That Trump fears Biden is beyond dispute. The president worried so much about facing him that he tried to extort the president of Ukraine, an ally dependent on U.S. military aid, into announcing a baseless investigation of Biden and his son in an attempt to smear the former vice president. This outrageously venal gambit earned Trump the shame of becoming just the third president in history to be impeached.
And that Trump fears Harris is illustrated by his befuddlement at how to attack her. A full 24 hours after the announcement that she was Biden’s choice, all the president had managed was to call her “nasty,” a placeholder put-down he often uses for strong women, and a weak tweet belittling her performance in the Democratic primaries.
By Thursday, Trump was focused on an “angry Black woman” approach, combining racism and misogyny for a kind of daily double. “She was so angry, and such hatred,” he said on Fox Business Network, referring to Harris’s grilling of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh during Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing. “I mean, I’ve never seen anything like it. She was the angriest of the group, and they were all angry.”
This line of criticism is of a piece with Trump’s time-warp appeal to “Suburban Housewives” who, in his imagination, live in constant fear of minorities living in their neighborhoods. The president may never have gotten over the 1968 Fair Housing Act, but the nation has.
Trump’s allies and enablers, meanwhile, chose from an unappetizing menu of contradictory talking points to attack Harris. Some implausibly tried to paint Harris, a Californian, as the most left-wing member of the U.S. Senate, apparently hoping the nation will somehow forget that Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) exist. Others claimed that Harris isn’t liberal enough to suit the party’s progressive wing. The Trump campaign called her “phony” for attacking Biden during the primaries but now joining forces with him. By that standard, most leading Republicans are even phonier, since they once called Trump names like “con man” and “pathological liar” but now treat him with unctuous Dear Leader reverence.
These slams are a meager response to the reality the GOP faces: that Biden has chosen a vice-presidential nominee who might significantly, perhaps even decisively, inspire more Democrats to vote.
Harris is the first Black woman to run on a major-party presidential ticket. She is the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants; a graduate of a historically Black college, Howard University; and a member of the century-old Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha. The prospect that she will motivate more African American voters to mail in their ballots or to go to the polls in November could make a huge difference.
In former president Barack Obama’s two victories, Black voter turnout was 65 percent and 67 percent. In Hillary Clinton’s loss to Trump, Black turnout fell to 60 percent. If Harris’s presence on the ticket can help boost African American turnout back to Obama-era levels, Trump’s chance of another narrow electoral college win becomes almost impossibly slim. Moreover, endangered GOP senators in states where African Americans constitute a major voting bloc — such as Thom Tillis of North Carolina, or even Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina — could become collateral damage.
The Biden-Harris ticket’s public debut Wednesday in Delaware went about as well as possible. For obvious reasons, there could be no cheering crowds. But Biden was nothing like the caricature that Trump tries to paint; he was sharp and vigorous, not addled and doddering. And Harris came across as anything but angry; she smiled sweetly, even while delivering her sharpest rhetorical blows.
One good day does not an election victory make. But an auspicious beginning is better than an inauspicious one, and Biden and Harris got off to a start that seemed to leave Trump and his party rattled. Even Trump’s Plan B — suppressing the Democratic vote — took a serious hit Thursday with a Supreme Court decision allowing Rhode Island, and by extension other states, to relax onerous rules limiting mail-in balloting.
Trump hasn’t lost. But, yes, right now he is losing.