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Trump’s Plan B: From demagoguery to violence

At the time of writing, it looks likely that Trump will not win the US presidential election. His numbers are gravitating around 40 percent. Leading Republicans and Republican party financiers have started to take their distance. Those that assumed that Trump would not prove a flash in the pan but would later move to the centre in a show of presidentialism are now licking their wounds.

Full disclosure: I am one of the latter. In September 2015, I posted a blog piece that asserted that Trump had a real chance of becoming the next President of United States. The underlying assumption was that he effectively understood the preoccupations of a significant segment of the US population and, once having won their allegiance, he would embrace a more centrist agenda. But it now seems that he is ready to go with what has got him to the nomination – and hang the consequences.

That said, the campaign has been a topsy turvy affair that may still bring surprises. On the democratic side, there are several issues that could turn tables: Hillary’s emails, the financing of the Clinton Foundation, a cleverly targeted and intelligently timed terrorist attack, yet another strategic blamage for the Obama administration and so on.

And then there is the essential weakness of the Clinton campaign. Hillary is the candidate of continuity, even as she tries to nuance her positions vis-a-vis those of Obama. The essential strength of Donald is that he is a challenger advocating change, however faulty his propos.

But since the party conventions, anyone who had doubts about Trump’s capacity to lead the nation has had their worst fears confirmed. My working assumption is that Trump may by now have assumed that he will lose in November. In fact, he recently acknowledged as much publicly.

I cannot claim to understand how Trump works but if I look at his recent initiatives, I detect a Plan B, one that is not good for the world, let alone the United States, and one of which he may or may not be fully cognizant. Here are what I think are Plan B’s central components.

First, Trump has put America on notice that the election results can be rigged. This sets the stage for Trump and his followers not to accept a Clinton victory in November.

Second, Trump has encouraged his followers to use violence against Clinton. The “lock her up” chant that resonated at the Republican convention has escalated into a suggestion that enthusiasts of the second amendment, the one that incarnates the right to bear weapons, could prevent a President Clinton from making appointments to the Supreme Court that would load it against America’ s laissez-faire approach to fire-arms. This is an exhortation to assassination.

Third, Trump has continued to harangue the press as being fundamentally corrupt, meaning that any media outlet critical of Trump should not be taken credibly. This is meant as a body blow to one of the most critically important oversight oversight actors in the US system.

Fourth, Trump has taken an unnuanced stance in favour of the police, even where and when its performance has been shown to be racially biased and guilty of crimes against minorities.

Fifth, Trump has labelled Barack and Hillary the founders of ISIS, later relabeling this as sarcasm. But the point that will stick with his core supporters is that Barack and Hillary are abettors of terrorism, and therefore deserve to be dealt with accordingly.

Last but not least, Trump has plunged the Republican party into a historical crisis, from which it will need much time to recover. Can American democracy function as a one-party system?

The cumulative effect of these initiatives is to open a pathway for disgruntled, and in some cases significantly armed individuals, to take the law into their hands at the same time as the institutions and individuals that could provide countervailing leadership are seriously wounded. We are not talking about anything even remotely close to a plurality of the US population. That said, this is about a significant number of individuals who are being egged on to believing that they have right on their side and a licence to resort to violence in its defence.

How to understand this? You might assume that Trump is a psychological basket case, obsessed by his sense of self and ready to go to great lengths to feed it. You could surmise that he knows exactly what he is doing. You might reckon that it is about a great lot of both.

Or you might figure that there is a Russian connection. Note, there does not have to be a Russian conspiracy behind all this. The American political system is sufficiently dysfunctional to generate a Donald Trump without any outside assistance. But there could be a Trump interest in sucking up to Russia to protect existing or potential business opportunities in Russia.

Whatever, if I were Vladimir Putin, I would be working to strengthen Trump – with money or subterfuge of one sort or the other – betting on his capacity to wreak havoc in American politics, discredit the US and hobble its capacity to deal with the rising strategic challenges in the international arena. Trump is making it easier to ridicule and resent an America that whatever its failings continues to underpin the régime of international security that has spared the world major conflict for three generations now. America’s allies and partners are in shock; their enemies feel empowered.

There remains the question as to why would Trump entertain such a Plan B? He is a businessman, a dealmaker as he never ceases to assert. Staying in the limelight, however shady, can enhance his brand. He does not need to be a Manchurian candidate to see things this way. But neither should this variant be excluded.

Bottom line: Donald Trump may not have a plan B; he may not be in cahoots with Putin; he may just be a dysfunctional guy who knows how to perform on TV. Then again, he may be a lot smarter and more ruthless than we imagine, ready to put his country on the line for “a good deal”.

In any event, the Trump campaign risks sparking violence on the streets of the United States as well as further afield – as if there was not already enough.

David Law is a Senior Associate of the Security Governance Group and a Senior Fellow of its sister organization, the Centre for Security Governance. He is a former Head of NATO’s Policy Planning and Speechwriting Unit.

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