‘Keep America Great’ is President Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election slogan and it sounds off. The phrase doesn’t have the same ring as Make America Great Again, the mantra that Trump pinched from Reagan and repeated to victory in 2016. As an acronym, KAG is uglier than MAGA. The words particularly jar when America’s cities are burning, homicide rates are spiking, almost 180,000 Americans have died of or with COVID, and the country is reeling from the largest economic shock of all time. You call that great?
Then again, 2020 is an even crazier year than 2016, and the maddest news is that Donald Trump might be about to defy the odds again and win. He remains much-loathed, divisive, behind in the polls, but he’s suddenly running a much better campaign than his opponent, the Democratic nominee Joe Biden — and it’s beginning to show.
Compare and contrast the two big party conventions we’ve just witnessed. This week the Republican party has had its quadrennial nomination fest and it felt much more coherent than the event the Democrats put on last week. Thanks to COVID, both conventions have been conducted online, which gives them an unreal quality, yet Team Trump’s video presentation has been slicker and simpler than Biden’s — despite (or maybe because of) the fact the Democrats had the might of Hollywood and the entertainment industry behind them. Perhaps that is the benefit of going second.
The Trump show is still weird as hell, of course. On Tuesday, the Republicans had to pull one of the speakers, an ‘angel mom’ called Mary Ann Mendoza, after she posted links to an online conspiracy theory that suggested the Rothschild family is trying to enslave the world. ‘Do yourself a favor and read this thread,’ she tweeted, then later claimed she hadn’t read it herself. That whiff of anti-Semitism was offset by Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, who arguably breached diplomatic protocols by delivering his convention address from the rooftop of the King David hotel in Jerusalem, Israel.
After Pompeo, Melania Trump, the First Lady, came over well as she praised her husband and talked about protecting children from social media and addiction. Americans may be wondering, though, why they had to hear speeches from not one, not two, but six members of the President’s family. On Monday, Kimberly Guilfoyle, the former TV presenter, sounded possessed as she howled, almost orgasmically, that ‘the best is yet to come’. Team Trump called that ‘passion’. Everybody else knows that the reason she is on the campaign is because she is Donald Junior’s girlfriend. It’s a land of opportunity.
Yet that sordid freakiness is the key to Trump success: five long years after he descended that shiny moving staircase in the Trump Tower to launch his presidential bid, he still has the power to horrify the media and fascinate people. His great talent as a campaigner is that while much of the world continues to shriek and gawp at the Trump circus, the President and his talking heads are able to speak directly to American voters about the issues that most concern them. Again and again this week, Family Trump touched on the economy, China, restoring law and order, and free speech.
The Democrats, by contrast, used their convention to fulminate against Trump’s character and structural racism. Many Americans agree that Trump is awful. They fear that, under his divisive leadership, the country is falling apart. But voters are more immediately afraid about their jobs, and poll after poll suggests that voters trust Trump more than Biden to fix the economy. Americans will also have noticed that, after an enormous drop at the peak of the COVID crisis, employment is rebounding. The ‘greatest economy the world has ever seen’, as Trump likes to call it — the one he claims to have built entirely through his unique brilliance — is roaring back.
In May and June, Trump struggled to identify Biden’s weak points. His campaign mocked the Democratic nominee for being mentally frail, perhaps not realizing that a huge percentage of the American electorate is over 65 and doesn’t respond well to that talk. But Team Trump has now adapted its ‘Sleepy Joe’ rhetoric: their latest campaign videos say that ‘the radical left’ has ‘taken over Joe Biden’, as if the poor old boy had been impregnated by a malevolent alien. Judging by the recent tightening in the polls, that message is getting through to the public.
Trump’s critics are fond of saying that the President is only interested in campaigning; he doesn’t care about governing. It’s a fair point. Yet people forget what a canny and creative campaigner he can be. He always seems to find a way to win.
Biden lacks Trump’s originality. The Democratic candidate surprised many observers last week by giving a fairly fluent nomination speech. He’d looked so cataleptic recently that most viewers were impressed at his ability to read quite well from a teleprompter. That’s not exactly a high bar given that he wants to lead the free world, and the speech turns out to have been shockingly similar to his vice-presidential nomination speech in 2008, as a viral mash-up video of the two addresses shows. Biden only mentioned China once.
Family Trump, on the other hand, this week called COVID-19 ‘the China virus’ at every opportunity. Such talk offends delicate liberals, but plays well in America’s rust belt, where workers have lost out to cheap Chinese labor, seen relatives overdose on Chinese-made opioids, and have now had their hopes ripped away from them again by a disease that originated in China.
Not so long ago, Team Biden seemed to understand the importance of sounding tough against Beijing. In April, a Biden advertisement claimed that Trump had ‘rolled over for the Chinese…as the coronavirus spread around the world’. But some Democrats called that line of attack ‘Sinophobic’ and accused Biden of trying to ‘Out-Trump Trump’. The horror!
That manic political correctness and national self-loathing are the Democratic party’s most crippling flaws. Biden and co try to talk about American exceptionalism but they always end up talking about racism. Trump Republicans, by contrast, are increasingly skillful at presenting themselves as optimistic and open-hearted patriots. On Monday night, as lefty Twitter users kept snickering over Guilfoyle’s ululations, millions tuned into the speech of the black Sen. Tim Scott, who said that he was ‘living his mother’s American dream’ and believed ‘the next American century can be better than the last’. Another speaker that night was Maximo Alvarez, a Cuban immigrant, who said: ‘If I gave away everything I have today, it would not equal one percent of what I was given when I came to this great country of ours: the gift of freedom.’
Americans have always lapped that stuff up, and the stars-and-stripes schmaltz fits the Keep America Great theme. Yet both parties realize that the times they are apocalyptic, and that means they must discuss the darkness as much as the light. Team Biden talks about the end of democracy if Trump isn’t removed from office. Team Trump says that the ‘radical left’ is destroying western civilization and America will be finished if the Democrats take over this time.
The agitators in several American cities seem hellbent on proving the Republicans right. On Sunday night, a violent Black Lives Matter protest erupted in response to yet another disturbing online video of a police shooting, this time in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which just so happens to be a crucial state in this election. The victim of the shooting has survived, somehow, and the details of the incident remain unclear. That didn’t stop the rush to riot. Angry gangs of black and white youths smashed and burned shops and cars and attacked policemen in the streets. ‘Today, we woke to grieve yet again,’ tweeted Biden elliptically, as he called for a ‘full and transparent investigation’. His running mate Kamala Harris said the police ‘must be held accountable’. Neither appealed for calm on the streets.
The trouble for Biden and Harris is that public perceptions of the Black Lives Matter movement are souring. George Floyd’s death in Minnesota on May 25 sparked tremendous outrage across a world that was already angry about the pandemic and the lockdowns. Polls suggested huge support for the BLM cause. Senior Democrats, Biden included, capitalized by firmly aligning themselves with the movement and demanding radical change. But it’s been three months now and the BLM riots are ongoing. Non-protesters are becoming increasingly fed up and receptive to Trump’s argument that law and order must now be restored using force. One survey found that in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s death, a majority of non-college-educated whites in various swing states said they supported BLM. By the end of July, a majority said the opposite.
If Biden and Harris were more adept campaigners, they would spot that shift among these once-Democratic voters who swung so decisively towards Trump in 2016 and would moderate their language accordingly. They would condemn vandalism and the destruction of (often black-owned) businesses as much as they talked about the need to transform America. They would point out more forcefully that Trump, for all his tough talk, has allowed the unrest to spread. But Biden and Harris can’t switch signals, especially not on sensitive racial issues. Trump, however, seems to be hogging the middle ground: his campaign has condemned excessive police force (to the disappointment of his more hardcore fans) while he tweets aggressively about stopping the criminality.
Democrats will take comfort from the polls, even if they are still haunted by Hillary Clinton’s late collapse in 2016. Biden remains almost eight points ahead nationally, and he continues to lead in most battleground states. Joe is widely considered to be much more likable than Hillary, who lost so narrowly to Trump four years ago, and independents prefer him. Trump, meanwhile, is approaching the end of his first term with a lower approval rating than any post-war president who has won re-election. That said, his approval rating is higher than George H.W. Bush’s or Jimmy Carter’s (the last two presidents who failed to be re-elected).
Trump’s efforts to appeal more to black voters, who make up 13 percent of the US population, don’t appear to have yet borne much fruit. Democrats can hope that the BLM story and the fact that Kamala Harris is mixed-race will boost African American turnout in their favor. Yet Trump is more popular among whites than he was four years ago, and whites still make up 60 percent of the US population. He’s also slightly more popular among the 18 percent who are Hispanic.
It’s foolish to make political predictions, especially in such a tumultuous year. But don’t be surprised if, in just over nine weeks, we all find ourselves agreeing that the greatest trick the Donald ever pulled was to Make America Elect Him Again.