Let’s take a minute and imagine — or pretend — that President Trump has a grand strategy governing his campaign. That offers a chance to provide the only remotely positive gloss that can be applied to his dumbfounding refusal to say point blank there would be a “peaceful transition of power” after the election.
The grand strategy would be “The Scramble.”
Old guys like me have fond memories of the scrambling quarterback Fran Tarkenton, who would get himself in trouble in the backfield, run backward 20 yards, then run forward 25 yards — and score a small gain after a huge self-created melodrama.
If the president wins this election in November, he will prove himself to be the Fran Tarkenton of politics.
In the “peaceful transition” case, as in past cases, Trump gets himself into self-created jams that cause his ideological and partisan rivals to swarm him deep in his own territory — with the hope of somehow both exhausting them and eluding them and finishing on the upside.
You could say this is what happened when Trump decided to see if he could short-circuit the Joe Biden threat in 2019 by trying to get dirt out of Ukraine on Joe’s son Hunter. By doing so, he exposed himself to hearings that led to his impeachment. But that effort proved to be a pointless political exercise for the Democrats and didn’t do him any sustained political harm.
Time and again, Trump draws shocked and outraged fire from his antagonists for saying outrageous things. When the dust settles, his enemies have been driven bananas — and his support is exactly where it was before.
This quality, the ability to drive liberals and Trump-hating former conservatives into impotent fits of sputtering rage, both delights many of his supporters and seems to recharge Trump’s combative batteries. It’s almost as though he lives off drinking liberal tears.
But is that really living?
At least when Tarkenton scrambled, he often ended up gaining yardage. At best, Trump finds himself back at the line of scrimmage, with an approval rating flatlined in the low 40s.
Thus, even if you want to believe Trump’s trolling is a strategy rather than a kind of animal cunning — perpetual aggression designed to ward off future challenges to his alpha status — you really ought to question its effectiveness.
Just because someone has a strategy doesn’t mean it’s a good strategy. It’s probably comforting to think there’s a plan, because otherwise you really have to confront various different possibilities.
One is that Trump has no idea what he’s doing and simply responds without considering the consequences of his actions.
The other is that he’s intending to stage a coup and destroy American democracy so he can stay in the Oval Office, and that he was signaling his intention to do so to activate his forces around the country or terrify people into voting for him so that he’s not tested on his intentions.
Now, which is more likely?
Do me a favor and try not to be crazy when considering the question. I know it’s hard.
But here’s the thing for anyone inclined to pooh-pooh the deadly seriousness of what Trump said or wouldn’t say. We’re going to be talking about this for at least a week. It will be a dominating subject of the first debate, which takes place on Tuesday.
And because he did not slam the door on the subject, this president, who has been trumpeting his support for “law and order,” has undercut any argument he might make against violent street actions by the activist left in the wake of an unclear result after Election Day.
Moreover, it came just hours after Trump got his best polling news in a month, with state surveys taken by ABC News and The Washington Post that showed him in better shape in must-win Florida and Arizona. He stepped on that positive and squashed it like a bug.
Every minute we’re talking about whether Trump is or is not abusing his power is a minute Trump has lost. And the minutes are growing short. Trump’s best chance now is, quite simply, to stop scrambling — and shut up.
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