Biden, Trump and the soul of a nation

Madeleine Kearns

Politics is much like marketing: the clearer the message, the more likely the sale. Based on the opening of the (virtually held) Democratic National Convention, the presidential campaign of the former vice president and six-term senator Joe Biden can be summed up in two words—not Trump.

In a normal presidential race, incumbency might be an advantage. But “normal” is not a word that Americans are likely to associate with the year 2020 when they look back on this year’s presidential race. Like the rest of us, our transatlantic cousins are attempting to cope with the ongoing coronavirus crisis. So far, the pandemic has claimed over 170,000 American lives, with 5.46 million more confirmed cases and a staggering 20 per cent of US workers now reliant on unemployment benefits. Moreover, borders remain shut; businesses are closed; schools are torn over whether and how to reopen; and crime in cities is trending upwards. No country has responded perfectly to the challenges presented by the pandemic. Nevertheless, American leadership—at both the state and federal level—has, in many respects, been singularly indecisive, inconsistent, and corrosively partisan.

Like the ostensibly conservative British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Biden’s economic recovery plan is modelled on the legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legislative response to the Great Depression. With the slogan “Build Back Better”, Biden promises to prioritise economic recovery through massive structural change and economic redistribution—investing trillions of dollars into clean energy, child support, and industries in Middle America. Intriguingly, though, at the DNC’s opening night, Biden’s economic agenda was scarcely mentioned. What ensued instead was a careful framing of the November election as an urgent battle for “the soul of the nation”.

The message was clear: Trump is a threat to democracy and to the lives and livelihoods of the American public. Of course, the urgency of this struggle conveniently renders all of Biden’s faults and foibles temporarily irrelevant. Biden is “not perfect”, Michelle Obama admitted in her speech. (Which might refer to any number of progressive shibboleths he has violated in the past: his tough-on-crime stance in the 1980s and ’90s tends to taint him with the failures of mass incarceration, now widely perceived to be evidence of “systemic racism”, and his past support of the Hyde Amendment, which blocked the use of federal funds for abortions, is unlikely to sit well with pro-choice Democrats.) But voters just have to worry about that later. He is a “decent man”, at least.

Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist senator from Vermont, made a similarly desperate plea for party unity. He might not see eye to eye with Biden on everything (e.g. Medicare for All), but Trump is literally killing people with his incompetence. The ideological diversity of those making this argument was striking. From the opposite end of the ideological aisle, Sanders was followed by Republican John Kasich, the former governor of Ohio, who urged other conservatives to pick Biden over Trump. Paul Maslin—described by Politico as “a top Democratic pollster who worked on the presidential campaigns of Jimmy Carter and Howard Dean”—told a reporter: “I was sceptical. But I think this is working. On message, that’s for sure. We the people. All of us. Including Republicans!”

The benefit of this “not Trump” strategy is that it provides endless cover for any and all Democratic shortcomings. The evidence of Democrats’ bright ideas and proven competence may not be readily available, but who needs it when the evidence of Trump’s failures is everywhere. And they really do mean everywhere. “In many ways, Covid is just a metaphor,” Andrew Cuomo told his virtual DNC audience. “A virus attacks when the body is weak and when it cannot defend itself.” (Never mind the mistakes that Cuomo made, putting infected patients back into nursing homes, or New York’s soaring crime rate.) When everything from racism to the coronavirus are reduced to symbolic rather than concrete errors, those on the “right” side are absolved from action. Marketing works best with contrasts. Trump is erratic, chaotic, and degrading, whereas Biden is steady, reliable and decent.

“Nero fiddled as Rome burned,” as Biden puts it, “Trump plays golf.”

The week before the Democratic convention, Joe Biden named Kamala Harris, the former attorney general of California, as his Vice President. The pick was not surprising. Biden had said in March he would pick “a woman” (if he was a conservative this would have been rightly criticised as patronising tokenism) and after the George Floyd riots, he came under pressure from within the party to pick a “woman of colour”. From the coverage, you would have thought that Harris was an entirely different politician from the woman who flamed out of the presidential race.

But if Biden has been shrouded in “not-Trump” soul-of-the-nation symbolism, Harris has been protected by the veil of identity. Shortly before her nomination was announced, Planned Parenthood, TimesUp and various women’s groups sent letters to the editors of major publications inducing them to be sufficiently “anti-racist and anti-misogynist” in their coverage. Subsequently CNN ran a whole segment on Tucker Carlson’s mispronunciation of Harris’s first name (phonetically, it’s comma-la), making no mention of the fact Biden himself has mis-pronounced it.

The squeamishness in covering Harris appears to have translated into a lack of scrutiny. The New York Times called her a “pragmatic moderate”. ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos described her as coming from the “middle of the road, moderate wing” of the Democratic Party. But her  track record tells a different story. Yes, Harris has the backing of Wall Street and major tech tycoons, but her policy positions on social issues are much farther to the left than Biden. And, more notably, she has demonstrated disrespect for due process and the sacred American Constitution. For instance, when Joe Biden said during the primaries that gun confiscation would not be permitted under the United States’ constitutional framework, Harris laughed in his face. She has also promised an overhaul to qualified immunity while being a beneficiary of qualified immunity (which a federal judge granted her in a 2017 lawsuit). This is cause for concern for more than just conservatives, as evidenced by Tulsi Gabbard’s infamous takedown during the second Democratic primary debate:

Senator Harris says she’s proud of her record as a prosecutor and that she’ll be a prosecutor president, but I’m deeply concerned about this record. There are too many examples to cite but she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana. She blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labour for the state of California, and she fought to keep cash bail system in place, that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way.

Progressive journalists can cry misogyny and racism all they like, but polling tells a different story. One such poll, by the Economist/YouGov, found that only half of African American voters viewed Harris favourably, while only 26 per cent of liberals did. Another survey conducted by the Bernie Delegates Network (a coalition of left-wing groups) found that one third of delegates “strongly disapprove” of a Biden-Harris ticket, 19 per cent “somewhat disapprove”, and 24 per cent are “ambivalent”. Which isn’t exactly the mobilisation Biden had in mind.

In truth, the single biggest advantage to the “not Trump” campaign is the man himself. To pick just a few examples, when Axios’s Jonathan Swan (accurately) told Trump that the US’s coronavirus “death [rate] as a proportion of the population” is “really bad”, the President’s response was to take this as a personal insult. “You can’t do that,” he told Swan, telling him to “go by the cases” instead. Elsewhere, Trump gave airtime to an ugly and unnecessary conspiracy theory about Kamala Harris, telling a reporter he had “heard” she “doesn’t meet the requirements” as vice president, citing an article by a “highly qualified, very talented lawyer” which questioned the immigration status of her parents at the time of her birth (Trump has made similar remarks about Barack Obama). And the latest completely pointless Trump-instigated controversy is the United States Postal Service, which the President has said ought not to receive emergency funding because it might favour the Democrats.

The race is likely to tighten as we get closer to November but, so far, Biden is leading by almost nine points nationally while Trump’s approval rating has just stabilised in the low 40s. Of course, in US elections, the popular vote does not always translate into the ultimately decisive Electoral College vote. (In the US, it’s usually up to the swing states.) But things don’t look good for the President given that, with less than three months to go until Election Day, key swing states, such as Florida and Pennsylvania, are now flashing blue. It is difficult to determine with any accuracy how prevalent are the Biden Republicans, but from the data available it would appear there are significantly more of them than there are Trump Democrats.

Trump’s support base is certainly more enthusiastic—they’re voting for Trump more than they’re voting against Biden. But in the end, if there are less of them in the decisive states, what does it matter? In normal times the lack of voter enthusiasm for Biden would be encouraging for Trump. Today, though, there’s not a lot to be enthusiastic about. The Trump campaign has barely even cobbled together a second-term agenda. If they don’t do so soon then “not Trump” may be enough.

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