By Ross Alexander Hutton
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness.” Written in the 19th Century by English novelist Charles Dickens, this excerpt from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ is particularly pertinent to the divisions running deep in 2020 America. Indeed, it sets the scene for one of the most momentous presidential elections in U.S. political history as both Democrats and Republicans supporting their respective candidates relate to the essence behind the excerpt. Through Trump’s lens, America is living through the “best of times’ as his political raison d’être is devoted to “Keeping America Great.” Conversely, such is the partisan nature of American political discourse, through Biden’s lens, it is the “worst of times” for America, as he fights in the “Battle for the Soul of the Nation.” While it appears Biden is favoured to win, Trump shouldn’t be counted out: this election is truly Biden’s to lose and Trump’s to win.
Disharmony, discord and division are not merely characteristics of the 2020 race. Rather, these were the discounted undertones of the political climate which—then political outsider—Donald Trump tapped into to deliver his shock electoral victory in 2016. While pundits and commentators alike assumed the race was a foregone conclusion, Trump’s unruly campaign was resonating with the ‘forgotten America.’ Accordingly, the former reality TV star was wooing voters in the traditionally democratic states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan—most notably in areas of manufacturing decline—who felt ‘left-behind’ by the post-financial crisis recovery. Trump’s ominous assertion during the 2016 campaign that “the American dream is dead” aligned seamlessly with the anger held by those left behind towards the shrinking constituency of those doing well. At the crux of Trump’s populist message was the ever-decreasing opportunity for the ordinary American. So much for the ‘land of opportunity.’ In other words, Trump was no fluke like the ‘establishment’ still contend. In fact, he is a symptom of a broken socio-economic system in which social mobility had ground to a halt.
A concoction of anger and resentment was successfully stirred up in the rustbelt, resulting in defiance against the establishment (embodied by the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton). America’s divisions were laid bare; decades of hyper-partisanship, political lobbying, corruption, and political paralysis in the heart of Washington rose to the fore, cementing a tribalized nation in which each side loathes and fails to comprehend the other. Amid both parties standing firm on their intransigent views of Trump, the circus that was his presidency travelled from one controversy to the next. With America still polarised and only marginal movements in public sentiment, the President seemed to just keep afloat—nothing yet had capsized his presidency.
Perhaps the most significant knock to the trajectory of Donald Trump’s presidency was the ‘blue wave’ which swept through Washington when the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 Midterm election. Signalling the end of the era of unified rule for the Republican party under the premiership of Donald Trump, his legislative agenda swiftly met its maker: Nancy Pelosi. Impeachment proceedings were now in the grasp of a rather reluctant Speaker of the House—it was Trump’s worst nightmare. This first sign of an electoral rebuke against the incumbent president arose from a united, well-organised and well-turned-out democratic party on a mission to send a clear message to the White House—a strategy to invoke in 2020?
Yet, even in historical terms, it is worth recalling that both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama lost control of the House in their first terms in office but still went on to win re-election, so all hope was not lost for Trump as it would take a stronger current to bring this political goliath underwater. Hence, the numerous instances where political storms (which would normally sink a presidency) merely took the appearance of a passing shower. From the explosive Access Hollywood Tape which exposed the Republican nominee bragging about sexual assault in the 2016 campaign to his impeachment by the House of Representatives, no scandal seemed enough to ‘stick’ to Trump and overcome the hyper-polarisation in America. Then, along came something microscopic in scale but remarkably consequential for Trumps’ presidency: Coronavirus.
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” for Trump’s re-election strategy. Unscarred by his impeachment, touting his ‘perfect economy,’ and looking over his shoulder to a divided democratic party, Trump was on course to mount a competitive re-election campaign. Concurrently, the president received classified briefings warning of a deadly virus spreading in China’s Wuhan province. It was to be the greatest test of Trump’s leadership. Would the president take decisive action to protect the American people from Coronavirus or would he choose to dampen panic and protect the stability of the stock market? He chose the latter.
From that moment on, the showman who rewrote the book of politics was to be upstaged by an infinitesimal virus during his most vital performance. Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic turned the election upside down in every conceivable way; from redesigning the nature of political campaigning, to restructuring the way voters cast their ballots, to redefining the most salient issues for voters. However, in this far from ‘normal’ election, it remains to be seen whether the pandemic will shape voters’ minds to break from their parties’ tribalism. Especially for Trump, the virus presents the perfect antidote to his repeated use of misinformation and falsehoods. Unlike other times in his business and political life, Trump cannot just distort the truth about a virus out of his control—after all, as President John Adams famously declared “facts are stubborn things.” Could this be Donald Trump’s ‘Wizard of Oz’ moment where his character is exposed as just smoke and mirrors? Ultimately, American voters will have to decide whether to rehire or retire the president based on his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic which has eclipsed almost every other voting issue in this election cycle.
Given the overarching dynamics of this election and those leading to it, which ‘America’ will prevail: Biden’s or Trump’s?
Joe Biden’s third run for the White House was sparked by President Trump’s response to the violence between the white supremacy groups spreading hate and those standing against it in Charlottesville, North Carolina. In his remarks at the time, Trump suggested there were “very fine people” on both sides. Words chosen by the president matter—they can empower just as much as they can suppress. For Biden, the very soul of America is in danger as Trump fans the flames of hate. Thus, Biden views 2020 as his chance to lead the nation, to paraphrase the words of Dickens, from a “season of darkness to a season of light.” Against the background of America’s struggle to finally deal with racial injustice and President Trump’s chaotic leadership, Biden’s gamble is that voters have grown weary of the division and disorder which have defined Trump’s presidency. Biden’s political judgement is that voters are looking for stability over uncertainty, hope over fear, courage over cynicism—embodied by an experienced, tested leader who can return America to normalcy.
The remarkable coalescence around Biden towards the end of the Democratic primary was, at least in part, built on the foundations of respect for a quality found ubiquitously in Biden but rather rare in his opponent: empathy. In doing so, Biden’s former rivals for the Democratic nomination emphatically backed his instinct that the need for human empathy in the Oval Office outweighs the anger characteristic of the 2016 election. Therefore, a Biden win is predicated on Biden correctly understanding the mood of the country—just like Trump did in 2016—and his message of unity and steady leadership resonating with voters.
That is not to say anyone should assume the incumbent president’s fate is already sealed—far from it. In fact, Trump thrives on the perception of being the underdog and on underestimation of his political talents. Trump certainly benefits from a loyal, unwavering and solid base which is just as—perhaps even more— fired up than it was in 2016. For this reason, there are still feasible scenarios where Trump could collect enough electoral college votes through a number of close wins in states where he is in the polling margin of error. If you believe the polls, then the likelihood of such an electoral surprise is rather low.
However, there is a rather large caveat to polling. 2016 cast doubt over the dependability of these very analytical prisms, with both parties avoiding systematic complacency by taking each poll with a lot of salt. If there is anything pundits learnt from the 2016 election, it is that national polling leads become irrelevant when polling in battleground states, where the election is fought and won, is unreliable. On the ground in these swing states, the race is far closer than the polls predict. Operatives of both parties continue to suspect ‘shy Trump voters’ exist and that there is a lot more uncertainty than predictive models appreciate. Yet, Trump’s campaign spending decisions seem to reflect the image presented by the polls as it has adjusted spending from battleground states to states like Ohio where Trump won easily last time.
Nevertheless, this race is not a repeat of 2016 for several reasons. Rather than presenting himself as an outsider of the political sphere, Trump is running on his record. As is the nature of re-election, Trump is more at risk of facing a referendum on his presidency, a dynamic categorically absent from 2016. Hence, for those who subscribe to the ‘it’s the economy, stupid!’ philosophy, then Trump’s handling of the coronavirus ridden economy may well speak for itself. After spending four years discrediting the press, the media coverage of Trump’s campaign in 2020 is far from the constant reporting in the previous election as the media has taken a far more cautious approach to covering Trump’s re-election campaign by withholding the discrediation of him pervasive in 2016. Most notably, Biden is not Clinton. Biden repels far fewer voters than Clinton did in 2016 as fewer voters have a ‘very unfavourable’ view of Biden, translating into a consistent and durable lead, unlike Clintons’ in 2016.
Biden isn’t without his flaws but his consistent tactic of keeping the focus on the incumbent, rather than himself has diminished the very existence of a debatable choice between the two nominees. By giving Trump full access to the spotlight he craves and staying ‘above the fray,’ Biden has deprived the president of an opponent to engage and direct affronts towards. While the ‘Trump show’ runs on and Biden ‘hides in his basement,’ all the attention and scrutiny is absorbed by the showman. Of course, this is consistent with the wider persona of both emphasising the overpowering nature of Trump’s ‘reality-TV-show presidency’ and the existence of a quieter, more palatable alternative.
If Biden is to win, his vision must ‘meet the moment’ in the same way Trump’s did in 2016 and Obama’s in 2008. Yet, even if his diagnosis of the state of the nation is shared by voters, this election will ultimately come down to turnout. If Biden is to win, his message has to mobilise enough voters to achieve an unquestionable electoral college victory or risk the same fate Hillary Clinton faced four years earlier. If Trump is to win, he will need to maximise his base, capitalise on Biden’s weaknesses and defy all expectations for a second time. America is, therefore, at a historical crossroads with two polar opposite visions based on two contrasting calculations. In this ‘Tale of Two Americas,’ one vision will prevail and one will lose: it’s Biden’s to lose.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.