In a electoral season that has been far from a commercial for American democracy, the past week marked a new low.
Although the Trump campaign maintains that their candidate won the second presidential debate against Hillary Clinton, the polls show otherwise. The Republican has suffered a decline in national and state polls in the wake of the infamous Access Hollywood ‘Trump tape’. Clinton led Trump by a substantial margin before the debate and tape release, but the fallout from these events has opened up an average 6% gap between the candidates. It is desperation mode for Donald Trump; as he would put it, he has “taken off the shackles”.
The result has been a marked shift in the race for president, as it enters a grimmer, darker stage with less than a month until election day.
Here a few of the ways in which Trump is lashing out.
Inciting voter intimidation
One of the less discussed, but very troubling, developments of Trump’s campaign has been to call on his supporters to monitor voting stations. The Republican nominee has talked of his concern over voter fraud for weeks now, despite no factual evidence behind his claims.
Yet lately he has repeated his request that loyal followers go to the polling stations and maintain a quasi-garrison of Trump support. The exact purpose of their presence is, of course, not detailed in his speeches; as with many of his ‘dog whistles’ to the right wing, Trump cloaks his remarks in vague, deniable language. One of the most recent calls for monitors included reference to checking on ‘other communities’.
Although Trump can claim this is a benign comment, it smacks of voter intimidation. His reference to ‘other communities’ has been understood by some to mean African American voters, and though this might seen overblown, it recalls the sordid practice of voter intimidation against black Americans in the segregated south of the early twentieth century. As with much of Trump’s language, his slipperiness on detail makes it difficult to pin him down on the exact nature of his comments, but for those familiar with informal denial of voting rights, this rhetoric is highly alarming.
Attacking fellow Republicans
It’s no secret that Donald Trump is an authoritarian; for his supporters, this is central to his appeal. That is why he is so irked with senior members within his own party who refuse to bend the knee and defend him during these turbulent weeks.
Internal Enemy Number One is Paul Ryan. Ryan, Speaker of the House, is the most senior elected Republican in office, and an ideological conservative from Wisconsin. Trump and he have never been close; after winning the nomination, Ryan replied to questions about his lack of endorsement for Trump by commenting, ‘I’m not there yet’.
Following the release of the lewd Access Hollywood tape, this rift yawned open, with Ryan deciding that he would not campaign with or publicly defend Donald Trump. This came less than a week after their first scheduled joint appearance, which was duly cancelled after release of the Trump tape. Trump has shot back that Ryan is weak, and that he does not want the Speaker’s endorsement. Trump even suggested that Ryan was conniving behind the scenes to sabotage the nominee’s chances:
“There’s a whole deal going on there. I mean, you know, there’s a whole deal going on. We’re gonna figure it out. I always figure things out. But there’s a whole sinister deal going on.”
Added to which, he has retaliated against John McCain, who withdrew his endorsement from the nominee following release of the tape, saying that the Arizona senator has the “dirtiest mouth in all the Senate” on The O’Reilly Factor.
The infighting shows no sign of abating, and Trump will likely continue to cast blame for his flagging poll numbers on lack of party support.
Lashing out at sexual assault allegations
Anderson Cooper set Donald up. Trump was doing damage control in the second debate, initially asking for forgiveness over the Access Hollywood tape that showed him bragging about assaulting women, assaults that were enabled through his fame. He then deflected attacks by digging up old allegations over Bill Clinton’s misconduct, essentially with the messaging “I said bad things, he did bad things.”
So the question was inevitable: Cooper asked, have you done any of the things you bragged about? Trump flatly denied such wrongdoing. Within a week of the debate, up to eight women emerged with allegations of sexual harassment and assault.
Trump has called the women liars, and his campaign spokespersons have energetically fought back against the victims. Supposedly, they are doing this for fame, or as part of an elaborate smear job. There is no conclusive evidence to prove or disprove the allegations, but Trump is in the uncomfortable position of having used such women as a foil against Bill Clinton, and now having to rebuff similar claims against himself.
His recourse has been to attack the women themselves, in a not dissimilar way that he says Hillary Clinton did to Bill’s accusers. Regarding one of his accusers, he suggested she was not attractive enough to grope: “When you looked at that horrible woman last night, you said, ‘I don’t think so! I don’t think so!'”
The controversies have also put pressure on his Christian supporters, who are wrangling with how to deal with such conduct. Ben Carson on MSNBC’s Morning Joe refused to answer whether he thought the victims were lying or not, and deflected questions about Trump’s morality. Such awkward positioning truly threatens to depress evangelical turnout for Trump, and is already costing him dearly in the Mormon state of Utah, usually reliably Republican but now showing an almost tied race.
At this point it appears that more women will come forward, and there are rumours that tapes of The Apprentice will show even more disturbing language, if they are released. Trump will undoubtedly keep fighting back: the apology interlude was brief.
Waging war on the media
The ‘mainstream media’ has long been targeted by Donald Trump as an enemy of his campaign. This is despite the fact that the overwhelming volume of coverage he received during the Republican primaries launched him front and centre in the national forum.
Lately, Trump has sought to blame unfavourable poll numbers on media bias, dubbing CNN the Clinton News Network, and lashing back at debate moderators who fact check him during his more egregious lies. He has continued to call out the press during rallies, saying at Columbus Ohio, “The greatest weapon wielded by crooked Hillary is the media. She has nothing else.” Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich has suggested that, without the media’s ‘assault’ on the Republican nominee, he would be leading by 15%. However the billionaire has also massively stripped back on his media access. Although he regularly appears on Fox News’ with Sean Hannity, who publicly supports Trump, not even boisterous Fox News leading man Bill O’Reilly provides a safe space for the nominee. Appearances on other networks have been curtailed.
It is now becoming commonplace at Trump rallies for his supporters to threaten and intimidate members of the press who are covering the Republican nominee’s speeches. As more revelations over sexual misconduct emerge against Donald Trump, he will surely continue to lambast the media, and claim the entire election is in some way rigged, leaving millions of Trump supporters angry and confused if he should lose.
Using conspiracy theories
An added wrinkle to the Trump rhetoric over the past week has been references towards a united conspiracy to deny him the presidency. Despite the fact that Trump has never been favoured in the polls, barring a brief afterglow following the Republican convention, he maintains that he is in some way being cheated.
Previously, this has involved targeting specific actors: the press, the RNC, the government. Now he is bringing these disparate elements together to create a more dangerous and provocative theory of anti-Trumpism. It is his is most poisonous concoction: the creation of an almighty ‘Establishment’, determined to defeat him. He is drilling into the minds of his supporters the idea of an unholy alliance of the mainstream media, professional politics, debate commissions, government agencies, and corporations.
It is a cancer on American democracy. By refusing to accept the legitimacy of his own unpopularity and democratic weakness, and by developing an ultra defensive personality cult among his following, he has sparked talk of violent insurrection and assassination.
Trump has veered towards the deep rightwing politics of his campaign CEO, Stephen Bannon, of Breitbart News. Bannon’s brand of politics binges on sowing mistrust, anger, and resentment; once this election is over, bringing these voters back from the fringes of Trump’s paranoia will be difficult.
No holds barred on Clinton
At the epicentre of the resentment politics characterising Trump’s campaign is his determination to slander, smear, and criminalise his rival, Secretary Clinton.
Eight years ago the Republican nominee John McCain refused to allow an attendee at one of his rallies label Barack Obama as some form of anti-American, Arabic villain. He took the mic from the woman and replied: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about.”
The dignity of John McCain is a far cry from the depravity of the Donald Trump.
Trump has made frequent references to Clinton as ‘the devil’, and in the second debate said she had ‘hate in her heart’. Perhaps worst of all are his repeated attempts to criminalise the former Secretary of State. Clinton has been investigated by independent federal authorities concerning Benghazi and her use of a private email use, issues that continue to bedevil her ability to win over voters’ trust, but the Trump campaign has settled with making this a focal point of their language.
What was once alarming, at the Republican National Convention, is now commonplace: the chanting of ‘lock her up’. Donald Trump has clearly recognised the powerful way in which this demonisation is resonating with his followers, and is doubling down on these personal smears.
It also is worth remembering that this is the man who for years sought to discredit the President through the unsubstantiated and racist claims of the birther movement.
Trump does not want to win on issues: he wants to win a popularity contest. Now that he’s losing against one of the least popular candidates in American history, his recourse is to sling as much mud as possible to bring her down to his level.
Midnight in America
Ronald Reagan is a hero for many conservatives. A two-term president in the 1980s, who oversaw economic recovery and the end of the Cold War, he is remembered as an uplifting and optimistic leader. His positive vision was best exemplified by his 1984 ad, ‘Morning in America’, that sought to give Americans a hopeful view for the future.
Donald Trump’s campaign is the polar opposite. He is trying to win a presidential election by using fear, resentment, anger and mistrust. Refusing to acknowledge his own flaws and shortcomings, he heaps blame for his flagging campaign onto others. While his slogan may be ‘Make America Great Again’, he is inflicting great trauma on the democratic process through his campaign. Where Ronald Reagan offered morning to America, through Donald Trump there is only a black midnight.