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It’s as if the calendar suddenly raced forward a year in the blink of an eye.
President Joe Biden and ex-President Donald Trump are stuck in their possible rematch for the White House a year early, with the incumbent set to rush to Michigan Tuesday to preemptively steal his possible rival’s headlines on the picket lines of an autoworkers dispute. Trump, meanwhile, is flinging violent and extreme rhetoric and trying to orchestrate a government shutdown to damage his successor.
Never mind that the first votes in the Republican nominating contest are four months away. Or that Trump’s rivals will gather in California Wednesday for a debate set to be overshadowed by the runaway front-runner’s speech in Detroit – part of his duel with Biden for vital blue-collar votes in a swing state that they both won on the way to the White House.
The 2024 match-up that polls show most Americans don’t want is bursting into life ahead of an unprecedented campaign in which Trump is staring down four criminal trials and is generating an extreme preview of a second term of “retribution” that could threaten political institutions and democracy even more than his turbulent first administration. The sitting president seeking reelection is facing concerns that, at 82 by the next inauguration, he might not be able to fulfill his duties for an entire second term with Democrats increasingly unnerved by polls showing the hypothetical rematch is a dead heat.
Trump has noticeably upped the pace and the viciousness of his campaign in recent days, as he sets his sights on Biden while also taking steps in early voting states to try to snuff out the hopes of his distant GOP rivals that they could deprive him of his third straight GOP nomination.
The ex-president clearly views the imbroglio in Washington – in which hardline House Republicans are making a mockery of Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s leadership and could shut down the government by a Saturday deadline – as an opportunity to wound Biden. He is showing little concern about the damage a shutdown could do to innocent federal workers or the economy, as he typically prioritizes his political goals.
“UNLESS YOU GET EVERYTHING, SHUT IT DOWN!” Trump wrote on his Truth Social network late on Sunday evening, injecting new toxins into an already bitter mood among GOP lawmakers.
At first sight, Trump’s support for a shutdown makes little political sense since Republican leaders warn that such political cataclysms almost always hurt their party when it initiates such crises with a Democrat in the White House.
Public anger at the GOP that lasts until next year could also sweep away the party’s tiny House majority, potentially limiting Trump’s power if he were to win back the White House. Widespread disgust at Republican tactics might even harm Trump’s election hopes, assuming he’s the party nominee, among more moderate voters in swing states who were instrumental in making him the first one-term president in nearly 30 years.
But the former president is dismissing the conventional wisdom that a shutdown could backfire – as it did against him when he was in office – and reasoning that Biden will be the most hurt by the mess. In his Sunday evening message, he lashed out at Republicans who fear they will be blamed for any shutdown. “Wrong!!!” Trump wrote. “Whoever is President will be blamed.”
Trump’s perception of his political interest has often superseded conventional interpretations of his party’s wider good. This was evident in last year’s midterms when his stable of candidates flamed out in battleground states and helped cost Republicans the Senate.
The ex-president’s social media posts make clear that his puppeteering of the GOP House majority is motivated by personal political goals, including a seething sense of revenge against federal government institutions behind two of his looming criminal prosecutions. He has claimed on social media that a shutdown could defund what he calls the weaponization of justice and election interference – his campaign code for indictments over his attempt to defy the will of voters in 2020 and his hoarding of classified documents.
But Trump’s call for a government shutdown may also have more sinister roots. The more that Washington looks out of control and in a mess, with Biden’s authority challenged and chaos raging, the more Trump’s vows to restore strongman leadership may appeal to some voters. A shutdown might bring misery to thousands of people – troops, air traffic controllers, border control staff and airport security workers may have to work without pay, for instance. But any hit the economy takes from a prolonged shutdown could darken an already grim public mood that has contributed to Biden’s underwater approval ratings. Demagogues like Trump have historically prospered when governing institutions descend into mayhem and a democratic system malfunctions.
Biden leaps into general election mode after Trump goes on offense
The Biden campaign, fresh from responding to Trump’s planned trip to Michigan by scheduling the president’s own visit, offered another sign Monday that it is as ready to kick off the general election as Trump is. It quickly reacted to Trump’s “shut it down” demand, slamming House Republicans for “gleefully letting Donald Trump function as their chief political strategist at the expense of American families.”
“Let’s be clear what is happening here: Trump is directing MAGA House Republicans to either slash funding for food safety, education, law enforcement, housing, and more, or completely shut down the government — which could delay cancer research, force federal law enforcement and troops to work without pay, and kneecap essential services hardworking Americans rely on every day,” campaign spokesman Kevin Munoz said.
The Biden campaign was also racing to finalize arrangements for Biden’s visit to Michigan. The short notice created uncertainty about just where in the state the president would go. Officials, however, denied the trip had anything to do with Trump’s prior announcement that he would go to see union workers.
A Biden strategy to stigmatize “Make America Great” extremism worked in the midterm elections last year, which failed to produce the towering “red wave” that Republicans had expected. The president is likely to return to the theme Thursday when he gives a speech focused on democracy in Arizona. The appearance will take place on the same day that Republicans hold the first hearing in their impeachment investigation into Biden, which has yet to produce evidence that the president profited personally from the business activities of his son Hunter while he was vice president.
Democrats have condemned the impeachment probe as an attempt by Trump’s Republican allies to weaponize their power to weaken Biden ahead of the general election.
A tense and even dangerous general election campaign looms
The igniting of the general election campaign this week is creating fresh clarity about the size of the stakes in November 2024 and of the unprecedented campaign that will unfold if the four-times indicted Trump is the GOP nominee.
On the one hand, clashes over an autoworkers strike, the economy, border security, new generation electric vehicles at the center of the United Auto Workers Union dispute with employers, and America’s role in the world are the stuff of a conventional election fight. Yet there’s another dimension to the campaign, in which Trump is leaving no doubt that America’s democratic system would face the greatest danger yet from his autocratic impulses if he returns to power. He has already warned he will use the Justice Department to go after his political enemies. Legal experts expect him to pardon himself if he is convicted in federal criminal trials or to pick a pliant attorney general who would shelve the prosecutions.
In an unhinged but deeply sinister outburst of social media posts in recent days, Trump is suggesting that the extremism that led him to reject the result of a democratic election has only become more dangerous in his years of exile at his golf properties in Florida and New Jersey.
In his latest extraordinary attack on a public figure – after previous jabs at judges and prosecutors in his legal cases – Trump lambasted the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley. Trump said on Truth Social that the general’s dealings with China during the final days of his administration were “so egregious, that, in times gone by Milley’s punishment would have been death.” One of Trump’s allies in the House, Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, meanwhile suggested in a newsletter to his constituents that in a better society, Milley “would be hung” for his handling of the mob riots by Trump supporters on January 6, 2021.
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, a CNN commentator, told Jim Acosta that such demagoguery was a distressing sign. “This proposed violence by any political figure is disgusting, it shows how deeply disturbed both of these individuals are,” he said. “It just shows the extent to which these kind of things have become common place and not condemned in our divided country.”
Such rhetoric also augurs a tense and even dangerous election season ahead, and along with Trump’s maneuvering ahead of a possible government shutdown, hints at the vituperative state of mind he would take back into the Oval Office.
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