The Warning Signs of a Combustible Presidential Transition

This summer may provide a grim preview of what the post-election period will be like.

LATROBE, Pennsylvania—President Donald Trump has long signaled that if he loses reelection, it would surely be illegitimate. With his base primed to believe that victory is the only acceptable outcome, the post-election period could be the most combustible in memory. This wrenching summer—and the Trump rally I attended here yesterday—provides a grim preview of what the weeks after the November 3 vote could look like, with a subset of Trump’s supporters already showing that they’re prepared to advance his interests in the streets.

When I asked Leo Walker, a 68-year-old retiree at the rally, whether the president’s backers would publicly protest a Biden victory, he said, “They’ll do more than that. They will take the country back.” By force? “They will take the country back. There’s no doubt in my mind.” Trump, Walker said, “can do no wrong.”

The weeks after the election could be “a very dangerous period” for the country, says Miles Taylor, a former senior official in the Homeland Security Department, whose agents were deployed to quell recent police-violence protests in Portland, Oregon, against the wishes of the state’s leadership. Taylor left the agency last year and has since emerged as an outspoken critic of the president. “I talk to law-enforcement officials all the time who I used to serve with, and they’re nervous about November and December,” he continued. “We’re seeing an historic spike in gun sales. There’s some of the worst polarization in United States history. This is beyond a powder keg. This is the Titanic with powder kegs filled all the way to the hull.”

Faced with civil unrest, a president’s job at the most basic level is to calm things down. That’s not Trump’s style. He’s called the Black Lives Matter movement a “Marxist group,” ignoring its role in fighting racism. He defended 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse after he was charged with killing two people during demonstrations in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last week. On the opening night of their presidential-nominating convention, Republicans gave a speaking role to Patricia and Mark McCloskey, the wealthy white homeowners who pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protesters who marched past their St. Louis property. On Twitter, Trump cheered the arrival of his supporters who showed up in Portland to counter prolonged protests there.

The president has also stoked confrontation beyond the demonstrations over police violence and systemic racism. In the spring, he tweeted a demand to “liberate” Michigan, Virginia, and Minnesota, three states with Democratic governors who’d imposed measures aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus. Armed protesters showed up at Michigan’s state capitol in May objecting to Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders. They’ve also turned up in Texas to defend businesses that have opened in spite of the orders.

“It’s absolutely terrifying,” says Rosa Brooks, a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration who’s been running war-games-style exercises about the election outcome. “People who study political violence have been warning for a long time that conditions that we’re seeing in the United States resemble those that you see in countries that slide all the way down into civil conflict. We’re only going further down that chute.”

Should the election drag on or should their candidate lose, Trump’s most aggressive supporters might consider it a patriotic act to publicly contest what they see as a fraudulent election. That’s one scenario Brooks has been weighing through her work with the Transition Integrity Project, which includes dozens of former government officials and political strategists from both parties. After holding exercises to game out a potential post-election crisis, one conclusion the group reached was that “President Trump and his more fervent supporters have every incentive to try to turn peaceful pro-Biden (or anti-Trump) protests violent in order to generate evidence that a Democratic victory is tantamount to ‘mob rule,’” as was described in a recent report. (Atlantic staff writer David Frum is a participant in the project.)

In interviews at the rally here yesterday afternoon, Trump supporters told me a Biden victory is so implausible that it could come about only through corrupt means. Latrobe sits in a county where Trump defeated Hillary Clinton four years ago by a 2–1 margin, and no one I spoke with thought Trump was in any real danger of losing this race either.

Walker spoke of a potential “revolution” were that to happen. “He ain’t got a prayer,” Walker said of Biden. “He can only win with fraud.

“That’s the only prayer, and that will cause the third and final revolution in this country,” he added, citing the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.

Before I entered the airplane hangar where the rally was held, I spoke with John and Michele Urban, a couple from Latrobe, as they waited in line to get inside. “Either way, there’s going to be turmoil,” Michele Urban said. “A revolution. I’d never thought I’d live to see it. I’m 66 years old.” Her husband, 68, told me: “Democrats have sealed their own fate. They’ve proven they’re not true Americans. They’re not for this country, and they’re not for our freedom. We’re just not going to take it any more. Trump is a godsend.”

Let Trump Destroy Trump

The Democratic nominee, whoever it turns out to be, should use the president’s contortions and carrying-on against him.

The person most capable of defeating Donald Trump is Donald Trump. If Democrats are smart, they will let him do the job.

President Trump thrives on outrage and resentment. He seethes with it, stirs it in others and mines it for his own political profit. His political project relies on driving Americans to their cultural and ideological corners. He is Pavlov. We are the dogs.

Mr. Trump’s serial assaults on the decency and the decorum upon which civil society depends are enraging — and meant to be. It is only natural to respond to his every provocation with righteous indignation.

My advice to the Democratic nominee next year is: Donʼt play.

Wrestling is Mr. Trump’s preferred form of combat. But beating him will require jiu-jitsu, a different style of battle typically defined as the art of manipulating an opponent’s force against himself rather than confronting it with one’s own force.

Mr. Trump was elected to shake things up and challenge the political establishment. And to many of his core supporters, his incendiary dog whistles, bullhorn attacks and nonstop flouting of “political correctness” remain energizing symbols of authenticity.

But polling and focus groups reflect a growing unease among a small but potentially decisive group of voters who sided with Mr. Trump in 2016 but are increasingly turned off by the unremitting nastiness, the gratuitous squabbles and the endless chaos he sows.

Plenty of attention has been paid to the historic shift in suburban areas Mr. Trump narrowly carried in 2016 but that broke decisively with his party last fall. That revolt was led by college-educated white women, who overwhelmingly turned against Republican candidates.

But what should be of even greater concern to Mr. Trump is the potential erosion among the non-college-educated white women he is counting on as a core constituency. Those women gave Mr. Trump a 27-point margin over Hillary Clinton in 2016. Yet in a recent Fox News poll, Mr. Trump was beating former Vice President Joe Biden by just four points in that group.

If I were sitting in the Trump war room, this number, more than any other, would alarm me. He won the presidency by the slimmest of margins in three battleground states. With little place to grow, even a small erosion of support among these women could prove fatal to Mr. Trump’s chances. While they are inclined to many of his positions, the thing that is driving these voters away is Mr. Trump himself.

And one thing we can be sure of as the election approaches: Donald Trump is not going to change.

Given that Mr. Trump’s approval rating has been hovering around 40 percent throughout his presidency, his obvious and only strategy is to turn his dial further into the red. He will try to raise the stakes by painting the election as a choice between himself and a radical, left-wing apocalypse. He will bay about

  • socialism,
  • open bordersand
  • “deep state” corruption

and relentlessly work to inflame and exploit racial and cultural divides.

But as Mr. Trump seeks to rev up his base, he also runs a significant risk of driving away a small but decisive cohort of voters he needs. His frenetic efforts to create a panic over the immigrant caravan in the days leading up to the 2018 midterms may have stoked his base, but it also generated a backlash that contributed to major losses for his party.

With everything on the line and nothing, to his mind, out of bounds, the same dynamic will be in play in 2020, and this creates an opportunity for Democrats — if their party’s message allows Trump defectors to comfortably cross that bridge.

There is a legion of arguments on moral, ethical and policy grounds for Mr. Trump’s defeat, and that’s leaving out the sheer incompetence. But the most effective question for Democrats to get voters to ask is simply whether the country can survive another four years like this.

Can we continue to wake each day to the tweets and tantrums, the nasty, often gratuitous fights and the ensuing turmoil that surrounds this president? Can we make progress on issues of concern to the way millions of people live their lives with a leader who looks for every opportunity to divide us for his own political purposes? And is a Trump freed of the burden of re-election really going to be less combative and more constructive in a second term? Um, no.

Each time Mr. Trump lashes out, as he will with increasing ferocity and frequency as the election approaches, these questions will gain more resonance. Every erratic escalation — every needless quarrel, firing or convulsive policy lurch — will provide additional evidence in the case for change.

Mr. Trump’s impulse is always to create a binary choice, forcing Americans to retreat to tribe. He wants to define the battle around divisive cultural issues that will hem in his supporters, and it would be seductive for Democrats to chase every tweeted rabbit down the hole. The president would welcome a pitched battle over lines of race, ideology and culture.

But while Mr. Trump’s thermonuclear politics may rally both his base and Democrats who slumbered in 2016, it is the paralyzing disorder and anxiety his bilious behavior creates that is a distressing turnoff to voters at the margins who will make the difference.

To win, the Democrats will have turn Mr. Trump’s negative energy against him without embodying it themselves.

Why Trump Will Lose in 2020

The president is running hard on a strategy of riling up his base. But by doing that, he riles up the Democratic base, too, and that one is bigger.

Yet a key aspect of polarization has been somewhat overlooked: negative partisanship. Voters with this attitude are mobilized not by love of their own party so much as by hatred of the opposition party. Negative partisanship especially benefits the party that doesn’t hold the presidency, because out-party voters find themselves living in a world where their political preferences are under constant assault, or at least appear to be so.

.. Although Mr. Trump may well win Ohio and perhaps even Florida again, it is not likely he will carry Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in 2020.

.. Look at the midterm performance of statewide Democrats in those states. And his troubles with swing voters, whom he won in 2016, will put Arizona, North Carolina and perhaps even Georgia in play for Democrats and effectively remove Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and New Hampshire from the list of swing states.

A Presidential Candidate Who Believes in What He’s Lived

Which is why John Delaney, who is ending a three-term tenure as a Democratic congressman from Maryland, is seeking his party’s presidential nomination. His quest will test whether Democrats’ detestation of Donald Trump is stronger than their enthusiasm for identity politics: A white, male businessman, Delaney comes to bat with three strikes against him.

Suppose, however, Democrats are more interested in scrubbing the current presidential stain from public life than they are in virtue-signaling and colonizing the far shores of left-wingery.

Delaney illustrates the reason for tolerating what Iowa considers a Mandate of Heaven — its entitlement to begin the nomination process. Iowans are so thin on the ground that relentless retail politicking can give a dark-horse candidate a fighting chance against the ponies who, being senators and hence barely employed, have ample time to flit around the country raising money and their pretty profiles before coming to where the tall corn grows. Delaney, who is not neglecting New Hampshire, has been tilling Iowa’s political soil as an announced candidate for more than 475 days, and long since exceeded 50 percent name recognition among Democratic Iowans. He has visited all 99 counties with more than 440 days remaining before the 2020 caucuses.

Republican Shadow Campaign for 2020 Takes Shape as Trump Doubts Grow

Senators Tom Cotton and Ben Sasse have already been to Iowa this year, Gov. John Kasich is eyeing a return visit to New Hampshire, and Mike Pence’s schedule is so full of political events that Republicans joke that he is acting more like a second-term vice president hoping to clear the field than a No. 2 sworn in a little over six months ago.

President Trump’s first term is ostensibly just warming up, but luminaries in his own party have begun what amounts to a shadow campaign for 2020

.. Mr. Sasse, among the sharpest Senate Republican critics of Mr. Trump, has quietly introduced himself to political donors in language that several Republicans have found highly suggestive, describing himself as an independent-minded conservative who happens to caucus with Republicans in the Senate. Advisers to Mr. Sasse, of Nebraska, have discussed creating an advocacy group to help promote his agenda nationally.