19th August, 2020
By Amir Stepak
“They need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots. If they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it.”
– President Donald Trump explaining to Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business why he’s been holding up stimulus negotiations, in which Democrats included $3.6 billion in emergency funding for USPS to help it handle election-related mail (August 13, 2020).
Throughout Donald Trump’s time in office, pundits have made a habit of declaring the latest scandal his point of no return. There was the Russia investigation, the hush money, the Charlottesville protests and Trump’s racist remarks, the border cages, the Giuliani-Ukraine debacle, the impeachment, the incompetent response to Coronavirus, the Russian bounties, the economic recession, and many others.
Yet, time and again, Trump has defied the prognosticators. He’s never been a popular president, but his hold on his base has been steadfast.
Which is why I completely understand your skepticism as I say the following: Trump’s recent acknowledgement that he’s holding up critical USPS funding for political reasons will likely doom his reelection prospects.
Nothing is certain in politics, of course, and there are still more than two months and many surprises before Election Day. But, if Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans respond with even a modicum of competence, it’s hard to see how Trump can come back from this one.
Trump’s fatal mistake wasn’t, in itself, sabotaging the U.S. Postal Service— actually, that was one of his only remaining pathways to reelection. Until the past two weeks, he was well on his way to pulling it off, quietly.
Instead, Trump’s fatal mistake was publicly admitting that he’s withholding critical funding for USPS for political reasons. In addition, a poorly timed letter sent yesterday by USPS to 46 secretaries of state, warning of election mail delays, made matters much worse for him.
Why It’s Fatal
To see why this seemingly small blunder, of all blunders, was Trump’s fatal mistake, consider the one secret to his endurance: A masterful use of ambiguity.
Most politicians use what I’d call negative ambiguity. They hold tight to information about their intentions and actions to leave their audience guessing. They either say nothing, or make noncommittal statements, such as “I’m still reviewing,” “I’m concerned,” or “I don’t want to prejudge.” Basically, picture Maine Senator Susan Collins here.
Negative ambiguity works by placing the audience in an “Uncertainty Trap,” where they fear making the wrong move and instead wait for more information. This buys politicians critical time, until it’s too late and everyone has moved on.
Trump, by contrast, relies on a different type of ambiguity — positive ambiguity. Positive ambiguity works not by limiting information, but by overwhelming your audience with information and contradictory signals. Rather than say “I’m not sure,” the politician using positive ambiguity says “probably” one day and “probably not” the next.
Whereas negative ambiguity works by keeping your audiences guessing, positive ambiguity allows different people to choose which signals to believe. This results is two groups that perceive your beliefs and actions in diametrically opposite ways, each sure they perceive you accurately, which fosters a political stalemate.
Positive ambiguity, however, is much riskier than negative ambiguity, because it requires that your audience be kept in balance. If your opponents gain a clear upper hand, you’d be providing them with just the fodder they need to act forcefully against you.
Which brings me back to Trump. Trump’s modus operandi has always been positive ambiguity. He contradicts himself often, sometimes even in the course of a single statement. Just this past week, Trump urged Americans to wear masks in his press briefing, but two lines later said that “Maybe they’re not so good.”
So what was so unusual about Trump’s statement about funding for USPS?
Prior to this week, there was still some ambiguity about what Trump was hoping to do with USPS. Trump’s Postmaster General and major Republican donor, Louis DeJoy, launched a spate of reforms in July that were officially designed to improve efficiency but effectively slowed down mail delivery. But then, last week, DeJoy vowed that election mail will not be slowed down. Trump, meanwhile, has been saying that absentee voting is good, but mail-in voting is bad, even though most states, including most battleground states, use absentee rather than universal mail-in voting.
In short, there’s been plenty of noise, but no clear signal that proved that Trump aimed to undermine USPS and actual votes by mail for political reasons. Republicans could hold on to the myth that it was all about efficiency, while Democrats cried foul and claimed it was all about the election.
But now, with Trump’s open acknowledgement that he was preventing USPS from receiving critical funds in order to improve his reelection chances, he relinquished ambiguity.
Not only that, but he did it over an issue that directly hurts his core constituents — namely, older White men, who depend on mail to provide them with medicine, social security checks, and other necessities.
Can he go back and deny it? He could try, but having conceded the point publicly, and on Fox Business of all places, even his amenable base would have trouble buying it.
Anti-Trump groups like VoteVets are already using this in their political ads. Others will likely follow.
Equally important, Trump’s acknowledgement gave Democrats all the ammunition they needed to raise the alarm and rally their voters. If, until this week, Trump’s use of USPS to sabotage the election was a nebulous possibility, now it seems like a certain reality.
As a result, there is no longer any ambiguity. Even if Trump retreated and allowed USPS to receive the additional funding it needs, he will not be able to erase the impression he’s created. Every mail delay, every lost ballot, every missing prescription, will now count against him. Try as he might to claim that underfunding USPS is about fighting voter fraud, the broader damage to him is already done.
What’s perhaps worse for Trump is that rather than make the 2020 election about Joe Biden, as he did so successfully to Hillary Clinton in 2016, he has now unambiguously and maybe irrevocably made the 2020 election about himself. That will cost him dearly.
Whether I’m right or wrong, we’ll know soon enough.
*Culled from Medium