Why Donald Trump’s polarisation strategy may only lead to defeat

That which is necessary to appeal to the US president’s current base makes it harder to expand it.

 

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As a student of strategy I have been trying to make sense of Donald Trump's re-election campaign. This is a challenge because it is always difficult to understand the strategies of people you want to fail or who seem incapable of rational thought. But it is a challenge worth accepting because failure to understand these strategies can lead to them being underestimated. Trump supporters often claim that their man is being sold short and he knows what he is doing. Trump’s opponents fear they might be right.

In one key respect it is not difficult to understand Donald Trump’s strategy. He acts in plain sight. There is little guile. He is not a natural conspiracist. He says or tweets what he thinks, indeed almost as soon as he has thought it. It has always been the case that the best way to make sense of what Trump is up to is to listen to what he says.

This is probably just the way he is, but it may have some strategic logic. Trump has never enjoyed majority support in the US, but he has a loyal base of up to 40 per cent of the electorate. They are the audience for all his communications. To ensure that his messages cut through all the background noise they are explicit and unsubtle. I doubt that he spends much time working out what the base wants to hear, but instead assumes that whatever he thinks will be fine by them. It is important to underline that this is not normal retail politics, which treats the voters as customers and addresses their supposed preferences. Trump’s aim is to strengthen the bond with his supporters.

This bond has not been forged on the basis of a superb performance in office or excitement about what is to come. Notably, this year the Republican Party did not even bother with a policy platform. Vague claims and promises are sufficient (especially now the economy is in trouble). The bond is created by playing on grievances and identifying the enemies that have caused the grief, such as foreigners, liberals, and Democrats. (Think Carl Schmitt and his disdain for liberal norms and the elevation of the friend-enemy distinction as being central to all politics). That explains why attempts by critics to convince Trump’s base that his actual policies are bad for them tend to fail. They are missing the point. People in the base are fired up because they fear bad things and not that they anticipate good things.

In 2016 this worked because the base was large enough, and Trump had enough fellow travellers, to give him a path to victory through the electoral college. It is fair to assume that this was also his strategy for 2020: enthuse his own supporters while undermining support for Joe Biden so that he could squeeze through once again. Until Covid-19 hit (and while the Democrat nomination was still being contested) this might have worked. But Trump’s failure to manage the pandemic, and the economic consequences, has hurt him. Many of the 2016 fellow travellers, and even some core supporters, have fallen away. His attempt to paint Biden in lurid extremist colours has not taken off, especially when the Democrat is simultaneously being portrayed by him as sleepy and underpowered.

As his numbers began to dip, Trump’s first response was to pursue sharper polarisation, hoping he could win through an enthusiasm gap between his fired-up base and Biden’s lukewarm support. His problem is that the behaviour and statements that keep his base engaged have now also stoked his opponent’s base. Biden has acquired support beyond what his candidacy might normally have attracted. He presents himself as decent and principled and so the antithesis of Trump, however unexciting he might be in other respects.

[see also: US democracy in peril: Don’t underestimate the Trump Factor]

Trump must be aware that unless something extraordinary happens over the next few weeks he has no obvious way to win this election legitimately. He is caught by the dilemma at the heart of his strategy. That which is necessary to appeal to his current base makes it hard to expand it. He has no obvious way now of reaching out to people who have yet to make up their minds. This is now only a small percentage of the electorate.

In the past the possibility of defeat has been recognised by presidential candidates – disappointing for sure, but normal in a democratic society. For Trump, defeat is a very big issue because he has identified himself throughout his career as a winner, a uniquely smart guy, proficient in all that he attempts, and so a multiple success story. Failure therefore can only be the result of being treated unfairly or because of his enemies’ conspiracies. As always with Trump, it is hard to know whether there is an element of artifice in what he says, or if he knows that that which he denounces as fake news is actually true. It may simply be that he has trained his mind to think that way. At any rate, there is now a more pragmatic reason for him to fear defeat. Losing the election will remove whatever protection he currently enjoys from investigations, court cases and creditors.

[see also: Donald Trump has shown how he plans to use far-right violence to try to retain power]

The current appeal to the base is therefore aimed at stoking up their anger at the unfairness of their man being denied his deserved victory. Hence all the talk of cheating and the need for countermeasures to intimidate Biden voters. Trump may merely be getting in his excuses early, but many are convinced that this is a real strategy designed to subvert the whole process. Maybe it is, but it still comes up against the core dilemma. The more he talks like this, the less likely he is to close the gap with Biden it may even grow (see the post-debate polling).

This all matters because the scenarios for subverting the election result depend on it being incredibly close, and possibly depending on disputed votes in one or two states. This would raise the possibility of the Supreme Court intervening again, as it did in 2000. If the numbers are against Trump in too many states, no amount of disruptive activity by his more militant supporters will make sufficient difference, alarming though it would be. But so far, his inflammatory language has only made things worse for him. Note the concern being voiced by Republicans over the reluctance of their supporters to vote by mail, because Trump has convinced them that it might not be safe, while Democrats have already sent in their ballots in large numbers.

[see also: US 2020 election update: Both a Trump win and Biden landslide are within the margin of error]

Trump now enters the final month of the campaign having to self-isolate because of Covid-19. The best assumption is that this makes little difference to the election. There are few undecided electors now and, as so many are voting early, with each passing day it becomes progressively harder to shift the election's outcome one way or another. If Trump’s symptoms are absent or mild then for a couple of weeks he will be unable to campaign. It might put the second debate, scheduled for 15 October – around the end of any such isolation – in jeopardy. He might claim a full recovery as showing his strong constitution, but he could hardly claim it as a vindication of his policies. He was the one disregarding precautions and mocking Biden for wearing a mask. In addition to the severity of his illness, the most important thing we do not yet know is how many people with whom he has been in contact have also been infected (he was shouting in an enclosed space at Joe Biden in the first presidential debate on 29 September). 

For these reasons, even if he becomes ill the sympathy vote will be limited. It will highlight the greatest failure of his presidency and his own fallibility. If he becomes extremely ill then many issues will be raised, but the result of the election will probably not be one of them. If Biden got ill that would be of greater significance. For Trump the main strategic consequence of Covid-19 is that he has been unable to find a way to deal with it politically. The fact that he is now struggling against it personally adds melodrama to the closing weeks of the campaign, but without changing the fundamentals.   

This piece was updated on 2 October to reflect the news that Donald and Melania Trump have tested positive for Covid-19.

Lawrence Freedman is emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London

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