Opinion

Trump wants to take America down with him

Facing defeat, the president sets fire to everything in sight

Thirty years ago this month, Iraqi forces commanded by Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied the tiny nation of Kuwait. A few months later, a coalition led by the United States drove those forces back into Iraq. The retreating army did not go quietly. Instead, fleeing soldiers set fire to hundreds of oil wells, blackening the sky with smoke for months and creating a terrible environmental disaster. The message was clear: If Saddam couldn't have Kuwait's oil, nobody could.

President Trump is now running the United States government using Saddam-like logic.

There are fewer than 90 days left before the election, and Trump — who lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College in 2016 — is in bad shape. RealClearPolitics' roundup of polls shows presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden leading Trump by almost eight points nationally, and by 4.3 points in battleground states. Trump has never had an approval rate above 50 percent during his term — but Gallup now puts his approval rating at 41 percent, which is better than George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter had at the same point in their first terms, but worse than the last four presidents who actually achieved re-election.

The president's response to the growing prospect of losing the White House has been to set fire to, well, everything — our national cohesion, our institutions, and our elections.

Trump has always been divisive, willing to wage ugly attacks on Gold Star parents and former prisoners of war who had the audacity to criticize or disagree with him. The hopes that he would become "presidential" in office have been dashed so many times by now that "this is the day Donald Trump became president" has long been a running gag on Twitter.

As his position has become vulnerable, though, the president has become ever more willing to dissolve the already-fragile ties that bind Americans together. Trump draws lines daily. He warns suburbanites that minorities will invade their neighborhoods if he loses the election. He raises questions about the eligibility of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) to serve as president. (She's eligible.) He even retweets fans of his who urge conservatives to "Leave Democrat cities. Let them rot." Has any president ever expressed such contempt for his fellow citizens? President Abraham Lincoln waged a bloody Civil War against the Confederacy, and he managed to urge Americans not to have malice against their once and future neighbors. Trump has no time for the rhetoric of unity.

Trump has also spent his presidency hollowing out important American institutions — most notably bending and breaking the Department of Justice to short-circuit investigations of his cronies while using it as a weapon against his perceived enemies. And while he has long been interested in undermining the United States Postal Service, those efforts have taken on new urgency as the election nears. Sorting machines and post office boxes have been removed in cities across the country in a clear attempt to disrupt absentee voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. Trump has admitted this is his aim.

These moves to divide Americans and wreck long-trusted institutions are in service to the president's most fundamental goal: destroying confidence in the November presidential election. Democracy is only as strong as Americans' belief in the fairness and accuracy of election results results. Trump regularly asserts that the election will be rigged against him via the mail, or because vote-counting might extend past election night. There is little reason to believe either assertion is true, but the threat gives Trump a public reason to hold onto power even if the vote goes against him. At best, it will be an excuse to salve his ego.

As the election draws near, and the danger to Trump's position becomes more clear, the characteristics that make him a terrible president are amplifying and accelerating. He will only get more destructive — acting out, raging, burning our institutions to the ground out of petulance and protest.

Three decades later, Kuwait is still dealing with financial and environmental issues lingering from the destruction of all its oil wells in 1991. The example is instructive. Even if Trump ends up leaving the White House in January — voluntarily or involuntarily — it may be years or decades before America recovers from the damage done in the last months before the 2020 election. The message is clear: If Trump can't have America, nobody can.

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