Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
The Justice Department is reportedly conducting a criminal investigation into its own probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election — a decision that seems to be a brazen effort to politicize the department.
Democratic Reps. Jerry Nadler and Adam Schiff released a press statement expressing their concern about how the department had “lost its independence and become a vehicle for President Trump’s political revenge.”
But the news should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. The investigation is just a small taste of the kind of campaign the nation will experience in the run up to the 2020 election. The combination of Trumpian politics — character assassination, smears, conspiracy theories, and smashmouth attacks on opponents — combined with his use of presidential power will be unlike anything we have seen before. This will be a whole new kind of ugly.
While some political experts seem to be making horse race prognostications based on the assumption that this election will be business as usual, we should expect a campaign that is far nastier than the norm. We should expect all the remaining guardrails to fall away. Assuming President Trump survives the impeachment process, he will undoubtedly unleash a fierce assault on whoever his opponent ends up being. To overcome his weak standing in the polls, the President will try to tear everyone and everything else down so that he is the only one left standing.
What might the campaign look like? Official investigations into anything tied to the Democratic Party that Trump can find a way to publicly justify will certainly be a key part of the strategy. As the new DOJ criminal investigation reveals, the president is not above using the formal apparatus of government to conduct probes that aim to delegitimize his opponents.
In the past, we have a seen a few other examples when presidents were willing to take this route, such as President Richard Nixon’s infamous use of the IRS to dig up dirt on his enemies. But based on his record of total disrespect for norms and institutions, we can expect that Trump will be willing to go much further than any predecessor. The Democratic nominee should assume that the executive branch will be used against him or her.
Disinformation, disseminated through the awesome channels of the bully pulpit, will likely be integral to Trump’s reelection campaign. Since the 2016 campaign, the President has expended an enormous effort to try to tear down the public image of his opponents. It started with Trump mocking his Republican primary rivals with cruel nicknames and spreading theories of criminal behavior to discredit Hillary Clinton. Anyone who stood between Trump and the Oval Office was fair game. When President Trump does more of the same in his 2020 campaign, however, he will have many more tools at his disposal.
The bully pulpit affords a platform to spread his messages to a much bigger audience. New technology will provide greater opportunities to devastate and destroy his opponents. We’ve already witnessed Trump retweeting a doctored video that made Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appear to be inebriated and now Trump will have the capacity to promote all sorts of devastating images, audio and innuendo about those he deems threats. The president’s reelection campaign has already invested heavily in social media and amassed a sizable war chest outpacing any Democrat. Whoever the Democratic nominee turns out to be, he or she will confront a torrent of political attacks and low blows that will require a constant scramble to correct the public record.
Then, there will be public policy. To be sure, most American presidents have made public policy decisions in election years with an eye toward the campaign. Franklin Roosevelt was always cognizant of how public works programs would help him politically and President Nixon was eager to prime the pump going into 1972.
When President Lyndon Johnson announced a temporary bombing halt in Vietnam on October 31, 1968, he understood that some evidence of a breakthrough weeks before the presidential election could help his Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was the Democratic nominee.
But being cognizant of how presidential policy positions can help win over supporters is different than manipulating federal funds and pressuring foreign beneficiaries for specific forms of election assistance. The Ukraine scandal has exposed something far more troubling than what we have seen in the past. The evidence has revealed a president willing to withhold massive amounts of money until foreign leaders give him what he wants for his political campaign. One can easily imagine how this would play out in other realms of policy, including on the domestic front.
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The 2020 election is going to be tough terrain, both for the Democratic nominee and for US democracy more broadly. The impeachment investigation has already exposed just how far the president is prepared to go in pursuit of victory. He has shown he is willing to do almost anything to achieve his goals. That means that he will draw on every power that is available to him to crush his opponents, devastate the Democratic Party, and improve his odds of securing a second term.