Campaign in the Shadow of Disasters

In the strangest election year in U.S. history, the president benefits even from the continuing disasters that seem to befall the United States.

In two weeks, Americans will cast their ballots in an election that will be the culmination of the strangest presidential campaign in the history of the United States. Though “the strangest” might still be an understatement since in the year 2020 a lot has happened to America that was embarrassing and comical but at the same time scary — from the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests that went on for weeks, through the inglorious world record of COVID-19 infections to apocalyptic fires in California.

The presidential campaign of the Democratic candidate Joe Biden mostly took place online, broadcast from a small website studio set up in the cellar of his home in Wilmington, Delaware. The incumbent president, on the other hand, acted as if there was no pandemic and for months insisted on holding campaign rallies and events.

For example, at one rally, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, almost nobody turned up and those who attended the event most likely brought the virus with them. After the Tulsa rally, the number of infections shot up and one of the president’s allies, businessman and right-leaning activist Herman Cain, fell sick and died. In the end, Trump himself caught the coronavirus and landed in the hospital. The first debate between the candidates ended in a dust-up. Now, Americans won’t know whether there will be any presidential debates at all until the last moment. Maybe both candidates will only resort to attacks on social media while up in their headquarters. Touring the country, which traditionally requires the candidates to visit dozens of states during the campaign, is, of course, out of the question.

Under these circumstances, it is not difficult to see what the stakes are in this election, what issues the candidates should tackle and what may prove to be pivotal. What this election is all about — to put it simply.

Trumponomics Works!

Back in January, Trump thought he had both the campaign and the victory all sewn up. It was sufficient to prove one thing — Trump is good for the economy, which means he is good for your pocketbooks and that means he is good for you. Today in the U.S., when the state is failing across the board, and the market cannot provide basic services or a sense of security to those in need, this almost seems like an amusing concept. But at the beginning of the year 2020 the idea did not seem so absurd.

The condition of the economy in America is measured differently than here. The media, economists and analysts from the Labor Department, for example, look at how many jobs are created every month, how high the most important stock indices are, what the average household spending is and what the feelings of the CEOs of the leading industries are. Without going into detail, each of these indicators at the beginning of the year showed the situation was exceptionally good. Trump is a notorious liar but as far as the economy goes, his advisers and staff members could pull out a bunch of reports and figures to prove the president had reasons to boast.

This is why the incumbent president wanted to enter the election race with a simple message. He, a capitalist, knows how to handle the economy for the benefit of business. His opponents do not have the slightest idea — they are, as the president’s staff claimed, all socialists and amateurs. That kind of campaign would have been an uphill struggle for the left. The inequalities in the country might be dramatic, the racial divisions widening, young people’s transition into adulthood woeful, yet the catastrophic scenarios of Trump bringing the country to ruins, by an ironic twist of fate, did not materialize. That is, until the pandemic broke out.

Virus Sweeps the Campaign under the Rug

As soon as it turned out that the “Chinese flu,” as the president called it, is in fact dangerous and the health care system dramatically unprepared to tackle it, the campaign took a different course. In the case of Trump, it was, in fact, derailed. From the start, the Democrats obviously wanted the 2020 election to be a referendum on Trumpism. And now, with the outbreak of the pandemic, they could sharpen the referendum question. From “How bad is Trump as the president?” to “How bad for the time of the pandemic is the antiscientific, irrational, pro-epidemic millionaire who belongs to a risk group?”

The more dangerous the virus was for America, the more the president ignored it. This was also because his simple but effective concept for the campaign literally crumbled when it turned out that the economy had come to a halt and as many as 20 million people had lost their jobs overnight. Trump was furious, he railed and fired his advisers, whom he blamed for “losing” his campaign. He himself insisted on organizing rallies and meeting voters face to face. He wanted to show that neither he nor the U.S. economy was, in fact, slowing down. We now know the consequences.

But Democrats, who hoped the campaign would focus on the pandemic, also miscalculated. It turned out that, though the virus had taken a tragic toll, managing a public health crisis did not prove to be such a high-octane political fuel. Not to the extent that Biden’s staff would have wanted it to be. The dismal health care situation did not in the least unite Americans in their anger against the incompetent head of state. On the contrary, mistrust of medical science grew and protests against the lockdowns followed. They were attended not only by radicals and lunatics but also by disgruntled small business owners. After a huge number of layoffs at the beginning of April, when unemployment plunged to Great Depression levels, the approval ratings for the president surged! Sounds incredible? Yet that is what happened.

Small-Town America Watches the Protests

The death of George Floyd, an unarmed African American strangled by police officers during an attempted arrest at the end of May this year sparked huge protests. According to some observers — the largest in history, not only because of the number of cities where they took place but also the number of protesters who attended them. The death of another Black citizen, who died at the hands of police officers, was another impetus, but the energy that fueled the protests, which with time turned into riots, also had other sources. Millions of Americans sought ways to vent their — sometimes quite unrelated— frustrations. The protesters carried signs with slogans calling for the fight against systemic racism and police reforms. But there were also white protesters angry with the authorities, tired of restrictions, scared of the economic crisis, and those who were just looking for trouble. Or those who wanted to show their opposition to Trump and to conservatives in general — including in states controlled by the Democrats.

The opposition to Trump consolidated around the #BlackLivesMatter slogan and the protest movement. Democratic politicians raced to show their support for the demonstrators and their demands. But here again, it soon turned out that the anti-Trump opposition miscalculated their opportunities and their ability to control the emotions of the masses. Protests had indeed become radicalized — in fact, from the start they were labeled as such. As a result of the numerous acts of violence and senseless destruction of property, moderate, rural and politically uninvolved Americans started to look at them with distaste. Since the votes of these citizens are decisive in this presidential election, in the end the Democratic candidate had to distance himself from these acts of vandalism.

While the anti-racism movement aimed to bring Trump down — his ratings among people of color have always been bad anyway — the opposite happened. The president presented the acts of violence and vandalism as dangerous to “American suburbs, our suburbs” and for a moment successfully used them as his campaign vehicle. Repeating Richard Nixon’s gambit from his election campaign a quarter century ago, he discreetly but firmly made it clear to white Americans that he would be their man in Washington. Racial issues and the debates over police brutality will certainly impact the election — but not necessarily the way the Democrats and the mainstream media expected.

The Apocalypse in the West

And then the catastrophic wildfires erupted on the West Coast. All those who saw the photos from California in those summer days had familiar connotations — apocalyptic movies, the surface of Mars or hell on Earth. The sky was the color of mustard and the air quality indicators showed the air pollution in green, liberal enclaves like Portland or Seattle was greater than in Kolkata or Kabul.

Underfunded fire services (in the state of California that includes inmates employed at starvation wages) as well as rescue teams were incapable of responding to a disaster of this scale. On the other hand, home and business owners were furious because they wanted to go home as quickly as possible instead of staying in temporary housing during a pandemic — despite the fact that residential areas in California are located in endangered areas.

The ecological disaster in the West laid bare the inefficiency of the system in all areas. The fires, after all, are now cyclical and it is possible at least to try to prevent them.

In the year 2020, disaster followed disaster. Americans will have a say about them in November but this will not be a referendum on Trump and Trumpism. Or the voice for or against how the federal authorities cope with the problem of systematic racism, inequalities in access to health care, the lack of resistance of the economy to crisis or climate change. The election will not settle the question of who can better cope with any of it, but who has the better narrative, as they say now. And who, in the face of further misfortunes, knew not so much how to react but how to talk about them and make sense out of them — and who will be better able to win over Americans. Will it be the Democrats, who try to use the language of meritocracy and integrity, or will it rather be Trump and the political right who still seem to be better at finding the key to collective emotions?

Simple scenarios, even if someone had any at the beginning of the year and the presidential campaign, landed in the garbage a long time ago.

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