Expect the worst, and a lot of it.
If the last four years have taught us anything, it's that Donald Trump is preternaturally reactive and impulsive. There are no grand Machiavellian schemes to divert attention when things go south, even if they work out that way on occasion. If you blindfold me, point me in the general direction of a dartboard, and give me enough darts – maybe 100, maybe 1,000, maybe 10,000 – I will eventually hit a bulls-eye; that doesn't mean I know what I'm doing.
When his poll numbers hit the skids, Trump – being reactive and impulsive – reacts impulsively, leading to a greater-than-normal torrent of the outrages that have defined his presidency. And as the campaign enters the home stretch with the president flailing, it was inevitable that he'd show his whole ass in ways big and small.
I won't belabor the stories that have dominated recent news cycles: Trump's WTF interview with Axios' Jonathan Swan; his postmaster general's effort to slow mail delivery ahead of the election; his paramilitary invasion of Portland; his TikTok ban, which might be retribution for teenagers pranking him; his remark that Joe Biden, a devout Catholic, would "hurt God" if elected, which is probably news to the deity in whom the pussy-grabber-in-chief now professes belief; his team's bumbling negotiations over a stimulus package, which will likely end – by design, I suspect – with the president (illegally) extending unemployment benefits via executive order in a transparent attempt to make himself the hero of a dysfunctional Washington.
As the election nears, these stories will come fast and furious. Trump and his allies will say and do outlandish things to drag Biden and create media storms. Already, despite the pandemic and economic crisis, Senate Republicans have found time to launch a new "investigation" into Hunter Biden and Burisma, using "evidence" cooked up by Russia-connected Ukrainians and laundered through Rudy Giuliani.
In the background, however, the Trump administration continues to make real policy decisions with real human consequences that often receive little or no notice, the constant chaos providing cover for the destruction.
A few examples:
• U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services introduced what Washington Post writer Catherine Rampell aptly described as a Kafka-esque policy to reject visa or green card applications if a person doesn't fill in all the fields on an application, even if those fields don't apply to them. For instance, if you don't have a middle name, and you leave the space for "middle name" blank instead of writing "N/A," your application gets tossed. Worse, some spaces on the online USCIS application form don't allow you to type in "N/A" or "None." Immigration attorneys began doing it by hand. So USCIS extended the policy to documents that law enforcement or medical officials have to fill out, as they're not always fastidious about these things.
• The administration is using the pandemic to bypass anti-trafficking laws and a decades-old court order governing the care of migrant children. Instead of being sent to government shelters and placed with sponsor homes, kids are now carted off by private contractors to hotels before being deported. It's a "shadow system in which there's no accountability for expelling very young children," an attorney at the National Center for Youth Law told the Associated Press.
• The Census Bureau will end its constitutionally mandated decennial count a month early, meaning Latinx, Black, Asian American and Native American populations will be undercounted – and whites overcounted – as the country reallocates congressional districts and federal resources. We'll be stuck with this rigged count for a decade.
• The Department of Housing and Urban Administration quietly – at first – gutted an Obama-era policy designed to combat longstanding segregation by requiring local governments to show that they were providing fair, affordable housing to receive federal housing funds. HUD deemed the policy a "waste of time" and decided local governments could "self-certify" instead. The move only received wider attention a week later, when the president said the quiet part out loud, assuring (white) suburbanites that he wouldn't let "low-income" housing into their neighborhoods.
• The Trump administration will almost certainly fail to renew a nuclear arms-control pact with Russia, as Moscow and Beijing have rejected the administration's demand that China – which has a much smaller arsenal but is the focus of the president's election-year ire – be included as well. The Russians have said they would unconditionally extend the existing treaty, negotiated by President Obama in 2010. Trump has refused. If the New START Treaty isn't finalized by February, there will be no restrictions on Russia's nuclear weapons.
• If Democrats win Congress and the White House in November, the Congressional Review Act will allow them to overturn rules made at the end of Trump's presidency. So with the clock ticking, the administration is furiously scaling back regulations on fuel efficiency standards, air pollution emitted by power plants, and pollution in waterways and wetlands. Meanwhile, it's rolling out the red carpet for oil drilling, logging and mining operations, relaxing liquefied natural gas standards, and – why not? – removing dams in the Pacific Northwest that protect threatened salmon. Once entrenched, these rules will take years to reverse.
I could go on, but you get the idea. For the 80-plus days until the election, the administration can keep chipping away at environmental protections and civil rights rules and enact more immigration roadblocks, things likely to stay just below the radar. But if Trump is defeated, all bets are off. A wounded and unstable president who's demonstrated a vindictive streak and shown little regard for democratic norms would have 78 days until the inauguration with nothing to lose and the same powers he has now.
He could pardon his friends. He could sic Homeland Security agents on cities that opposed him. He could have the Justice Department investigate conspiracy theories about the election and undermine its integrity. He could start a war. He could launch a nuke. He could tear the country apart out of spite.
The point is, the last throes of a regime are often its most dangerous. Expect the worst – and a lot of it.
– This story appears in the Aug. 12, 2020, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly newsletters.