forget that Trump fails more often than he succeeds. (Did Trump ever build that wall? Did Mexico pay for anything? Did Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announce an investigation into the Bidens.)

Yale professor Timothy Snyder explains that leaders like Putin and Trump govern by creating constant spectacle. This is a conscious method to keep people from thinking about the fact that the government is doing nothing to help them. The phrase “crisis and spectacle” comes from Ivan Illyn, the Russian philosopher whose ideas inspire and guide Putin. Trump emulates Putin, but he’s also a natural at creating spectacle.

There is no reason to believe the coming months will be any different than the past four years. Trump will create an endless series of crises and tout so-called wins, like unproven vaccines or soon-to-be-released healthcare plans. He will batter norms and laws. He will appear to be pulling down the very pillars of democracy. He will keep his followers and fans thrilled. He will leave his critics outraged, exhausted, and rapidly losing hope.

Former FBI special agent Clint Watts reminds us that a goal of Russian active measures is to get people to lose confidence in democratic institutions. When people lose confidence in democracy, they become apathetic and cynical, and then it’s all over. If people are exhausted from panic and despair, how can they organize and mobilize and do what needs to be done to make democracy work? If you persuade people that their votes will not count—that Trump has this in the bag—why should they brave the polls or jump through the many hurdles being placed in front of them? If fact, polling suggests that Democrats would be less likely to vote if they believe their votes won’t count. Spreading the alarm that Trump will steal the election thus inadvertently helps Trump carry out a voter suppression campaign.

Most importantly, when enough people believe the con and act as if Trump is a strongman, they amplify the effect and help create the impression that it’s true. In other words, by believing the lie, they help Trump maintain the illusion that he is all powerful.

This is not to say that Trump is not a danger to democracy. He is. It’s also not to say that he can’t win the election by persuading enough people to vote for him. He can. If he can get away with cheating, he will. It would be foolish and dangerous to underestimate him. Voters can do their part by getting involved in the election, if at all possible. Apply to be a poll worker or an election judge. Each state has its own procedures. Vote early and take your friends. Join a voter rights group and work on getting people safely to the polls or helping them submit their vote-by-mail ballots.

Trump doesn’t control state elections. He doesn’t get to decide the winner. He can bluster and bellow, but whether he leaves the White House in January is not up to him.

Just as it would be dangerous to underestimate Trump, it is similarly dangerous to overestimate him. Falling for the con plays into his hands by amplifying the effects of the con, thereby helping him maintain the illusion that he is an unstoppable strongman. This in turn helps Trump transform himself from a loser, who is behind in the polls, to an unstoppable winner.

[i] For more on what Timothy Snyder calls the Politics of Eternity, see The Road to Unfreedom.

Image: President Donald Trump talks to journalists before departing the White House September 24, 2020 in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Teri Kanefield

Teri Kanefield is an author and a graduate of the University of California Berkeley School of Law. For 12 years, she maintained an appellate law practice in California. Follow her on Twitter (@Teri_Kanefield).