Donald Trump’s erratic behavior over the past week has led to speculation that he is purposefully trying to sabotage his own campaign.
Since Aug. 2, Trump has feuded with a baby, repeatedly insulted the Muslim parents of a deceased veteran, claimed he “always wanted a Purple Heart,” insisted the election will be “rigged,” reignited past campaign controversies like his mockery of a disabled reporter and his comments over Megan Kelly’s menstrual cycle, falsely claimed he was given state secrets about Iran and then announced those “secrets” to the public, and inspired several Republicans to endorse Hillary Clinton.
This is clearly not a winning strategy. But there is no reason to believe Trump is purposefully trying to lose. In January, Trump boasted that he “could stand in the middle of [New York City’s] 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” What he is doing now is merely the rhetorical equivalent. Trump’s current behavior should concern Americans–not simply because of the hatred and intolerance his campaign has normalized, but because the leaders who might inherit Trump’s voter base could be even worse.
From its infancy, Trump’s campaign has been about testing the limits of his fans’ loyalty and public tolerance for bigotry, threats, and lies. The Republican Party and the media have repeatedly failed this test. GOP leaders have criticized him but most refuse to retract their endorsements. Some journalists have apologized for their role in promoting Trump during the primaries, and many now critique him harshly, but you can still find his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski spouting racist birther theories as a paid commentator on CNN. And despite a phenomenal meltdown, Trump still maintains his fan base as well as institutional support.
That said, it is looking more likely that Trump will lose. Though polls are not a reliable predictor of what will happen in November, several recent surveys indicate an unprecedented drop in his approval ratings. According to Gallup, Trump is the first candidate in US history to lose support after his party’s convention. Although victory is still possible—in this election, anything is possible—it is prudent to examine what will happen should Hillary Clinton win. Over the past year, Trump has built an impressive cult of personality. What happens to the cult if the personality is defeated?
To answer this question, we need to evaluate Trump’s version of patriotism. Trump has promoted himself as the “real” American candidate, the one who will put “America first” (as the old fascist slogan goes) and who cares about the “forgotten Americans.” He has made it clear that he does not care very much about the welfare of Muslims, Mexicans, or other Americans who are not part of his white Christian base. But it is not clear that Trump cares about his white Christian base either, or about the stability and prosperity of America as a whole. Consider this excerpt from an explosive February 2014 interview on Fox News:
“You know what solves it?” he said of America’s sorry state. “When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster. Then you’ll have a [chuckles], you know, you’ll have riots to go back to where we used to be when we were great.”
Trump does not want to make America great again. He wants to destroy America so that he, alone, can rebuild it and subsume it under his control. As he said in his GOP convention speech, “I alone can fix it.” Trump’s stance is not unique: Dictators throughout history have created chaos in order to justify the use of force. But Trump’s ability to carry out this plan relies on him getting elected. With that option off the table, what comes next?
Here are two possibilities. The first is that a charismatic successor will come along who will maintain Trump’s political positions but behave in a more emotionally controlled way. This successor would presumably run for office, as Trump did, but learn from Trump’s mistakes and gain a broader base of support. Given that part of Trump’s appeal rests on an “anti-establishment” persona, this individual will likely not come from within the GOP, but from the fringe movements that Trump has helped push closer to the mainstream. It could be Donald Trump Jr, who could ride the wave of the Trump brand. Or it could be a popular and polished white supremacist, someone like Matthew Heimbach, who has attracted a large following with more explicitly racist rhetoric than Trump’s. Whoever it is will likely be younger than Trump and will tap into the youthful and bigoted “alt-right,” which has supported Trump throughout his campaign.
The second possibility is that Trump’s base may shift its focus from entering the government to annihilating it. In this scenario, his supporters might join militias and white secessionist movements, the ranks and popularity of which have grown exponentially since Obama took office. As the US becomes less white and the Democratic Party increasingly reflects this diversity, Trump’s base would battle their perceived enemies head on. Picture the Bundy family standoff on a national level, with assorted militias and hate groups united behind the Trump banner, avenging his loss. Trump’s campaign has redefined what counts as “extremism”: Militia and white supremacist groups are enjoying increasingly mainstream appeal, especially as white Americans in a worsening economy feel they have little to lose by joining them.
Illegalities aside, both scenarios would of course be countered by Trump’s current and greatest obstacle: Most Americans simply do not support him or his movement. But Trump’s campaign has already shown how much damage can be done by one man—and how easily extremism can be marketed, and accepted, as mainstream. Trump may be losing, but he has millions of followers who have demonstrated incredible loyalty even as he insults them and America again and again. Under the right leader, and with the right organizational force, the dog whistles of Trump could end up sounding more like the tune of a pied piper, leading millions of disaffected Americans along.
If this appears paranoid or fantastical, reread the beginning of this article and imagine how you would have reacted had you read it a year ago, knowing this was our future. Those who deem such an outcome unthinkable simply lack imagination. In this political climate, we need a dark imagination to see the light.