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Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis-based commentator who writes about race, politics, and the economy.
Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis-based commentator who writes about race, politics, and the economy.

Sarah Kendzior

Trump’s strategy: Pull the fringes into the centre, and mainstream extremism Add to ...

Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media

There is a pattern to how Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump do in the polls.

Ms. Clinton’s highest approval ratings arrived after the Democratic National Convention and after the debates. When voters are able to hear her speak directly – particularly next to her opponent – public approval rises. When Ms. Clinton is discussed by the media, public approval falls. When the media filter returns, innuendo flows, and Mr. Trump’s extremism – so stark on the debate stage – is normalized, mitigated, or forgotten.

There are ominous signs for next week: multiple pro-Trump militia groups are calling for violent action should Mr. Trump lose. In a preview of what’s to come, Trump fans have burned down a black church and plotted multiple terror attacks against Muslims, including a thwarted bomb plot in Kansas. The Trump campaign has bragged about planned voter suppression, while Trump fans have bragged about planned voter intimidation.

None of this is surprising: in August, one of Trump’s campaign advisers, Roger Stone, proclaimed there would be “a bloodbath” if Mr. Trump loses.

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But when you turn on the television, you rarely hear these stories. Instead there is a silence bordering on acquiescence, despite the many threats to non-white and non-Christian Americans and to the democratic process itself. What you hear, instead, is talk about e-mails.

These are not Ms. Clinton’s e-mails. They are, allegedly, the e-mails of the husband of one of her aides – Anthony Weiner, currently under investigation for sex crimes – though that did not stop media outlets from calling them “Clinton e-mails” in nearly every headline. We do not know the content of the e-mails or their significance to Ms. Clinton. We know about them only because FBI director James Comey broke protocol and issued an innuendo-laden statement on Friday that prompted a media frenzy.

The FBI’s strange behaviour did not stop there. Soon after, a previously dormant FBI account began tweeting heavily redacted case files, some of which concerned the Clintons, and one of which characterized Mr. Trump’s father, who was sued by the Justice Department for racial discrimination, as a “philanthropist.”

The FBI chalked up the release of these documents, one week before the election, as automated and apolitical.

But any case file released by the FBI at this time is political, and combined with Mr. Comey’s actions, they contribute to what has been the most successful method of attack on Ms. Clinton: ceaseless insinuations of wrongdoing that provide little new information about her but create confusion and suspicion.

This tactic is a hallmark of the Trump campaign. He has aligned with and is backed by media-savvy conspiracy theorists like Mr. Stone, Alex Jones and Steve Bannon, who has declared that the path to victory lies with the campaign’s ability to manipulate people through the Internet. Now, Trump campaign conspiracies travel not only through social media and mainstream outlets, but through the FBI, whose authoritative reputation lends innuendo legitimacy, intentionally or not.

According to one former State Department official turned conspiracy-mongering Trump fan, the FBI’s actions are intentional. Steve Pieczenik announced in a video that the Trump campaign had pulled off a coup with FBI assistance. Mr. Trump’s fans are rejoicing. U.S. government officials have offered no explanation.

Mr. Trump’s campaign has long been aimed at pulling the fringes into the centre, mainstreaming extremism so that it is not recognizable as extreme any more.

In authoritarian states, conspiracy narratives are a routine part of this practice. They operate both as a method of intimidation and as a way to rally followers. To dismiss those who propagate such narratives as “only conspiracists” is to ignore that Mr. Trump, himself, is a major conspiracist, who may soon gain access to lethal power.

One should not dismiss the processes through which he successfully cowed and manipulated institutions, or how deeply his narratives – often consisting not of substantive claims but of allusions to shadowy, unnamed forces – resonate with a frustrated public.

Mr. Trump’s campaign has been marked by violence – both threats of violence to intimidate critics and reporters into silence, and physical attacks on non-white, non-Christian citizens.

This is the kind of violence agencies like the FBI are traditionally expected to stop. But that expectation is fading. When the fringes become the centre, the centre cannot hold.

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