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Fearing defeat, Trump turns our resources into his campaign tools

It would be a mistake to see Trump's convention abuses as some kind of aberration born of desperation. They've actually been ongoing since January 2017.
President Donald Trump addresses the first day of the Republican National Convention on Aug. 24, 2020.
President Donald Trump addresses the first day of the Republican National Convention on Aug. 24, 2020.Carlos Barria / Reuters

The problem started long before the Republican National Convention. Throughout Donald Trump's presidency, he's seen the levers of government power as tools he can exploit at will to serve his interests.

Part of this is the result of ignorance: the first U.S. president with literally no background in public service of any kind arrived in the Oval Office with a poor understanding of American civics or the job he was elected to do.

But the other part of the problem is Trump's indifference to laws, norms, and institutional limits. In the president's mind, the United States government isn't ours, it's his, and he can do with it as he pleases.

The second night of the Republican National Convention drove the point home in sharp relief.

It wasn't just Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking to the convention from Jerusalem, in defiance of the precedent set by his predecessors and seemingly of his own department's ethics policy. It wasn't just Melania Trump speaking from the Rose Garden. And it wasn't just Trump casting the White House Marine guards as extras in a segment of the convention, despite Pentagon rules. All of that happened Tuesday night, but Trump did more than use his taxpayer-funded office and residence as a backdrop. He employed the official powers of the presidency for partisan politics, first by granting a pardon, then by hosting a naturalization ceremony at the White House, all part of his televised GOP convention.

I'm aware of the debate over whether it will matter to voters that Trump is misusing the machinery of government to tighten his grip on power. But let's not brush past too quickly the fact that these abuses have been made plain.

I've seen plenty of commentary reflecting on the president using our resources as props in a production of political theater, which he clearly did, but I also think Trump sees government resources as swords and shields -- to be weaponized as part of a cynical campaign to gain advantage in a race he's losing.

There are no more lines between the political and the official, the personal and the governmental. There is only Trump, leveraging and exploiting everything he can -- without regard for what's legal, ethical, or in line with American traditions -- to advance his interests.

We've all heard variants of the phrase, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." But in 2020, it's been amended to read, "If all the president has is a desire to hold onto power, everything looks like a campaign tool."

The mistake, however, would be to see the convention as some kind of aberration born of desperation. It's the opposite: this week's abuses are an exclamation point at the end of a run-on sentence that began in January 2017.

Last week, Miles Taylor, a Republican and a former top official at the Department of Homeland Security, explained in an op-ed, "The president has tried to turn DHS, the nation's largest law enforcement agency, into a tool used for his political benefit." This, of course, was very easy to believe, largely because it's hard to think of a government entity Trump hasn't tried to use for his political benefit.

The Census Bureau. The U.S. Postal Service. The Justice Department. The State Department. The Pentagon. The Food & Drug Administration. Voice of America. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The president sees these agencies and asks himself, not what they can do for us, but what they can do for him. This is how authoritarians operate, and as Trump's celebration of himself has already made clear this week, it's how he prefers to use the power a minority of voters afforded him.