Donald Trump is not a competent president but he is a terrifyingly effective one, as the 2020 RNC proved once again. The central lesson of 2016 for Democrats should have been: do not underestimate Trump, and do not take his general ignorance as a lack of political skill. Worryingly, this lesson does not seem to have been fully absorbed, and there are eerie similarities between the present election and the one four years ago. I’m getting deja vu, and I don’t like it.
The good news for Democrats is that Joe Biden is ahead in the polls. The bad news is that Hillary Clinton was also ahead in the polls. Biden’s lead may be sliding in critical states, and some estimates show him underperforming Clinton in the critical state of Wisconsin. Biden’s overall margin over Trump is greater than Clinton’s was at her peak. But FiveThirtyEight reports, troublingly, that “there are also nine states where Biden’s margin over Trump is smaller than Clinton’s was at this point in the campaign,” including “many Rust Belt battleground states”.
The political circumstances should be incredibly favorable for a challenger: nearly 200,000 people are dead in a crisis caused in large part by the president’s personal incompetence, and the economy has collapsed. The Democratic candidate should be winning in a landslide. The fact that it might be close shows a serious failure of leadership.
Joe Biden could still win in a landslide, and I hope he does. But one thing we need to understand about Donald Trump is that while he is a terrible president, he is an excellent showman who understands the theatrical aspects of politics very well. Though few Democrats will want to admit it, the RNC was well-produced. It is easy to make fun of the absurd quantity of flags – the Republican approach to solving a problem is to throw as many flags at it as possible.
But the right has a very clear message and they hammer it home with relentless force: the Democrats want lawless anarchy in the streets and destructive socialist economic policy, your children will not be safe. There will be mob rule, riots, looting. Immigrants will pour across the border. Anarchy and mayhem will take hold. The Republicans are the voice of our patriotic heroes, while Democrats want to tear down the Washington Monument, defund the police, and silence your political opinions with their “cancel culture”.
Of course, a great deal of this is utterly ridiculous, considering that the Democratic candidate is Joe Biden rather than Bernie Sanders. Those of us on the left certainly wish Biden would promise full socialism, amnesty for unauthorized immigrants, and prison abolition. But Biden won’t even support popular social democratic policies like Medicare for All, and by appointing controversial “top cop” Kamala Harris as his running mate, he’s doing anything but show support for “anarchists” and rioters. Biden is a conservative Democrat who supported the Iraq war and helped to build the contemporary system of mass incarceration, which is why those of us on the left are so deeply unenthused about having to drag ourselves to the polls for him.
But it is spectacle, not facts, that matters in Trump world. In 2016, Democrats made the mistake of thinking they could “factcheck” their way to victory, pointing out the many ways in which Trump’s statements were false or misleading. To beat Trump you don’t need better facts, though, you need a better narrative. Trump’s message is a simple and powerful one: I love America, they hate America, I will create greatness, they will create poverty, violence and misery. The Biden team leans heavily on carefully pointing out that much of what Trump says is wrong. This is important, but it’s not enough. Hillary Clinton found this out the hard way.
Joe Biden still hasn’t really developed a political identity for the election. He boasts of having the “most progressive platform” since FDR, yet the Democratic convention spurned young leftists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, choosing instead to showcase anti-Trump Republicans. Some seem to think the best strategy for Biden is just to lie low and be a warm body, a name on the ballot that isn’t Trump. I am certain most Americans cannot name a Biden policy proposal or even his campaign slogan (that’s a trick, he actually has eight campaign slogans). Like Hillary Clinton, Biden has major political liabilities, having been associated with the very administration whose failures Trump was elected by campaigning against.
Trump might well implode, and Biden could exceed expectations. Trump’s “I made America great again” message certainly seems as if it should be a hard sell during a pandemic, yet his approval ratings have been weirdly resilient. Frankly, we are in an unprecedented and chaotic political situation and it is impossible to predict how things will unfold. But Trump is a juggernaut, saturating social media with advertising and having volunteers knock a million doors a week. His final night at the RNC speech was tired and tedious, but Democrats would do well not to get cocky. We’ve seen the consequences of complacency once before, and it was a disaster. A second Trump term will be far, far worse, with unthinkable consequences for the climate, workers and immigrants.
Karl Marx said history repeated itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. 2016 was a tragedy. I just hope we’re not about to see the farce.
Nathan Robinson is the editor of Current Affairs and a Guardian US columnist