Democratic strategist Michael Gordon: How the ghastly RNC could get Trump re-elected

Democratic insider says Trump's "shamelessness" is his secret weapon, and RNC lies may reassure his voters

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published September 3, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

President Donald J. Trump smiles while addressing delegates on the first day of the Republican National Convention at the Charlotte Convention Center on August 24, 2020 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The four-day event is themed "Honoring the Great American Story." (David T. Foster III-Pool/Getty Images)
President Donald J. Trump smiles while addressing delegates on the first day of the Republican National Convention at the Charlotte Convention Center on August 24, 2020 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The four-day event is themed "Honoring the Great American Story." (David T. Foster III-Pool/Getty Images)

In a healthy democracy, political conventions are events where political parties select their nominees, resolve internal differences between various factions, solidify their platform for the public and try to win over undecided voters, as well as reaffirm the priorities of their base. A political convention is both a celebration and coronation of the party's chosen leaders.

Unfortunately, these are not good or normal times in America. An authoritarian neofascist is our president. The country is fast approaching 200,000 dead from a pandemic — people who did not have to die if Donald Trump's regime had not sabotaged the relief efforts. The country struggles with a ruined economy, one which Trump and his Republican Party have only made worse.

The Democratic convention was clear-minded, mature, and traditional even as it improvised and innovated its style and presentation because of the deadly pandemic. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were presented as responsible leaders who will heal the country and embrace a better future with a more diverse, vibrant, inclusive and prosperous multiracial democracy.

The Republican Party's convention was the exact opposite. It was an authoritarian gathering which — despite the strategic deployment of Black and brown conservatives as human props — celebrated racism, white supremacy, cruelty and violence, repackaged as "patriotism" and "Christianity." Trump and the Republican Party also prostituted the White House for Trump's vainglorious speech, an exercise in flaccid ego masturbation for a wannabe dictator.

Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels supposedly said that to win power one should accuse the other side of that which you are guilty. Channeling Goebbels' advice, right-wing propagandist and radio personality Rush Limbaugh told his listeners last week when discussing the Republican convention that:

And as I've watched it, it has occurred to me, Trump isn't just running for reelection.

The story that is being told at the Republican National Convention is about saving America. It's about saving America from a race war that the Democrats are out there actively trying to promote. They're trying to foment it. They want this country to be Black versus white, immigrant versus native, male versus female. That's what they want. They want that chaos, they want this constant us-versus-them aspect of daily life.

And Trump is making it clear that he's interested in people who are constructive, productive, generally happy. He's not interested in parasites, the generally miserable.

If empirical reality and an agreement about fundamental truths are the basis of a healthy democracy, then the Republican National Convention was a spectacular rejection of those values. It was an Orwellian alternate reality, in which up is down and down is up and where Donald Trump is a flawless, king-like god. To that point, the Republican Party offered no official platform for 2020, beyond basically saying, "Whatever Trump wants is what we want." The party's descent and collapse into a Trump personality cult is now fully complete.

Writing at the Independent, Patrick Cockburn described this new low point in American history:

The Republican convention was a nauseating performance even by the cess-pit standards of the Trump administration. In its cult-like obeisance to the supreme leader it reminds me of meetings of the Iraqi Baath Party that periodically endorsed Saddam Hussein as the national saviour.

The only speeches acceptable in both cases were dollops of fawning praise. Speakers outdid each other in adulation, pretending that shambolic failures were triumphant successes. Trump's calamitous inability to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, leading to the death of 180,000 Americans, was ignored. Thirty years ago, Saddam Hussein likewise informed wildly applauding Baathists that the "mother of battles" in Kuwait had been a splendid Iraqi victory.

Here is John Nichols at the Nation:

The political strategy of the Republican National Convention has been evident from the moment it opened. The organizers are determined to stir a backlash vote against every Democrat who has displayed even modest regard for the need to address police violence and systemic racism. There's a reason for this. President Trump and his partisans are well aware that he cannot win an election based on his record of mismanaging the response to a pandemic and mass unemployment, and of dividing the country against itself with racism and xenophobia. So they are amplifying those divisions in hopes of identifying a narrow, ugly, and exceptionally dangerous path to victory.

In total, the Republican National Convention was an intoxicating drug for Trump's death cult members and a bewildering display for any thinking, decent, intelligent human being.

Trump and the Republicans have no interest in winning over other Americans — in fact, they view them as an enemy to be destroyed. Instead, the strategy is to prevent Democrats and others not in thrall to the Trump regime from voting by any means necessary, both legal and illegal.

Trump has repeatedly signaled to the idea that he is willing to use violence to stay in power indefinitely. This week he defended one of his supporters, 17-year-old vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse, who allegedly killed two people and maimed a third at a recent protest against police brutality and social inequality in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Trump and his mouthpieces continue to use stochastic terrorism as a means of encouraging violence against Democrats and anyone else deemed to be "un-American" and an "enemy." On Tuesday of this week, the Trump campaign sent out a fundraising email threatening violence against his and the movement's enemies. The email proclaimed: "The Liberal Mob will come after you on the streets simply for not agreeing with them. They hate our country and they hate YOU."

Michael Gordon is a Democratic strategist and founder of the strategic communications firm Group Gordon. He served in the Clinton White House and as spokesperson for the Justice Department.

Gordon is now a columnist at Business Insider. His commentary and analysis has been featured by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and elsewhere.

In this conversation with Salon, Michael Gordon warns that as ghastly as last week's Republican National Convention may have appeared to many Americans, it was a successful event on its own terms, and may help Trump win the 2020 presidential election. Why? because Donald Trump and his inner circle know their audience and are skilled at giving them exactly what they want — and by doing so may also win over right-leaning independents and undecided voters.

Gordon explains that the average voter does not care about the scandals and other issues that journalists and other members of the political chattering class obsess over. The result is that too much political reporting is disconnected from reality as it exists for most Americans.

Michael Gordon also reflects on why so many Trump voters — including members of his own family — remain loyal to Donald Trump no matter what level of criminality and corruption he engages in. Gordon then shares what this means for the Democrats' chances of winning back the White House.

How are you managing this never-ending torrent of scandals, corruption, and crime from the Trump administration and those around him? He should have been impeached and removed from office based on the Senate intelligence report about collusion and conspiracy with Russia to meddle in the 2016 election. Never mind the Russian bounties on U.S. soldiers or that nation's ongoing efforts to help Trump steal the 2020 election.

The strategy of this president and his administration is to overwhelm everybody with his scandals. If we can't keep up with all the scandals, then we cannot manage them.  

My solution is to always try to focus on the issues that impact real voters and what they are thinking about. I grew up in the Midwest. I have lots of family members who are swing voters. I also have a lot family members who are Republicans. I try to get a sense from them about what they do and do not care about.

There are certain scandals and other matters that the news media is breathless about. But those issues are not very relevant to real people in the general public. Swing voters are going to decide the 2020 election. Many of them do not care about such things. Yes, certain scandals and other issues can stick to this president and impact the outcome. But much of what the news media focuses on will not.

Many reporters and journalists and other professional politics watchers were all upset about Donald Trump having the Republican National Convention take place at the White House. "Trump is breaking another norm!" Yes, Trump should not have spoken during the convention from the White House. But does a swing voter in Michigan really care about the Hatch Act? Or Trump breaking those norms?

They don't. It does not impact their lives. What impacts their lives is the country getting the coronavirus under control and jumpstarting the economy. People are in great economic pain and want it to go away.

How would you intervene against a professional political class, especially among Democrats and supposed liberals and progressives, who actually believe that their outrage and concerns are shared by the American people as a whole? It would be funny if the situation in this country were not so dire. 

People tend to live in their own echo chamber. They think that is how they make a difference in the world. They shout from the mountaintops from their smart phone online through social media, and then get all their friends to agree with them. Such behavior is not really making an impact on politics or policy in a substantive way.

The echo chamber is an issue I see at all levels of politics. The loudest voices are frequently not even the majority. They are just the loudest. The loud voices get even louder because on a basic level they know they are not even the majority, thus the overcompensation.

How could any reasonable, decent human being continue to support Donald Trump given his cruelty, his evident mental pathologies, his widespread corruption, his betrayal of his oath of office and his embrace of authoritarianism, fascism and white supremacy? Almost 200,000 are dead from his sabotage of the coronavirus pandemic, the economy is in ruins and there are any number of other failures of public policy and human decency

Almost all of my relatives believe that Donald Trump is an idiot. They do not like his rhetoric. They think Trump handles many things in a stupid way. My relatives think that Trump was slow to respond on the pandemic. They understand who Donald Trump is.

But they still support his policies. They still support what he does as president. They distinguish the noise of Trump from what he is actually getting done. My relatives, and likely other Trump supporters too, view the economy before the pandemic as being strong. They like some of his other policy decisions as well. My relatives and other Trump supporters think that Trump is a tough talker. They believe that is good for the country. They support the Republican Party. Therefore, they will still support Trump for a second term in the 2020 election.  

At the end of the day, despite Trump's many failures my relatives still support him because his policies fit with what they value. I love my family members who support President Donald Trump. I love my family even though Donald Trump is dangerous for our country.

What does this continued support of and fealty to Donald Trump reveal about Republican voters in the aggregate?

It is all a reflection of how divided the United States fundamentally is. There is not a lot of room for nuance in the country's politics right now. People are either on one team or the other.

And for most people politics is not that important. The average person thinks about politics every four or so years when there is a presidential election or some other big contest. To them politics is just something you do periodically. The average person will pay attention during the conventions and debates. Then they will cast their votes.

Ultimately, the country is divided up into political teams and that means there is not a lot of room to maneuver. People also forgive their own political teams for its mistakes. You have to forgive your team for a lot of bad actors and bad actions. Thus, Donald Trump and his support.

What are your thoughts on the Democratic and Republican conventions?

I felt good after the Democratic convention. It was a little awkward because of the way it had to be staged. But at the end of the day I thought the Democrats did OK. I wish that Biden and Harris had given their speeches outside. I wish that there was some more energy around them. Joe Biden did what he had to do. The convention painted a picture of Biden as someone who has a heart whereas Donald Trump does not. Biden was shown to be competent and experienced while Trump is not.

The Republican Party had their convention and it was depressing. They were just shameless in rewriting every aspect of Trump's presidency.  But I do think it is going to help Trump and the Republicans. Trump has no shame or fear. The Republican Party and its convention were just full-on lies about Trump and his presidency. That shamelessness is Donald Trump's greatest competitive advantage. The truth is irrelevant to Trump and his campaign. But for a person who is possibly looking for a reason to vote for Donald Trump — maybe a quiet Trump voter — they may have found some reassurance from what they saw at the convention.

Generally, I have been pretty optimistic about Joe Biden becoming president. I felt that way last year too. But I am concerned. It started with Trump's State of the Union, which was vile and offense, but for the target audience it was brilliant.

Watching his State of the Union speech I thought, "Oh my god, this guy might win another four years." That was the first time I had such a thought. With the RNC they did it again. The Republicans put on a very good show. Not for me. Not for people inclined to think like me. But for people looking to be reassured about voting for Trump, it was a good show. That makes me nervous because Donald Trump is great at the show and bad at reality.

Please soothe my anxieties or make them worse. I believe that it is more likely than not that Donald Trump defeats Joe Biden and is president again. This will involve illegal and quasi-legal machinations and other schemes. There will also be Russian interference. There will be violence and intimidation by his enforcers on Election Day. He has announced as much. Trump is also closing in the polls, especially among white voters in key battleground states. It appears that the president's racist "law and order" appeals are working. Moreover, Trump leads a political cult and those voters will not abandon him for any reason — even it means their lives in the pandemic.

Well, 2020 is different from 2016 for a number of reasons. The Democrats have a more popular candidate than four years ago with Hillary Clinton. Biden does not have the same baggage and negatives. I also believe that there is a personal appeal to Biden where even the people who do not agree with his policies still like him as a human being.

The suburban swing voters who helped shift Congress in 2018 have Trump's number now in a way they did not before. From the pandemic to the economy and his reaction to the killing of George Floyd and what came afterward with the protests, the suburban swing voters see Trump's flaws more clearly and magnified.

There is also a tremendous amount of energy in the Democratic Party's base. Yes, there is some discomfort with Biden. But Donald Trump can unify the party in a way that Biden cannot. The base dislikes Donald Trump more than they are uncomfortable with Biden. This means that there will be fewer people sitting at home and assuming that Biden will win. It also means fewer people going with a third party.

But in the end the outcome of the 2020 election cannot be close. The Democrats need to win in an landslide. The cheating and voter intimidation and suppression are going to give Trump and the Republicans a several-point advantage on Election Day. The Democrats need to win big to overcome that.

What about the enthusiasm gap between Trump's voters and Joe Biden's? Also, the so-called "secret Trump voters" who because of social desirability effects may not tell pollsters that they will vote for Trump again?

With the cheating and secret Trump voters that will add up to three or four points on Election Day, in my opinion. In 2016 Donald Trump won with an inside straight. He is going to need to do that again to defeat Joe Biden. But now, given all of Trump's failures, it will be Joe Biden who pulls off that inside straight. Most of the swing voters are going to move to Biden because of the pandemic and economy. It is true that Donald Trump is generating enthusiasm — that is true both for his voters and for Democratic voters who want to get him out of office. Yes, there are folks on our side who do not love Joe Biden. But those same people are still going to be enthusiastic about voting for him because they want to get Donald Trump out of the White House.

Let us assume that Donald Trump is defeated on Election Day. Do you think Trump accepts the outcome or does he refuse to leave office?

He may not concede to Joe Biden per tradition. I also believe that Trump may never concede publicly and may try to create a smokescreen around the outcome. Trump may not be useful in the mechanics of the transition of power.

He may not leave Biden a letter. He may not show up to Biden's inaugural. But at the end Donald Trump is going to leave. Trump is not going to let himself be escorted out of the White House by U.S. marshals.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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