But Trump’s directional confusion was revealing nonetheless, both about the trouble Trump has turning Biden into something he’s not, and about the president’s rambling and vicious incoherence.
The display on Tuesday simultaneously violated all norms about presidents eschewing the rankest form of politicking from the White House and shredded all rules for speaking comprehensible English. Trump has supported English-only policies. Maybe we should apply them to presidents who claim to be using that language.
I won’t waste space here, but check out the transcript for the blocky paragraphs of cascading sentences with little connection to each other. The Post’s Matt Viser nicely captured the vibe when he observed that Trump’s comments had “the stream-of-consciousness feel of the third hour of AM talk radio.”
But in the manner of scholars trying to tease out the meaning of obscure texts, let’s wade through Trump’s remarks to get hints of his objectives.
I see four: (1) to turn 2020 into a choice between a “socialist” (or a “puppet” of socialists) and a conservative, pro-market president; (2) to use racial and social wedge issues to win back older supporters who have fled to Biden because of the hash Trump has made of the pandemic and related crises; (3) to run as an anti-China economic nationalist and cast Biden as a globalist enemy of the American working class; and (4) to go after Biden personally as too old, “corrupt,” incapable of defining the word “carbon” — and whatever else occurs to him.
The first two are elements of a classic Republican campaign, carried a bit further than usual. The economic nationalism is a Trump go-to. And the last argument is one that any incumbent in terrible trouble would try to make: “I may not be great, but the other guy is worse.” But the more out of control Trump becomes, the harder that case is to make.
Biden could run as the safe, experienced, decent and empathetic alternative to an incompetent, soulless, wild man. And a lot of Biden campaign advertising hits these themes with a surface simplicity that carries an implicit but devastating punch at Trump — without having to mention him. “If you’re sick, if you’re struggling, if you’re worried about how you’re going to get through the day, I will not abandon you,” Biden says in a new ad running in Texas. “We’re all in this together. We’ll fight this together.”
The word “abandon” speaks to Trump’s MIA approach to covid-19. The double “together” speaks to the ideological move Biden is making.
Yes, his program is more broadly progressive than Barack Obama’s. Biden would take on climate change more aggressively, use government more forcefully to jump-start a sagging economy, and go well beyond the Affordable Care Act in guaranteeing all Americans health coverage.
But we are living in a very different time: The economy is in even greater turmoil than it was in 2009, and inequalities of all kinds are more glaring. And Biden is betting that the divisiveness of the Trump era and the widespread suffering from the novel coronavirus and its economic consequences have rekindled a national desire to think of ourselves as an “us” and a “we.”
If Trump wants to make the election about socialism vs. capitalism, Biden wants to make it a very American choice between community and a radical kind of individualism that leaves many people stranded. Biden’s model is not Karl Marx but Franklin D. Roosevelt.
And in his communitarianism, Biden is answering Trump’s vocal but inept nationalism with an emphasis on retooling U.S. industry and rebuilding our common assets — typically described with that uninviting word “infrastructure.”
Biden seems to have decided that he wants not only to beat Trump but also to lay the groundwork for governing. He is trying to assemble an agenda acceptable to the various wings of his own party and to argue for it by transcending the stale and hackneyed dividing lines that drive Trump’s approach to politics.
No wonder Trump sounds like a frantic salesman who can’t keep his pitch straight. He knows it isn’t working.