OP-ED: Here's how Trump could win, again

John M. Crisp
Tribune News Service
Marine One leaves after President Trump spoke during a Make America Great Again Victory Rally at The Villages on Friday, October 23, 2020. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

Americans who are voting for Joe Biden on Nov. 3 find comfort in polls that show him maintaining a significant lead over Donald Trump, even in some of the battleground states. Still, many continue to be haunted by the nightmare of 2016, when few gave Trump much of a chance to win. Somehow he pulled it off. Could that happen again?

In September 2016, a couple of months before the election, I wrote a column entitled, "Here's Why Trump Could Win." It was based on a lecture by retired Lt. Col. Jeffrey Addicott, a professor of law and director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas.

The professor had credentials: His bio called him an "internationally recognized authority on national security law." He said that he had testified before Congress and delivered more than 700 speeches. He had written 60 books and given more than 4,000 interviews to news outlets ranging from the New York Times to Fox News.

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Nevertheless, much of what he said during the lecture was patently, plainly and demonstrably false.

Furthermore, he moved quickly from falsehood to fear: He claimed to have predicted 9/11, and now he was predicting another attack on the homeland, with casualties amounting to 3 million, rather than 3,000.

He began to attack liberals, claiming that they are unpatriotic (wrong) and that they believe the death penalty is unconstitutional (also wrong). In fact, he displayed a disarming appetite for the death penalty, expressing his willingness to fly anywhere in the country to throw the switch himself if the executioner fell ill.

And if liberals whine that an innocent American might be executed by mistake, he shrugged and said, "Nobody's perfect."

It was a remarkable exposition of misinformation, fear-mongering, divisiveness and casual cruelty, which, as we were learning, are Trump's stock-in-trade. In fact, the colonel's message was clear: Vote for Trump.

It was a strange event, but it was the audience, rather than the speaker, that stoked my misgivings about the possibility of a Trump victory. It was not made up of unemployed autoworkers whose jobs had been shipped to Mexico by NAFTA or of struggling rural citizens who felt disrespected by elites on the coasts.

In fact, the audience members, who largely accepted the colonel's dark message without objection, were elites themselves, upper-middle-class white citizens to whom the American dream had been very good. Trump didn't create the vein of fear, selfishness, cruelty and racism that runs through American culture, but he had found an effective way to mine it. Two months later he was elected president.

Four years later, the same speech would find just as receptive an audience. Trump has bolstered the tensions — fear, hatred, division, untruth, cruelty — that contributed to his election, and they are exacerbated by two additional elements: pandemic 2020 and a rising awareness of climate change, which are both a danger and an opportunity for Trump.

The danger is that both provide vivid examples of how disconnected from the truth Trump is. During last week's debate, he claimed again that "It's going away." The next day, infections hit 83,154, a new daily record that beat the previous record by 10,000.

Last month during the California wildfires, when Trump was challenged by officials with climate change data, he said, "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch."

Thus Trump is gifted with a valuable opportunity, to be the bearer of good news that we are desperate to hear, even if it's not true: These twin existential crises — one immediate; the other, also immediate — are not as bad as we thought and soon they will go away.

This is nonsense, of course, but we underestimate at our peril the power of nonsense to move a fearful, desperate audience hungry for good news. It's the opposite of beating the messenger; it's electing him.

For voters, it's a question of courage: Are we willing to face honestly the daunting challenges that Trump would rather deny than confront? Nov. 3 will tell us a lot about who we are.

— John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at