Trump has governed in some ways that no US president has ever done before. One is that he made almost no attempt to expand his support beyond his hard-core base. Even dictators generally come to a different conclusion about what is best for their political survival. But Trump has had difficulty even distancing himself from violent organized white supremacists.
Another is the unprecedented extent to which he has used distraction as a primary media and political strategy. There is always something potentially damaging about him in the media ― many observers thought he was finished before the 2016 election when the infamous “grab ‘em by the pussy” tapes were released. Trump’s strategy for damage control has been unique, and unrelenting: create a distraction that the media will latch onto and displace the scandal du jour. Even if the distraction is a net negative in the polls, it is easy to move on to something else. Rinse, repeat. Trump’s trade wars, for example, were made-to-order for this strategy; it is easy to pick a fight with almost any trading partner and declare victory when it’s over.
Trump’s strategy has kept his approval ratings at a more constant level than any president in the past 70 years. But the downside, for Trump, is that he will need to expand beyond his base in order to get reelected ― unless he can suppress enough Democratic votes. Therefore, voter suppression is the first priority of his 2020 strategy.
That is where the United States Postal Service comes in. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be a record number of votes by mail; and Democrats are expected to vote much more by mail than Republicans. In May, Louis DeJoy, a major Republican donor, was appointed to run the US Postal Service, and he immediately began implementing measures that slowed down the delivery of mail.
On August 18, he announced that he would suspend his initiatives that were slowing mail delivery. This happened the day after two members of Congress, Reps. Ted Lieu and Hakeem Jeffries, threatened to go to the FBI to pursue criminal charges against him for interfering with mail delivery, including ballots in particular.
The threat of criminal prosecution must be stepped up; it’s probably the only thing that people like DeJoy will listen to.
Members of Congress should make it clear that anyone in the management of the US Postal Service ― or anywhere else ― who was involved in reducing the capacity of the Postal Service to process mail ballots will face criminal prosecution to the full extent of the law. This includes DeJoy, who should be promised immediately that there will be a congressional investigation of what has happened at the Postal Service under his management. There is already considerable evidence of a deliberate intent to slow mail delivery, which would warrant a criminal investigation by the FBI.
Two weeks ago, a federal judge in Washington State said: “At the heart of DeJoy’s and the Postal Service’s actions is voter disenfranchisement.” Chief Judge Stanley A. Bastian, of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Washington State, also issued an injunction prohibiting the Postal Service from the use of various instructions that would slow down mail delivery. These include “(1) eliminating overtime; (2) decommissioning sorting machines; (3) removing mailboxes; (4) reducing operating hours; and (5) changing how election mail is classified.”
Trump himself gave a pretty clear indication of his own intentions back in August, when he announced that he would not approve emergency funding for the US Postal Service, and followed with: “They don’t have the money to do the universal mail-in voting. So therefore, they can’t do it, I guess,” Trump said.
There have now been four nationwide injunctions against the US Postal Service issued by federal judges, as a result of lawsuits over the changes that DeJoy has made since May. This is a major achievement by state attorneys general and others who have taken legal action; but it is not enough. This is about an attempt to steal an election ― one of the most serious crimes that can be committed in a democracy. Anyone involved in such an operation ― including Trump himself ― must be held criminally liable.
Democrats will also need to make sure that Trump cannot get the same kind of mileage from distractions that he has gotten over the past four years, in the month that remains until November 3. In the 2018 elections, Democrats stayed on message ― focusing on issues such as health care and Republican attempts to eliminate Affordable Care Act coverage; they turned out 25 million more voters than in the last non-presidential-year election (2014) and took 41 new seats to regain a majority in the House. Trump’s provocations, such as threatening to not accept the election results, are a distraction; of course they must be denounced forcefully, most importantly for promoting violence.
But between now and the election, Trump and his party must be held accountable for what they have already done, and the mass death and suffering that their decisions have caused. Trump’s falling ill with COVID has obviously elevated the visibility of this issue; but there is no telling how this will play out in the debate over health policy during the 30 days remaining before the vote. The vast majority of the over 200,000 Americans who have perished in the pandemic could have been saved. And both Trump and his party have tried very hard, and continue to try, to take away health care from millions of Americans; with some Republican governors succeeding. And now they ― both Trump and his party ― deny desperately needed aid to the unemployed and to the state and local governments who must help the poor, the sick, and the vulnerable in this unprecedented crisis of deep recession and pandemic.
And at the same time, Democrats need to bring some “law and order” to these elections: people who deprive Americans of their constitutional right to vote, in order to steal an election, will be prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.
This column first appeared on MarketWatch.