Opponents of Donald Trump often describe him as a “political genius” who has a cunning understanding of the anxieties and fears of American society, and is able to create and use crises to his favor. The current standoff in Portland shows, yet again, that this is not the case. While his alleged fight against antifa will satisfy some of his far-right supporters, it increasingly risks further alienating the so-called “moderate” Republicans – which seems mostly used to describe better-off pocketbook Republican voters – who are already feeling uneasy over his Covid-19 handling and the economic fallout of the pandemic.
An almost ignored aspect of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is that Trump failed to use it to push through his authoritarian agenda by increasing executive powers, weakening the powers of other institutions, like Congress, and marginalizing dissent, for instance by banning demonstrations. Almost all other countries implemented a more repressive approach to Covid-19, including those governed by progressive parties (like Spain), while most far-right governments used it to push through draconian repressive measures (such as Hungary and India).
Of course, the explanation is that Trump initially denied and ignored the dangers of Covid-19, arguing that “it’s going to work out fine” and “the warmer weather” would take care of it. This made it difficult for him to later shift to an authoritarian approach. Difficult, but certainly not impossible. But clearly Trump never wanted to. Instead, he kept insisting on an economic approach to re-election, repositioning himself as the savior of the US economy, and aggressively pushing for the “reopening of America”.
A second opportunity to push through an authoritarian agenda came with the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor this spring. Trump’s response was as expected, playing to the broader Republican electorate’s racialized fears about chaos and rioting. In the 15 days between Floyd’s murder and funeral, Trump tweeted 195 times about unrest, law enforcement and the threat of military use.