What if Americans complain a lot about government but count on it to solve or contain major problems? What if the vast majority of Americans don’t like extremism?
The answer: You would get something that looks an awful lot like the 2020 election going into its final two weeks.
Here’s the biggest difference between the closing strategies of Trump and former vice president Joe Biden: Trump still believes the country loves him and what he had to say in 2016. Biden knows that we are, in the end, a normal country with normal aspirations and normal desires.
This was obvious in last Thursday’s dueling town halls on ABC and NBC, and — unless his advisers persuade Trump to become a completely different person — it’s likely to be just as obvious in this Thursday’s debate.
What’s often missed about Trump, Trumpism and the transformation of the Republican Party is that much of what is going on now harks back to the 1960s — but the other 1960s that most people don’t think about. Not the civil rights and antiwar movements or the New Left, but the far right that was at least as important at the time: the John Birch Society, the Minutemen, the White Citizens’ Councils and comparable groups. This wacky right wing has gained more traction in our time than it did then because of right-wing media and an Internet that did not exist 60 years ago.
Trump is both a product and an instigator of this radicalization. He sees far, far-right conspiracists as an important part of his political base. Thus, when NBC’s Savannah Guthrie asked Trump about the QAnon conspiracy theory holding that, as she put it, “Democrats are a satanic pedophile ring and that you are the savior,” Trump insisted that he knew “nothing” about its supporters except that “I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard.”
That’s a bit like saying, “I don’t know much about the Ku Klux Klan, but I know they honor the American flag and fight very hard for it.”
And when the intrepid Guthrie asked Trump about his retweeting “a conspiracy theory that Joe Biden orchestrated to have SEAL Team Six, the Navy SEAL Team Six, killed to cover up the fake death of bin Laden,” Trump replied: “That was a retweet. I’ll put it out there. People can decide for themselves.”
To which Guthrie, to her everlasting credit, replied: “I don’t get that, you’re the president. You’re not, like, someone’s crazy uncle.”
This is precisely what the country is coming to terms with: Trump is exactly like someone’s crazy uncle. And because they hate liberals so much, most Republican politicians and many conservative commentators are ready to keep our government in the hands of an irrational, unstable extremist. The truest conservatives are thus those who oppose Trump. They see that the far right is radical, not conservative, and that even small-government conservatism depends on taking the government we have seriously.
All of which explains why Biden has led Trump in the RealClearPolitics polling average for more than a year. Voters recognize Biden as a thoroughly normal human being. His views are well inside the normal range of opinions, and his emotions allow for empathy, sorrow, self-awareness and even self-criticism. The warm, loquacious, in-the-weeds-about-your-problems Biden on display at the ABC town hall was the central-casting antithesis to the guy on the other network.
Thursday’s debate is likely to bring this lesson home. If Trump is your crazy uncle, Biden is the warm relative who may talk too much but gives you generally sound, well-intentioned advice.
Yes, let’s welcome all the doubts about Biden’s lead being sown by those still suffering from PTSD about Trump’s inside-straight victory in 2016. So many of the mistakes made four years ago — nonvoting, ballots for third parties, then-FBI director James B. Comey’s disastrous October intervention, inadequate attention to the swing states — arose from a false certainty that Trump couldn’t win. Prudence warns against overconfidence.
Nonetheless, there is good reason to believe that Biden’s bet from the beginning of his campaign will be vindicated: that the United States is an imperfect but sane country. It’s willing to don masks to fight disease. It wants to imagine Americans as capable of rising above racism. It rejects nutty conspiracy theories. And it knows which kind of uncle it can count on in a crisis.