Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.
A well-connected Republican took me aside a few months ago. “Trump will win, he’s got a whole operation targeting black men.”
It wasn’t what you’re thinking.
Using people like Kanye West (the US rapper), he said, and appealing to their conservative values (sotto voce: homophobia and sexism) and the fact that to a guy with little education, Trump represents success.
This, if it ever was the plan, could be termed the Berlusconi strategy. To say, face it: if you had the power and wealth I had, you’d behave just like me. It’s fair to say it has now outlived its usefulness.
His new tactic, aides told The New York Times, is modelled on Nixon, but is really that usual authoritarian two-step where a strongman leader creates chaos, in order to present himself as the only man capable of bringing order back. Provoke enough black violence, and scared whites will turn to him as their protector.
This, though, was less Nixon’s strategy than a leftist caricature of it. Nixon could call for law and order, because he wasn’t in power, but as Eisenhower’s vice-president was associated with a calmer time.
Trump, however, is supposed to be charge. Everyone can see his Tweets inciting violence, and as much as they dislike looting, they don’t much care for police officers running over peaceful protesters or taking pot shots at journalists.
They imagine all that high-tech military equipment sold to the cops would be used against terrorists or school shooters. Seeing heavily armed riot cops run amok on city streets makes their country look like a Latin American dictatorship. Ranks of soldiers guarding the Lincoln Memorial belong in sci-fi dystopia, not live news feeds from their own capital.
As if that wasn’t enough, Trump had crowds teargassed so that he could walk to a nearby church for a photo op. The Vietnam-era figure this looks like is not Nixon, but the hapless South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem.
Trump’s lieutenants, like hardline Arkansas senator Tom Cotton, are trying to assert there’s an insurgency going on, organised by the extreme-left ANTIFA (while white supremacist militia, marching armed into the Wisconsin state legislature, somehow were not). This is a conspiracy theory, but even if it weren’t, the heavy-handed military intervention Cotton demanded is the opposite of good counterinsurgency practice.
Trump’s attempts to project strength achieve the opposite, as ramshackle riot control lines, made up of parks police, military police, the oxymoronic uniformed “Secret Service” and cops brought in from Arlington Country, Virginia are deployed to allow the president to walk to a church, while the Attorney General inspects a large armoured car on the White House grounds. The contrast with Nixon, who went to talk to anti-war protesters fifty years ago, couldn’t be clearer.
In 1968, the veteran Nixon ran his campaign from the centre – against segregationist George Wallace, from whom Trump stole the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts!” – and the Democrats’ particularly left-wing nominee, Hubert Humphrey. In this year’s election that role belongs to Biden.
Like the pre-watergate Nixon, he’s a face from a happier, more stable time, and he’s defeated the more extreme wing of his party. He’s well-placed to reassure ordinary Americans that he can lead a return to normalcy, after the pyrotechnics and pandemic of the Trump years, and has been extending his lead in the polls.
Now go back to those tellingly haphazard police lines. They were haphazard because the president has very limited public order policing power at his disposal. District of Columbia police are not under his command (and the mayor has refused to hand them over to him).
The Arlington County police have since been withdrawn. The governors of Virginia and New York have pulled back National Guard units that had been on the way to the capital once they realised what they might be used for. No states have asked for federal assistance and retain control of their own national guard units.
Trump’s instinct is usually to escalate the appearance of conflict. This explains his Defence Secretary talking about “dominating the battlespace” without realising how bad that sounded when the space in question was his own country’s capital.
The idea of using the Insurrection Act (which dates from 1807) to allow the army to be deployed on the streets has been broached, but would run into stiff legal challenge. Admiral Mike Mullen, Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. wrote on Tuesday night: “[C]ertainly, we have not crossed the threshold that would make it appropriate to invoke the provisions of the Insurrection Act.
This is crucial, because though soldiers are required to obey orders, they are equally obliged to disobey illegal ones. It is a thinly coded signal to serving military officers to prepare for an illegal instruction from Trump. As well as Mullen’s piece, I hope they read Anne Applebaum’s essay on history judging collaborators. Trump would destroy the American republic to save his own skin. We have to hope he doesn’t get to try.