Former Zaire President Mobuto Seso Seko and President Donald Trump.
Former Zaire President Mobutu Sese Seko and President Donald Trump. Public domain photo of Seko; photo of Trump by Gage Skidmore. Both images via Wikimedia Commons.

By Carl Luna

When Mobutu Sese Seko took over the Congo (which he later renamed Zaire) in 1965, he inherited about 5,000 miles of paved roads left by the heinous Belgian colonists. When he fled the country in the face of a successful guerrilla war, he left fewer than 500 miles of paved roads.

The roads didn’t just disappear due to the guerrilla war or lack of maintenance. Mobutu systematically and deliberately destroyed much of his road and bridge system for a simple reason. The guerrillas he was fighting used the roads to move around.

Mobutu’s army, however, was equipped with helicopters (courtesy of the United States). Destroying the roads gave Mobutu a major military advantage that helped him hold on to powers years longer than he otherwise might have.

Opinion logo

Destroying the roads also contributed to making his country one of the poorest in the world. Such is always the choice of dictators — always willing to impoverish their citizens to maintain power.

Flash forward to Donald Trump, who has admitted on Fox his reason for underfunding the post office was to prevent “massive fraud” in mail-in ballots — even though there is no rational empirical basis for this belief. And even though doing so will produce widespread harm to America’s people and economy.

Trump is self-admittedly trading the public good for his own political power.

Welcome to the Mobuto presidency.

If President Trump is actually so grossly ill-informed as to believe his mail-in voter fraud fantasy, the correct response is not to try to destroy the post office to prevent the fraud. That’s like burning down the bank to prevent a robbery.

Millions of Americans depend on the USPS for everything from receiving and sending checks to getting Amazon packages the USPS delivers for that “last mile” to getting critically needed medical prescriptions.

If Trump cared about the American people, he would be focusing on how to solve the problem of mail-in ballot fraud. But therein is the president’s own fraud. His own commission on voter fraud had to disband in the absence of finding a credible problem (something experts and politicians of both parties could have told him).

President Trump may be trying to cripple the USPS to help win the election by blocking mail-in ballots. But the mail-in ballots he claims will be fraudulent will still eventually be counted.

And experts in both parties understand mail-in ballots don’t yield partisan advantage to either side. Trump’s real goal may simply be to create confusion, illegitimacy and anger when the final election results are delayed because of the backup in counting mail-in ballots due to delays in processing them by an underfunded USPS.

San Diego Mesa College political scientist Carl Luna.
Carl Luna

And there is likely the true goal, at least for those in the administration with a true Machiavellian bent (which is pretty much anyone who has survived this long having being consistently willing to sacrifice the long-term public good for the short-term political gain).

Whereas mail-in ballots in total tend to break evenly between the parties, pro-GOP voters tend to send their mail-in ballots in earlier than Democratic voters who are more likely to wait until the last minute. Which means in critical swing states the early (and even end of) election night returns may well favor Trump as GOP ballots sent in earlier than election day are counted.

But as the days go by and the mail-ins from bluer suburbs and blue urban areas finally get counted, Trump’s lead may disappear and Biden ends up winning. Trump will then claim fraud.

The question we face: Is Trump’s endgame to deny a Biden victory legitimacy, making it hard for Biden and Democrats to govern (think Bush post-Florida and pre-9/11)? Or is Trump trying to invalidate the election and stay in power?

While the likelihood is the former, I’m not certain even Trump knows exactly what he’s thinking. He acts on a 48-hour event horizon.

The other question is: How much violence breaks out? In either case, President Trump’s purpose is clear: He is willing to take a page from the Mobutu playbook and burn down the USPS and the national election system, no matter the cost, to keep power.

The president’s predilection for dictators is already well-established. But this? Really? Congress, where are you?

Carl Luna is a professor of political science at San Diego Mesa College and the director of the Institute for Civil Civic Engagement at the University of San Diego.