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Trump’s Bad Bet on the Politics of Fear

He’s scaring America straight into the arms of Democrats.
August 24, 2020
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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds a campaign rally at The Venetian Las Vegas October 30, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Given President Trump’s inability to run a positive campaign based on his record over the last four years, he only has one chance of winning re-election: scaring the ever-living crap out of the Republican base.

Sure, his campaign is signaling for the millionth time that they’ll have a “new tone” and saying they’ll produce an “optimistic, hopeful” convention. And maybe there really will be some attempt, now and then during this week’s RNC, to reach out to undecided voters. Trump’s surrogates have said there will be “surprises,” and positivity would certainly count as an unexpected change. But don’t expect much of it: What Trump is really pitching is a bonanza of political and medical disinformation designed to confirm the fears of his army of internet trolls, who already think he’s some kind of deep-state avenging superhero who is saving the world from a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping, pedophiliacs who drink children’s blood.

Aside from hawking miracle coronavirus cures and pretending the election is already rigged against him, Trump has only one play. He’s asking housewives who aren’t yet brainwashed by QAnon wellness influencers on Instagram to believe the suburbs will be pillaged and looted by a roving mob of Black Lives Matter socialists led by . . . Cory Booker. (Heaven forbid, the hug-it-out New Jersey senator might bring you over some vegan cupcakes while he’s spreading “radical love” through the neighborhood. Yikes!)

But Trump has four days of programming during the convention this week to frighten voters. It’s his go-to move: If there’s one theme Trump has stuck with during his presidency, it’s the one that began with his inauguration speech—American carnage. Once again, he’s putting all his bets on the politics of fear.

On its face, it seems to be a losing strategy. Trump tried to terrify America about migrant caravans coming over the border before the 2018 midterm elections. He told his supporters at pre-election rallies that “the crisis on our border—right now, as we speak—is the sole result of Democrat laws and activist Democrat judges.” As a gesture of his commitment to keeping law and order, he deployed nearly 6,000 National Guard troops to the border.

How did that work out? Democrats took control of the House by flipping 41 Republican seats and notching the largest all-time margin of victory in history. And then Trump promptly forgot about the caravan.

Now he’s going back to that same playbook. All you have to do is swap out “border” and “judges” with “suburbs” and “mayors.” Trump is even vowing to bring in the troops, this time in the form of sheriffs and law enforcement, whom he says he’ll send to polling locations. Gotta monitor those voting caravans!

As we near the last two months of the campaign, though, who are voters really afraid of? If Trump has it his way, every Fox News-watching grandma will be up all night shaking in her curlers that Booker and his Antifa buddies will break into her house, and she’ll have no one but the defunded police to call. We know that because the Trump campaign spent $18 million running that ad through the month of July.

For those of us outside of the Fox News bubble of doom, however, what’s more frightening? Trump—and his utter failure in containing the coronavirus, authoritarian response to summer protests, and continued reign of chaos—or Biden? One guy presided over the deaths of 176,000 Americans, killed the economy, and gassed peaceful protesters. The other guy’s main risk to our national security is that he gives his phone number out to random people too much.

There’s been a lot of talk about hoaxes lately and by now, it’s pretty clear that the person who suggested that ingesting bleach could be a good way to treat coronavirus is helping to perpetuate them. (That is, for those of us who aren’t members of the Bleach Cures and Anti-Vaxxer Facebook communities.)

Trump’s conspiracy-laden, fear-based campaign may very well be successful, just not in the way he expects. If all that voters see in the run-up to the November elections is more American carnage under the Trump presidency, they most likely will be scared right into the arms of Democrats. This time around, it’s Trump who is the boogeyman starring in our national political nightmare.

Amanda Carpenter

Bulwark political columnist Amanda Carpenter is a CNN contributor, author, and former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz and speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint.