Donald Trump’s Strategy of Tension

The president is using violence, and the threat of violence, to shore up support for his Republican Party.

Businessman Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27, 2015
Businessman Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27, 2015 (Gage Skidmore)

Matthew Yglesias argues in Vox that there is method to the right-wing madness in the United States.

The violence, and threats of violence, are the result of a Republican strategy, he argues, to foster a political debate that is centered on divisive questions of personal identity rather than on potentially unifying themes of material advancement.

The downside of this strategy is that it pushes American society to the breaking point. The upside for Republicans is that it facilitates policies that serve the interests of their wealthiest supporters.

Unpopular policies

Republicans have repealed certain provisions of Barack Obama’s health reforms and are arguing in court for the repeal of more — but they are lying to voters and claiming they are doing nothing of the sort.

They now promise a middle-class tax cut, but when they had the chance they chose to cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy.

Under Republican control, the Environmental Protection Agency has repealed environmental and health regulations put in place by previous administrations.

At the Justice Department, Jeff Sessions is breathing new life into the drug war, despite overwhelming support for cannabis legalization and Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign promise to treat opioid addicts with compassion.

Withdrawing from the Trans Pacific Partnership has hurt farmers. The president’s trade war with China could cost as many as 700,000 jobs.

None of this helps ordinary Americans, so Republicans are stoking fear and division in a bid to distract voters — and accusing Democrats of doing just that.

Words have consequences

Republicans pretend the country is under siege from immigrants without and fifth columnists within. The media are the enemy of the people. Democrats are sellouts to globalist elites. Most Americans worry about health care and their jobs, but all President Trump can talk about is a “caravan” of Honduran refugees making its way through Mexico to seek asylum in the United States.

I won’t repeat and refute Trump’s fabrications about this caravan. Politico and PolitiFact both do a good job at that. The point is that Trump is using the specter of horde of brown people descending on the southern border to frighten white Americans into voting for his party.

Such rhetoric is not without consequence. Right-wing violence is rising, as David Neiwert, a correspondent for the Southern Poverty Law Center, has shown. This very week, prominent Democrats and Trump critics, including the Clintons, the Obamas, former CIA director John Brennan and philanthropist George Soros, all received pipe bombs in the mail.

Strategy of tension

There is a word for the strategy Yglesias describes: a strategy of tension.

This originated in Cold War Italy, when the far left provoked the government into overreacting to strikes and terrorist attacks and the government, according to the left, encouraged far-right violence and false-flag attacks in a bid to shore up support for itself.

Political murders, street fights and bombings became commonplace. Hundreds of Italians were killed during the so-called Years of Lead.

The Republican strategy of tension has been less deadly so far, and few Republicans openly encourage violence. But one of the few who do is the president of the United States.