“A question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with….”—Machiavelli
I’ll let Machiavelli host this column because I’m too busy watching Portland. On the streets of Rip City last week, President Trump’s unbadged federal troops descended on protesters, forcing them into unmarked vans. As the alarms went out, one protester captured everyone’s attention.
An unarmed, unclad woman stood in the street and sent the cops and federal troops home. She posed no threat except the threat of confidence directed at bullies. That was enough. She won.
Yes, I know, Portland is weird. That’s its brand. But it’s also fierce. Portland is a town where people take no guff from anyone. Which is why they’ve been protesting for 60 days. Harmlessly, I should point out. The occasional graffiti, a small fire or two, in a highly condensed three-block area. That’s it. In reply, they’ve gotten this jackbooted thuggery from Trump’s lackeys:
Facing a motley mix of untrained Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Transportation Security Administration person in preposterous camo garb, Navy vet Chris David stood his ground as some unbadged federal punk wailed on him like he was swinging a flyswatter. Chris David wasn’t going anywhere. They broke his hand and he still backed them off their ground. Vets across the country jumped in cars and headed to Oregon to join him.
A wall of mothers appeared the next night. When you are the impotent federal officials with guns, the very last thing you want to shoot is a wall of moms. Shoot them they did, though, but the wall stood fast.
Embattled in conflict with the protesters, Oregon’s elected officials knew what side to get on, and fast. Governor Kate Brown and Mayor Ted Wheeler demanded federal troops stay in their buildings or leave the state. This is our conflict, the Oregonians said, so find somewhere else to stage your optics. “This is a democracy, not a dictatorship,” Brown said. “If the Trump administration was really interested in problem solving or public safety, they would be focused on reducing the confrontation and retraining their officers. It’s clear, however, that they are only interested in political theater.”
“Federally-directed intervention is uninvited, untrained, and unwelcome,” Wheeler said. “The violence was being contained and started to de-escalate before they arrived. They intervened and escalated tensions to new levels.” Wheeler then walked into the protest area to dialogue with the protesters—and got tear-gassed by federal agents. That got everyone’s attention too.
Whatever side of the protests they were on, Portlanders stood strong against the unwelcome federal invasion of their city. They are the kind of people that make folks realize there’s an America worth fighting for. And, as it turns out, an America they’re fighting against.
“…Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you…”
Trump’s venomous approach to the protests is familiar to any fan of professional wrestling: he turned heel. Now, you may be surprised at me using a pro wrestling metaphor in a game theory column, as wrestling is often decried as “fake.” That reputation is decidedly unfair; the litany of devastating injuries wrestlers suffer makes it troublingly real. Rather, wrestling aims for “kayfabe,” portraying staged events as real. The President knows wrestling like I know crosswords, being a major promoter of the sport and battling owner Vince McMahon in a match with head-shaving on the line.
Trump was inducted into the WWE’s Hall of Fame in 2013; he paid it forward by making WWE co-owner Linda McMahon the least qualified Small Business Administration administrator in history. Wrestling leaned into its “fake” rep by wholeheartedly embracing America’s fakest billionaire.
Understanding the heel turn requires diving into the sport’s character classes. Wrestlers are traditionally divided into “faces” (good guys, shortened from “babyface”) and “heels” (bad guys). Wrestlers are pushed up the popularity ladder by embracing one of these two positions, aiming to reach a clash with the champion of the other side. When a wrestler loses popularity because their shtick is stale, they do a turn to the other side. Everyone feigns surprise and the push begins anew. This doesn’t always work. WWE attempted to turn beloved champ Becky “The Man” Lynch into a heel, and fans still loved her anyway. When you can’t get people to boo your heels, you gotta change it up.
But Donald Trump knows how effective this trick is on the marks, which is what wrestling calls its willingly gullible fans. Trump believes he has his own marks, and they think of him as a face. You might have trouble believing that, given the whole kids-in-cages/good-people-on-both-sides thing. But it’s true: Trump is a face. He routinely touts his own popularity, milking cheers from his crowds by playing to their racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic views. He showers himself in their adoration, his only motivator for the job he deeply hates. The face draws the cheers.
But now, in a pandemic he helped create, he’s been stripped of his rallies. COVID-19 has reduced his remaining few to dangerous mockeries. He ginned up his team for a convention in Jacksonville; with no security in place and only one staffer on the ground, that plan fell apart at great cost. Robbed of his audiences, his popularity is cratering. Being a face isn’t working. From his bunker in a walled-off White House, Trump is concocting a highly scripted heel turn.
Undeterred by his troops’ ineffectiveness in baiting the peaceful Portland protests to violence, Acting Department of Homeland Security Chad Wolf — he who stole away former FEMA Director Brock Long’s title of the regime’s least interesting action hero name — promised a rollout of these same tactics elsewhere. Federal troops showed up in Chicago, Seattle, Kansas City, Albuquerque, and other places the Democrats held power. Trump’s “Operation LeGend” is putatively named for 4-year-old shooting victim LeGend Taliferro (but it’s clear who Trump thinks the “legend” is). It aims to expand violent force across America, especially in cities where the mayors rejected their “help” with a barrage of lawsuits and threats.
“…And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon…”
Declaring war on America is a curious re-election strategy. One hundred days from the election, the president’s approval is underwater by 15 points, and he’s trailing challenge Joe Biden by anywhere from 8 to 15 points. Senate Republicans are running scared; House Republicans melted down in an internal strategy meeting that devolved into a screaming match. Republicans meekly expressed concern that this authoritarian move would sink their re-election campaigns. Rand Paul denounced the invasion of Portland, saying there was no place for “federal agents kitted out in military or paramilitary trappings… rounding up people at will.” Caught in the war, Trump’s GOP defenders are fearful they will become irrelevant in the upcoming election. There will only be two choices on the ballot: the Democrats and Trump.
As Trump bungles the twin crises of the coronavirus and police brutality protests, looking at who the president has lost reveals some staggering trends:
- Trump is trailing Biden in the suburbs—you know, the ones Biden “wants to abolish”—by about 10 points. That’s a 14-point swing from 2016.
- Trump is losing in the swing states of Florida, Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Carolina, and only tied with Biden in former GOP lock Texas.
- Biden is crushing Trump with independents by 13 points, with whom he tied Hillary Clinton in 2016.
- Biden leads Trump among elderly voters by about 6 points. That’s a 13-point swing from 2016.
- White voters with college degrees, which Trump won by 4 points in 2016, are backing Biden by 28 points. Among women in that cohort, Biden’s lead is 39 points.
- Even white evangelicals, which Trump won 81 percent of in 2016, are jumping ship, with his favorably numbers down double digits.
I know they seem like our main export sometimes, but there are not enough racist, white, undereducated men in America to make up for all that.
All this points to a November bloodbath, which is why Trump has decided to try to scare white Americans—the “silent majority,” he calls them, as if he invented the phrase—into rising up against the (mostly black and Latinx) monsters in their imaginations. Last week, Trump repealed a rule that blocked redlining—a discriminatory mortgage practice that keeps blacks out of white neighborhoods—and ended investigations into banks that did so. He hopes to remind suburban whites that they fled the cities for a reason, no matter how morally bankrupt that reason was.
In Machiavellian fashion, Trump is embracing fear over love. Like a wrestler, he just has to get his entrance music right. In a fan-made video the Trump campaign tweeted out last week, Trump is an apocalyptic destroyer of dissent, to the strains of a cover of Linkin Park’s “In the End.” This horrorshow was taken down in hours due to infringing on Linkin Park’s copyrights.
But the approach was ratified as a success, and a few days later, Trump rolled out a doomsaying video featuring the slogan “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” using violent images of Donald Trump’s America.
“…and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails…”
So, we end up with a Trump who not only encourages racism but must depend on it to win. It has to come through for him in greater numbers than it has so far, or he’s toast. As far as I can tell, his strategy (if it can be called that) boils down to five moves.
- Turn heel. With much hang-wringing and rending of garments, Trump declares war on America.
- Rely on FOX News to tar the protests as ultraviolent. Trump’s overlords at FOX are doing their part (at least at night), hyping the moral panic that the protesters are burning down American cities. Trump is all too happy to let Americans believe they are, even if it’s not true.
- Hope some federal officers get killed. Trump aims for a Remember the Maine-style outcome where America sees the federal troops he put in harm’s way as the victims. In his twisted fantasy, these sacrificed soldiers become his George Floyd, and white America rallies to his side.
- Have Bill Barr and Chad Wolf commit some atrocities. In response, Trump’s quislings will “put down” the protests in some awful way, blunting their message and terrifying people away from the protest sites.
- Turn face. After a summer of violence, Trump declares the mission accomplished, reins in Wolf, and returns to his smiling ways, taking credit for saving America. The cheers roar again, and carry him to victory.
It could work, especially if Trump’s new postmaster general Louis DeJoy wrecks the post office so mail-in balloting fails. Biden’s Democrats should not get complacent or start swinging for the fences. (No, we are not going to turn Kansas blue. Just stop it.) Already, Trump has narrowed his deficit to Biden from 9.6 points a few weeks ago to about 8 points today. That’s still a landslide, sure, but a lot could happen in four months. A lot has happened in four months, after all.
The case for Trump beating these numbers on a shaky theory called the “enthusiasm gap.” Nearly everyone who didn’t love Trump has abandoned him, so his remaining supporters really love him. After a bruising and divisive primary, maybe Biden voters don’t feel that way about their guy. In a YouGov poll, Trump voters were enthusiastic about their candidate 68 percent of the time, compared to 31 percent for Biden.
Problem is, Joe Biden’s supporters are really enthusiastic about one thing: showing Trump the door. Per FiveThirtyEight, 80 percent of Biden voters find Trump detestable, while only half of Trump voters hate Biden.
The Kaiser Family Foundation reports “a roughly ten percentage point gap in favor of Biden on which candidate they trust to do a better job maintaining law and order (51% trust Biden vs. 41% trust Trump) and the coronavirus outbreak (50% vs. 41%). There are even larger gaps in favor of Biden on issues including health care (53% vs. 38%), police violence (55% vs. 36%), and race relations (58% vs. 34%). When it comes to handling the economy, similar shares of voters trust President Trump (49%) as trust Biden (45%).”
Which is why Biden’s response strategy to Trump’s heel turn is:
“Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated.”
Ah, thanks, Machiavelli. Carry on, heel.
This is the 60th installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, Trump’s mafia code, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, the environment, Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s lies, Pelosi’s strategy, Trump’s conviction, political outsiders, Rudy Giuliani, the Berlin wall, protest art, political timing, religion, engagement, Bernie Sanders, progressive unity, the Democratic nominee, the pandemic, unemployment, rioting, the Klan, and the Confederacy.