Find footage of his 2016 acceptance speech and watch it back to back with Thursday’s. If that’s too painful, just watch parts of both. Even a speech instructor at the late Trump University would notice the contrasting levels of vitality.
The 2020 Trump looks like a man who knows his show is about to be canceled. He has to make a herculean effort to turn things around — and he is just too sick and tired of the whole thing to give it a real try. Perhaps he hoped the quantity of his words would offset the lack of forcefulness in his presentation. It backfired. A man whom even critics concede is “interesting” became ponderous and boring.
Seeing things this way is not, as far as I can tell, the prevailing view going into the final months of this election. Spooked by what happened in 2016, many analysts — especially Democrats — seem to assume that things will go very wrong for Biden.
The post-2016 language about liberals, Democrats, “elites” and the media “not understanding” the “values” of White working- and middle-class class Americans in the Midwest is back in force. The disorder in Kenosha after the police shooting of Jacob Blake and now the killing in Portland over the weekend are assumed to be helpful to Trump, even though Biden pointed out, rather logically, that this mayhem is happening on Trump’s watch.
On Sunday, Biden unequivocally condemned “violence of every kind by anyone, whether on the left or the right,” and also denounced Trump for “fanning the flames of hate and division in our society and using the politics of fear to whip up his supporters.”
But the alarmists insist that if Trump says the words “law and order” often enough, he will wipe away the salience of covid-19 and economic collapse. The voters Biden needs, the theory goes, will embrace Trump’s claims that the “chaos” and “violence” of “Democrat cities” will, through some dark magic, seep into small towns and, especially, suburbs, the election’s front lines.
Now, as a general rule, warnings against complacency are a good idea. And it’s fair to say that, in an otherwise successful convention, Democrats left unfinished work on economics. Elites, including conservative ones, should atone for missing the social damage inflicted on our old industrial areas by economic change. The parts of Trump’s speech that may resonate most in those areas were his attacks on China and on Biden’s votes for trade deals in the past.
The Biden camp needs to show persuadable Trump voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania just how little the president has achieved for them. (A good start: a Biden ad that aired during the last night of the GOP convention showing Trump in the gold-gilded cage of one of his properties.) There should be more focus on issues that appeal across racial lines: jobs, wages, mobility, education and dignity.
But hand-wringing about Trump’s imagined political genius is counterproductive. It feeds the illusion on which Trump has built his entire career: that he is strong, tough and canny. In fact, he is weak, vacillating and, when it comes to running the country, clueless. He picks on the weak but cowers before the strong, whether Russia’s Vladimir Putin or China’s Xi Jinping.
“We love each other,” Trump said of Xi in January. And in February, he praised Xi’s handling of the pandemic. “He’s doing a very good job with a very, very tough situation.” So over the top was our president about China’s dictator that he predicted on Jan. 24: “It will all work out well.”
And this is the man accusing Biden of being soft on China?
Something else is undeniable: The Democratic convention painted such a powerful image of Biden as a thoroughly decent and caring man that Trump practically spit out the word “empathy” in one of his 41 references to the Democratic nominee. It’s a virtue Trump holds in contempt.
Seemingly sober commentary about how “effective” Trump’s attacks are plays down a core truth: He lies, and lies, and lies again. As The Post’s Fact Checker noted, Trump’s convention speech was “a tidal wave of tall tales, false claims and revisionist history.” To avoid a replay of the false-equivalence journalism of 2016, this fact, not tactical musings, must remain at the heart of the story.
Of course, Biden has some careful lines to walk on the ongoing violence. But his strong statement over the weekend showed that this is something he doesn’t need to be told.
What he can’t do is give in to narratives that cast advocates of civil rights as being on the defensive, which would force him to run a campaign on Trump’s turf. Right now, it’s Trump who looks exhausted by his job, over his head, and scrambling for excuses and diversions. Biden must keep things that way.