Donald Trump has gotten millions of voters to believe that he’s the only thing standing between them and an American apocalypse; that if he loses, it will portend, on some level, the end of the country as they know and love it.
He’s conning them all. Donald Trump doesn’t actually care all that much whether he wins. He knows that things, at least for him, are going to be just fine.
At least, that’s what his own campaign manager says he believes.
In a feature on the last days of Trump’s 2016 campaign, New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman quotes Kellyanne Conway admitting that she got “really mad at [Trump] the other day” for expressing his nonchalance:
“He said ‘I think we’ll win, and if we don’t, that’s okay too,’” Conway told Sherman. “And I said, ‘That’s not okay! You can’t say that! Your dry-cleaning bill is like the annual salaries of the people who came to your rallies, and they believe in you!’”
It would be astounding for any candidate to admit, even privately, 10 days before the election that “if we don’t [win], that’s okay too.” It’s especially mind-boggling — and especially irresponsible — for a candidate to believe that privately and then tell his supporters, publicly, that electing him is their country’s last chance.
The problem is that both Trump and Conway are right: Trump really will be okay even if he loses, but a lot of other people won’t be. Trump has never quite understood that. And that means he’s never understood — and, with only a few days to go, is running out of time to realize — just how dangerous the sentiments he’s stirring really are.
Donald Trump has whipped his supporters into a last-chance frenzy
It’s perfectly understandable that so many Trump supporters are personally, even zealously, invested in his candidacy. Trump himself has encouraged it, to an extent that (even in our current, fandom-inflected political culture, where supporting politicians often tips over into loving them) is unprecedented.
If he loses, he warns, America will be lost.
“This election is our last chance to secure the border, stop illegal immigration, and reform our laws to make your life better," Trump told America during his major immigration speech at the end of August. “This is it. We won't get another opportunity — it will be too late." To his followers, who are deeply concerned about immigration changing the character of the country, that’s tantamount to saying it’s the last chance for America itself.
Indeed, Trump himself has encouraged this thinking: “I think this will be the last election if I don’t win,” Trump told the Christian Broadcasting Network in September. He went on to clarify that it would be, at least, the last election Republicans had a chance of winning, because a Hillary Clinton presidency would ensure a permanent electoral majority for Democrats by allowing millions of immigrants to vote.
But what’s even more alarming than his dire warnings about what happens if he loses are his promises about what happens if he wins.
The minute Trump is inaugurated, he promised during his Republican National Convention speech, America’s streets will become safe again: “Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored.” America will automatically regain its economic competitiveness and the respect of the world. “Peace will be restored,” he assured.
"You have 38 days to make every dream you ever dreamed for your country come true," Trump told supporters at a Virginia rally a month ago. "Do not let this opportunity slip away or be wasted. You will never ever have this chance again. Not going to happen again. … You have one magnificent chance."
But Trump and his inner circle are lying to their supporters about how crucial this election really is
At times during this election, Trump has admitted — in public — that he’ll be okay if he loses.
He previously used this as an expression of his civic-mindedness: proof that he didn’t really need to run for president but was doing it because he cared so much about the well-being of his supporters. “I could be having a very nice life right now,” he told supporters in Columbus, Ohio, this summer. “I don’t have to be with you people, ranting and raving.”
This means the stakes of this election, for Donald Trump, simply aren’t terribly high. “If at the end of 90 days I’ve fallen short,” he told CNBC in August, “it’s okay. I go back to a very good way of life. ... At the end its either going to work or I'm going to, you know, I'm going to have a very, very nice long vacation.”
Campaign manager Conway is actually the reason that Trump doesn’t say that out loud anymore — at least according to her. She told the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza that she confronted Trump after his CNBC “nice long vacation” comments and told him, point blank, “You can’t say that”:
“You’ve built a whole movement, and people feel like they’re part of it. Mr. Trump, people have stood in the rain for three hours just to say they were there when you were there. They so believe in you that when you say, ‘Eh, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll go back to the happy place,’ they don’t think that they will.”
But apparently, according to Sherman’s New York magazine piece, Trump still believes that he’s going to be all right win or lose, even if he doesn’t say it out on the campaign trail anymore.
Conway may believe this isn’t a good attitude to have going into the campaign’s home stretch. But other members of Trump’s inner circle appear to be as sanguine as Trump about the prospect of losing. In fact, they’re downright enthusiastic about what they’d be able to do with the movement they’ve built under a Clinton presidency.
Sherman paints a similar picture to the one in Sasha Issenberg and Joshua Green’s Bloomberg feature last week, which showed that senior Trump strategists including son-in-law Jared Kushner, Breitbart News head Steve Bannon, and digital guru Brad Parscale are already thinking about their 12 million-member email list and 2.5 million-member donor base (not to mention Trump’s followings on Facebook and Twitter) as a potential market for some future Trumpist product at least as much as they’re thinking about them as voters and potential volunteers between now and November 8.
They don’t necessarily agree on what, exactly, they want to use their following for, though. According to Sherman, Kushner wants to make money off them: He reports that “Kushner has approached Wall Street bankers and pitched ideas for media start-ups,” asking “How can we monetize this?” Bannon, meanwhile, wants to use them as the core of a political movement to reshape the Republican Party, Sherman reports.
But as distinct as these goals are, both of them betray that Bannon and Kushner are actually pretty fine with Hillary Clinton winning the election. They clearly believe that not only will they personally be okay, but so will American democracy: that the Republican Party can still be saved and that a free press will not be shuttered.
In other words, they think America is a lot more robust than they’re telling their followers it is.
Trump simply doesn’t understand that this isn’t a game, and people could get hurt
It’s tempting, for those of us who care about Donald Trump’s lies, to relish the irony that Trump is lying to the people who trust him most. Trump has won a following predicated on the belief that he understands just how much his followers are pained by a changing America; it’s patently obvious that nothing could be further from the truth.
But it would only be ironic if Trump’s rhetoric didn’t have consequences. As it is, it’s dangerous.
If you think this will be the last chance to save America, doing the same things you’ve been doing isn’t sufficient. Drastic times require drastic measures.
If you are convinced that this will be the last election your party ever has a chance to win — or perhaps the last election ever, period — then you may very well consider engaging in voter fraud to counteract (imaginary) voter fraud on the other side.
If you believe America will sink into tyranny under a President Clinton, then you feel the need to join or support a coup to depose her.
If you truly believe America will be destroyed if immigrants are allowed to continue to settle in the US, then of course you’re going to do everything you can to make the immigrants around you feel as uncomfortable as possible, in the hopes that they will leave. Or even beat them with a pole. Or kill them.
This is the real problem with Trump’s two-faced apocalypticism. Yes, his supporters feel that they won’t be okay if he loses, and they’re not necessarily wrong: They’re in pain, and that pain will remain acute and unsalved if Trump loses (though it will be only slightly better if he wins). But the same people most in danger from a Trump presidency are also in danger from the bitter-end anger of disappointed Trumpists.
Win or lose, Donald Trump will be okay. Jared Kushner will be okay. Steve Bannon will be okay.
Trump’s supporters will be in pain. Trump and Kushner and Bannon will draw strength and money from their pain. But Trump supporters will feel anything but okay.
The people they might victimize will not be okay. Trump and Kushner and Bannon will face no consequences for any extreme actions taken by their most gullible supporters. The rest of America will.