Whether it was his intention or not, Trump may have prepared the ground for an absolutely nightmarish period in American history, one that will make the angry divisiveness of the past few years seem civil by comparison.
Trump has done this by propagating an ideology that characterizes institutional authority as legitimate only when it is controlled by him and those sympathetic to him; insists that any outcome of the democratic process should be rejected if it is not the one you wanted; paints the other party as not merely opponents but as a force that literally wants to kill you and destroy your country; and valorizes individual violence.
Now take those ideas and give them the catalyst of Trump losing this election. Do we really think they won’t ignite?
Unless the election is an absolute blowout on the level of 1984 or 1964, there will be a period when the result is still in doubt, as unprecedented numbers of mail ballots (which take longer to process) are counted. During that period, the president, his White House and his campaign will mount a furious media effort to convince people that the process is run through with cheating and corruption.
His supporters will pour into the streets, as will Biden’s, confronting each other at state houses and election boards. Trump will attack local election officials and judges who rule against him in the many lawsuits that will be filed, attacks amplified by conservative media. Over and over again, his supporters will hear that the process is “rigged” against him as he prods them into a frenzy of rage.
Now assume that eventually, Biden passes the necessary 270 electoral votes and is declared the winner. What will Trump do then? In practical terms, we don’t know for sure. But he is certain to continue whining and griping about illegal votes and rigged counts, while reiterating to his supporters that Biden is not a legitimate sitting president.
Is it far-fetched to think that some — perhaps many — will conclude that since the political process has failed them, violence is a reasonable way to achieve their goals for America?
Trump has always characterized violence — whether carried out by the state or by individuals — as perfectly fine if it’s being wielded by Us against Them. That’s why when protesters appear at his rallies, he says things like “I’d like to punch him in the face” and pines for “the old days” when they “would be carried out on a stretcher.”
That’s why he defends Kyle Rittenhouse, the vigilante accused of killing two people in Kenosha, Wis., but when Michael Forest Reinoehl, a left-winger suspected of murder, is killed by federal officers, Trump says, “There has to be retribution when you have crime like this,” then celebrates Reinoehl’s killing before a cheering crowd.
And it isn’t just Trump himself. We just heard Michael Caputo, who is in charge of communications at the Department of Health and Human Services, speak of leftist “hit squads being trained all over the country.” He even encouraged conservatives to stock up on ammunition.
In the terrified world of conservative conspiracy theorists, leftist violence is always right around the corner, which becomes a justification for rightist violence.
Caputo’s deranged comments point to a key difference between the two parties in America right now: While there are radicals on the left, even some who toy with violent ideas, they get almost no support from high-ranking Democrats. When there’s violence at a protest, every major Democrat from Biden on down condemns it and implores people to remain peaceful.
The same cannot be said of Republicans. They and their media supporters celebrate and justify violence, as long as it’s right-wing violence. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton advocates sending in the military to quash protests. Tucker Carlson defends vigilante killings. Conservatives thus hear a continuous validation of the idea that violence, so long as it’s committed by Us against Them, is a reasonable tool to achieve your ends.
So if and when Biden is president and begins exercising his authority — enacting liberal policies, signing liberal legislation, appointing liberals to positions of power — what will the people who have been imbibing all this rhetoric for four years decide to do about it? Will they begin voter registration drives? Or will they conclude that the system has failed them, and violence is an appropriate response?
If they’re egged on by an ex-president Trump and told by Fox News and conservative talk radio that every day of a Biden administration brings us closer to the literal destruction of America, it will be a shock if they don’t turn to violence. It will make the tea party look like, well, a tea party.
It would be nice if we could emerge from a Trump defeat as a nation cleansed and renewed, ready for a new era of unity and civility. But we will not leave him behind so easily. He has poisoned everything in our democracy, and we will endure the consequences for years to come.