It may be difficult to recall, but there was a time—not so long ago, in fact—when Donald Trump was not the main character in the 24-hour news cycle day after agonizing day. Sure, he’d crop up from time to time on Page Six, or get attention on Fox News for some new birther claim. But until about five years ago, Americans’ daily lives didn’t revolve entirely around the outrages and neuroses of a deranged former game show host. Life was far from perfect then, but at least it wasn’t…this. Our first thought upon waking was not, Jesus, what psychotic shit did he tweet while I was sleeping? News cycles weren’t consumed by the president’s attempts to prove he can drink water with one hand, or his musings that human beings could safely inject themselves with bleach, or his plan to rip off his button-down to reveal a Superman T-shirt as a show of strength. The government before Trump could be stupid or dishonorable or both — but when it was, it was within the normal parameters.
That we could go back there, that we could return to those comparatively simpler times, has been the premise of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. Thanks to pressure from the left and the circumstances the country finds itself in, the moderate Democrat is running on one of the most progressive platforms the party has ever put forth. But the main appeal of Biden’s 2020 campaign has not so much been ideology but a promise that this stupefying age of chaos, and all its attendant anxieties, can be brought to a close. You may not always like my approach or agenda, his pitch to voters has gone, but they will at least exist within the boundaries of normalcy and recognizable reality.
The appeal of that promise was underestimated during the Democratic primary, when Biden’s unity bid seemed doomed to be overtaken by his rivals’ bolder policy visions—and it is being underestimated now by Trump, who is trying to fight his way out of a hole by doing even more of the maddening, grotesque crap that appears to be turning voters away from him. Seeking an 11th-hour campaign reset, Trump has apparently decided that the key to reversing his political fortunes is for him to be everywhere, all the time—on the debate stage, on television, online—until November 3. What he seems unable or unwilling to see, though, is that this over-saturation only seems to make the stability and normalcy Biden represents more attractive.
“He’s just so angry all the time,” a Michigan woman said of Trump in a Politico dispatch Wednesday on his worsening poll numbers in the swing state. “I really believe that he brings out the worst in people, the worst in situations.”
According to CNN, some aides had hoped his COVID diagnosis and subsequent hospitalization might work to his benefit: Perhaps it would soften him, or at least keep him out of the public eye for a little while so that voters could take a needed break from his off-putting omnipresence for a couple days. But neither wish came true. The Trump show didn’t take an intermission, and its star grew only more demented. He’s gone back to holding large rallies certain to spread the virus, which he is continuing to downplay—now from the position of a survivor. He’s re-litigating the 2016 election against Hillary Clinton, and straight-up demanding William Barr arrest Biden and Barack Obama for supposed crimes his own Department of Justice has tried and failed to find evidence for. His behavior has been erratic, even by his standard—one day, he blows up the possibility of a coronavirus relief package by telling his surrogates to “stop negotiating” until after the election; 48 hours later, he gets House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on the horn and urges him to make a “big deal” with Nancy Pelosi. Some in his circle have wondered if his volatility may have been influenced by the drugs he was on to treat his COVID infection, but his conduct over the past couple weeks has been only marginally more unpredictable than it’s been over the past four years. And the more Americans ride on Trump’s rollercoaster, the more they seem to want off.
With Trump making his argument for him, Biden hasn’t had to do too much. The president’s re-election campaign has knocked the Democrat for it; in an Axios piece panned for its both sides-ism, Trump spokesman Andrew Clark called Biden the “least-scrutinized presidential candidate in modern history” because he’d answered fewer than half the number of press questions the president had. But there’s a difference between ubiquity and transparency. Trump may do more talking, but is what he says ever coherent? Truthful? Sensible? In the interest of the common good? Biden may deflect some specific questions about adding new Supreme Court justices and the like, but he’s nevertheless been clear about what his agenda would look like: It’d be a lot like the Obama agenda, only with a little more overtly progressive bent to reflect the direction of the Democratic Party in 2020. He knows his administration’s policies will eventually splinter the coalition that’s built up around him. He’s hoping, though, that those disagreements can wait until after the election, and that a vow to help the country “overcome this season of darkness,” as he said as he accepted the Democratic nomination in August, will be enough for now.
Polls, to the extent they can be trusted, suggest it is—and the president’s late-race efforts to turn things around only seems to be worsening his position. Indeed, while Biden has maintained his steady approach, the president is in the middle of a blitz to promote a second season of the Trump show. But after weeks of shoving unyielding ugliness, chaos, and unbridled hate into Americans’ faces, they may be more eager than ever to change the channel.
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