On Sunday, Michael Caputo, the assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, warned of left-wing insurrectionists and “sedition” within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during a video he hosted live on his Facebook page. After predicting victory for President Trump in the upcoming election, Caputo warned that Joe Biden wouldn’t concede. “And when Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin,” he said. “The drills that you’ve seen are nothing.”
Ordinarily, in a presidential election year, the main story of American politics is the election — its twists and turns, its ups and downs. This year, that story is hard to convey. Part of the reason for this is that the race itself is unremarkable, despite everything else that’s happening around it. Biden is ahead, most voters have made up their minds and Trump has a narrow path to re-election, with few opportunities to recover lost ground.
The larger, more important factor is that Trump isn’t actually running for re-election — or at least, not running in the traditional manner. He has a campaign, yes, but it is not a campaign to win votes or persuade the public outside of a few, select slivers of the electorate. Instead, it’s a campaign to hold on to power by any means necessary, using every tool available to him as president of the United States. Caputo, in that sense, is only taking cues from his boss.
Of course, Trump would like to obtain a proper victory. But it’s clear he’s not counting on it. That is why the most visible aspect of Trump’s campaign for continued power is his attack on the election itself. If he doesn’t win, he says again and again, then the outcome isn’t legitimate. He said it last month, during a trip to Wisconsin:
The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged. Remember that. It’s the only way we’re going to lose this election, so we have to be very careful.
He said it again on Saturday, to cheering supporters at a nearly mask-less indoor rally in Nevada. “I am going to start by saying that the Democrats are trying to rig this election because it’s the only way they are going to win.”
Along with this warning comes Trump’s call for supporters to act as “poll watchers” to prevent imaginary fraud at voting locations. “Watch it,” he said last week during a rally in North Carolina. “Be poll watchers when you go there. Watch all the thieving and stealing and robbing they do.” He added that after they vote, his supporters should “make sure it counts” because the “only way” Democrats can win is by “doing very bad things.”
There’s also the president’s rhetoric toward his political opponents. Asked on Fox News about “riots” if he wins re-election, Trump said he would “put them down very quickly,” before adding:
Look, it’s called insurrection. We just send in and we do it, very easy. I mean, it’s very easy. I’d rather not do that because there’s no reason for it, but if we had to we’d do that and put it down within minutes.
Later in the interview, Trump commented on the Sept. 3 killing of Michael Forest Reinoehl by U.S. marshals. Reinoehl was suspected of shooting a member of the far-right group Patriot Prayer during a protest in Portland, Ore., on Aug. 29. Trump, who swore to uphold the Constitution when he was inaugurated, claimed to have essentially called for an extrajudicial killing:
Now we sent in the U.S. marshals for the killer, the man that killed the young man in the street. Two and a half days went by, and I put out “when are you going to go get him.” And the U.S. marshals went in to get him. There was a shootout. This guy was a violent criminal, and the U.S. marshalls killed him. And I’ll tell you something — that’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution.
Instead of making a conventional appeal to voters to give him another term in office, Trump is issuing a threat, of sorts: I cannot lose. If I do lose, the election was stolen. Anyone protesting my effort to hold onto power is an insurrectionist. And sometimes, “there has to be retribution.”
You can dismiss Trump’s statements as mere ranting and raving, but remember: This is a president who makes policy with his ranting and raving. And his allies, both in and out of government, have gotten the message. Asked in an interview with Alex Jones, the far-right conspiracy theorist, what Trump should do against Democrats who “think they can steal” the election, Roger Stone — a close confidant of the president whose 40-month prison sentence for witness tampering and lying to Congress was commuted by Trump earlier this year — said that “the ballots in Nevada on election night should be seized by federal marshals and taken from the state” because “they are completely corrupted.” He also urged the president to declare “martial law” and invoke the Insurrection Act to arrest political opponents.
It is a little tempting to treat all of this as a distraction from the traditional campaign, from the polls and events and advertisements and general political spectacle. For Trump, however, this is the campaign, and it is laying the groundwork for chaos and violence should the outcome show the slightest ambiguity (and even if it doesn’t). In a half-functioning country, all of the president’s rhetoric on this score would be grounds for removal from office. But we don’t live in a half-functioning country — we live in the United States of America.