The U.S. president is no longer hiding the fact he will seek victory by stirring up racial resentment and accusing Democrats of provoking chaos in the country, even though he is the one in charge.
The Wall Street Journal’s headline was very revealing about the impact of Kamala Harris’ selection as Joe Biden’s running mate. It also helped define Biden as a candidate: “As Kamala Harris Joins Biden Ticket, Wall Street Sighs in Relief.” The cost-benefit analysis was clear. Not only is Biden a longstanding representative of his party’s establishment — that is, he is a very moderate fellow — but the nomination of Harris as his vice presidential candidate confirmed that increased regulation in the financial sector was no longer among Democratic priorities. Obviously, Wall Street’s breathing rate would have been different if Elizabeth Warren had been nominated.
Donald Trump’s campaign reacted immediately to the news of Harris’ nomination with an ad that twice highlighted that it was a step toward “the radical left.” It wasn’t an outburst that required urgency. In subsequent declarations, Trump supporters declared that if Biden won, it would mean that the U.S. would march inexorably toward socialism.
Biden is not even in favor of “Medicare for All,” Bernie Sanders’ plan to create a universal free and public health care system, similar to the ones that already exist in Western Europe. Just as in 2016, Democratic voters have put forward a moderate candidate who claims to be capable of reaching agreement with moderate Republican members of Congress, in case any still exist, on progressive federal laws, and who is able to work against the most extreme polarization. Simply put, Biden is being portrayed as someone who is not Trump. That didn’t work very well in 2016, although it’s true that Biden doesn’t generate as much rejection as Hillary Clinton did.
The end of party conventions during the final days of August tends to signal the beginning of the election campaign in the U.S. From that point, there’s not much time to make great changes in strategy, and making such changes is a clear sign that there is concern about bad news. Voters begin to pay attention, not just those who are really interested in politics. The polls in crucial states become more important than the national polls. The issues that candidates talk about are very similar to the ones they will address during the last week of October. Now is when we get a glimpse of the ideas we will hear about repeatedly in the coming months.
Trump has not been ambiguous at all during the convention or in the recent weeks dominated by the pandemic and protests against racism in the U.S. He seems to have chosen to follow the campaign playbook Richard Nixon used to win the election in 1968. The country risks being drawn into a spiral of public unrest and anarchy led by radical sectors that are pretending to change the American lifestyle. Speaking of Trump, we can’t expect much nuance. “LAW & ORDER,” he has tweeted on more than one occasion, the last time on Sunday.
There are two fundamental differences between the successful Nixonian strategy and the current situation. Nixon was the opposition candidate in 1968 after eight years of Democratic administrations. He could blame his rivals for the alleged state of chaos in the country. Trump has been the president for almost four years now, even though that doesn’t stop him from blaming the Democrats for the social problems that exist at the moment.
Moreover, Nixon could count on ample support from conservative voters, as the Democratic candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, was dragged down by the burnout of the Vietnam War and social convulsions inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House. Today, polls reveal that the majority of Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement, including the most recent decision of National Basketball Association players to suspend the playoffs for several days, and do not approve of Trump’s management of racial tension.
To compensate for all of this, Trump is capitalizing on the violence and exaggerating the disorder that has occurred in certain cities governed by Democrats, like Portland, Chicago and Minneapolis, demanding that those mayors and governors take a tough stand against protesters. He describes Antifa, a minor movement of groups without a common structure, as if it were a real menace with a powerful and structured organization, determined to destroy order. At a moment when the racism and disproportionate violence carried out by many local police forces is being questioned, Trump is calling for tougher responses to street protesters and is defending police unions, who have been identified as the main obstacle against reform.
This strategy, condemned by a majority of the mass media, has only one audience: white constituents. The strategy is headed in two directions. It seeks to maintain the support of working-class voters, who were decisive for Trump’s victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin in 2016. Next it seeks to recover the support that was lost from the mostly suburban white middle and upper-middle class voters and from Republicans who were abandoned in the 2018 midterm elections.
In the midterm elections, Trump played the racist and xenophobia card, fueling fear about a caravan of immigrants crossing into Mexico, spinning this image as an invasion. It didn’t work.
The Republican Party knows this, and during its convention, which was dedicated to the greater glory of the Trump family, Trump tried to compensate by giving the podium to Black people with directions to rebut the idea that the president is a racist. It looked like an endeavor that failed from the start, but it had its own logic. It is intended to dissipate Biden’s Black votes. At the end of the day, the decrease in Black voter turnout in 2016 is often cited as one of the reasons for Clinton’s defeat.
Before the conventions, national polls gave Biden the election by a margin of error that was indisputable. The management of the pandemic, which, incomprehensibly, Trump wanted to be the star of, taking over the public role that rightly belonged to scientific advisers and cabinet members, was destroying him in the polls.
The latest news confirms that the White House has pressured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, CDC and FDA, key government agencies in the fight against COVID-19, to alter its scientific recommendations. There is not a single week that goes by without news regarding what the Trump administration should have done and didn’t do to fight the pandemic.
The riots which occurred after the killing of George Floyd by the police inaugurated a different political landscape. Trump decided to take advantage of it in a way that one would expect.
At the Republican National Convention, speakers insisted on recycling Trump’s slogan from four years ago — “Make America Great Again” — at a moment when the U.S. has suffered 180,000 deaths due to the coronavirus, in addition to the subsequent destruction of the economy. Political parties are often forced to ignore reality in order to advance a message more favorable to their interests, but everything has a limit.
Did Democrats use their convention to define the debate in their favor? Yes, the only objective was to attack Trump. Those who thought that there would be messages aimed at the working class in the Midwest were disappointed. Even if national polls continue to favor the Democratic candidate, the gap in several key states is not an insurmountable barrier for Trump.
Biden does not have it easy. Just as in Europe, 2020 is offering a succession of horrible news for the United States that has made most Americans feel overly pessimistic about their country’s future. The confidence level of voters is sinking to unseen levels, even among Republicans, according to a Gallup poll. The level of satisfaction about the direction of the U.S. among Trump voters has fallen about 60 points since March.
Nevertheless, 2016 has already showed how dangerous it is to bet on a strategy based solely on maintaining that your opponent is much worse. Biden has to leave his house, taking all the precautions a man of 77 must take, and run a campaign based on ideas that make him worth voting for, something he has not done if one looks at the level of enthusiasm his candidacy is generating among even those voters who favor him.
At the moment, it can be said with almost complete certainty that Biden will get more votes than Trump. The difference may be greater than in 2016, but that doesn’t guarantee a victory in the Electoral College. Four years ago, the Republican candidate’s triumph occurred because Trump surpassed Clinton by 77, 000 votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, a possibility that few believed could happen just a week before the election, not even within the Trump campaign. That is what the contest came down to in a country of 320 million people, where more than 125 million people voted for one of the two main candidates.
In other words, Biden needs something more than a pandemic to win the election.