But over the course of his presidency—or perhaps from the moment he explicitly shunned the principle of compromise and declared, “I alone can fix it”—Trump has abundantly shown that he means his anti-political rhetoric. And as he stands for reelection, his strategy for victory amounts more and more to the subversion of politics.
Although he goes through the motions of pursuing an outright victory, much of his rhetoric is now focused on discrediting the political process itself. He disparages the rules that govern politics and the institutions that facilitate it. He seems to want his supporters to believe that their electoral participation will be rendered meaningless. Trump’s argument goes like this: Because their views will be censored by Facebook and Twitter, his followers won’t have access to the most important modern forums for persuasion and mobilization. (This argument played a starring role at the Republican convention.) On Election Day, their votes will be negated by fraud on a massive scale, in the form of mail-in voting. Because the probability of an unfair election is so high, the president declines to say that he will accept the outcome of the vote.
In the past, groups that have felt disenfranchised have turned to protest, a peaceful attempt to persuade well-meaning elites or beneficent institutions to expand democracy. But in the Trumpian worldview, those elites and institutions are conspiring against him. By delegitimizing the American political system, he has given his followers the impression that they have no choice but to assert themselves through nonpolitical means.
Throughout his presidency, he has offered his winking approval to supporters who have relied on menace and weaponry. He couldn’t bring himself to disavow the tiki-torch mob in Charlottesville, and he paid obeisance to the people in camouflage who invaded the Michigan statehouse to protest stay-at-home orders. At his recent convention, he allocated prime time to the armed couple from St. Louis. So when he tweeted his approval of the caravan that wended its way through Portland, armed with paintball guns and pepper spray, it was the logical culmination of his argument—and a likely prelude to the months to come.
Trump is hardly alone in his turn away from politics—which is part of what makes this moment so terrifyingly volatile. However marginal their numbers, anarchists seem intent on magnifying their presence by fomenting mayhem. Among a smattering of intellectuals on the left, looting is accepted as an appropriate form of political speech. But Trump is heir to a more establishment strain of anti-politics. Rather than accepting the rules of the game, his party has used parliamentary gimmickry to achieve its most important ends. It derailed the nomination of a Supreme Court justice in order to protect a conservative majority, and it has sought to maintain power through gerrymandering.