What is America really fighting over in the upcoming election? Not any particular issue. Not even Democrats versus Republicans. The central fight is over Donald J Trump.
Before Trump, most Americans weren’t especially passionate about politics. But Trump’s MO has been to force people to become passionate about him – to take fierce sides for or against. And he considers himself president only of the former, whom he calls “my people”.
Trump came to office with no agenda except to feed his monstrous ego. He has never fueled his base. His base has fueled him. Its adoration sustains him.
So does the antipathy of his detractors. Presidents usually try to appease their critics. Trump has gone out of his way to offend them. “I do bring rage out,” he unapologetically told Bob Woodward in 2016.
In this way, he has turned America into a gargantuan projection of his own pathological narcissism.
To Trump and his core enablers and supporters, the laws of Trump Nation authorize him to do whatever he wants
His entire re-election platform is found in his use of the pronouns “we” and “them”. “We” are people who love him, Trump Nation. “They” hate him.
In late August, near the end of a somnolent address on the South Lawn of the White House, accepting the Republican nomination, Trump extemporized: “The fact is, we’re here – and they’re not.” It drew a standing ovation.
At a recent White House news conference, a CNN correspondent asked if Trump condemned the behavior of his supporters in Portland, Oregon. In response, he charged: “Your supporters, and they are your supporters indeed, shot a young gentleman.”
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In Trump’s eyes, CNN exists in a different country: Anti-Trump Nation.
So do the putative rioters and looters of “Biden’s America”. So do the inhabitants of blue states whose state and local tax deductions Trump eliminated. So do those who live in the “Democrat cities”, as he calls them, whose funding he’s trying to cut.
California is a big part of Anti-Trump Nation. He wanted to reject its request for aid to battle wildfires “because he was so rageful that people in the state of California didn’t support him”, said former Department of Homeland Security chief of staff Miles Taylor.
New York is the capital of Anti-Trump Nation, which probably contributed to Trump “playing down” the threat of Covid-19 last March, when its virulence seemed largely confined to that metropolis. Even now, Trump claims the US rate of Covid-19 deaths would be low “if you take the blue states out”. That’s untrue, but it’s not the point. For Trump, blue states don’t count because they’re Anti-Trump Nation.
To Trump and his core enablers and supporters, the laws of Trump Nation authorize him to do whatever he wants. Anti-Trump Nation’s laws constrain him, but they’re illegitimate because they are made and enforced by the people who reject him.
If he loses the election, Trump will not accept the result because it would be the product of Anti-Trump Nation
So Trump’s call to the president of Ukraine seeking help with the election was “perfect”. It was fine for Russia to side with him in 2016, and it’s fine for it to do so again. And of course the justice department, postal service and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should help him win re-election. They’re all aiding Trump Nation.
By a similar twisted logic, Anti-Trump Nation is dangerous. Hence, says Trump, the armed teenager who killed two in Kenosha, Wisconsin, acted in “self-defense”, yet the suspected killer of a rightwinger in Portland deserved the “retribution” he got when federal marshals killed him.
It follows that if he loses the election, Trump will not accept the result because it would be the product of Anti-Trump Nation, and Trump isn’t the president of people who would vote against him. As he recently claimed, “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.”
In the warped minds of Trump and his acolytes, this could lead to civil war. Just this week he refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power. His consigliere Roger Stone urges him to declare “martial law” if he loses. Michael Caputo, assistant secretary of public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, warns “the shooting will begin” when Trump refuses to go.
Civil war is unlikely, but the weeks and perhaps months after election day will surely be fraught. Even if Trump is ultimately forced to relinquish power, his core adherents will continue to view him as their leader. If he retains power, many if not most Americans will consider his presidency illegitimate.
So whatever happens, Trump’s megalomaniacal ego will prevail. America will have come apart over him, and Trump Nation will have seceded from Anti-Trump Nation.
Robert Reich, a former US secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few and The Common Good. His new book, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It, is out now. He is a columnist for Guardian US