vision 2020

Trump Needs an Opponent to Demonize. It’s Hard to Do That to Uncle Joe.

So far Trump’s efforts to describe Biden as a senile puppet have failed. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s strategy for reelection has never been much of a mystery. He exists to divide people. He is temperamentally incapable of “pivoting to the center” or “expanding his base” as the conventional wisdom suggests an unpopular president should do. As for campaigning on his record, objective conditions in the country, good or bad, never seemed to have much effect on his job approval ratings, and that was before he botched a pandemic and the economy collapsed. So it was easy for me to explain his 2020 strategy right after the 2018 midterms:

The more you think it through, the likely Trump strategy will be to do everything imaginable to drive down the positive sentiments associated with their Democratic opponent, perhaps enlisting those hated godless liberal news media assets who are driven by “fairness” to reinforce negative narratives about the candidate they are presumed to favor. The virtual certainty of a Trump campaign that exceeds in sheer savagery anything this country has ever seen before should serve as a warning to Democrats about how they think about their own nominating process. I argued earlier this year that Democrats should look for an unbreakable nominee — one with no obvious vulnerabilities in age, background, ideology or character that an absolutely unprincipled Trump campaign might exploit to drag her or him down to his level of unpopularity. Breaking his opponent by any means necessary looks to be Trump’s only avenue for extending his unlikely and heinous hold on the presidency.

I’ll admit that Joe Biden wasn’t at the top of my list in terms of candidate “unbreakability,” but as my colleague Jonathan Chait observes, we’ve learned a lot about Uncle Joe’s stolid virtues since then. Turns out he’s better at this politics thing than a lot of us realized. In part, that’s because his own strategy for victory has fit the mood of persuadable voters:

Biden from the beginning has tailored his message precisely for what [swing voters] want: a president who will act like a president without scaring people about the pace and extent of social and economic change.

And now that racial justice issues are front and center, it helps that during the primaries Biden displayed stronger support from African-American voters than any other Democrat.

But Biden’s positive features are arguably matched by his relative lack of vulnerability to the campaign of demonization that is so central to Trump’s reelection strategy. At The Atlantic, Adam Serwer argues that to a considerable extent Trump can’t land any blows against Biden simply because he’s an old moderate white man who doesn’t represent a cultural threat to the voters whom Trump mobilized in 2016 the way Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton did:

For the past few months, Trump and the conservative propaganda apparatus have struggled to make the old race-and-gender-baiting rhetoric stick to Biden. But voters don’t appear to believe that Biden is an avatar of the “radical left.” They don’t think Biden is going to lock up your manhood in a “testicle lockbox.” They don’t buy that Biden’s platform, which is well to the left of the ticket he joined in 2008, represents a quiet adherence to “Kenyan anti-colonialism.” Part of this is that Biden has embraced popular liberal positions while avoiding the incentive to adopt more controversial or unpopular positions during the primary. But it’s also becoming clear that after 12 years of feasting on white identity politics with a black man and a woman as its preeminent villains, the Republican Party is struggling to run its Obama-era culture-war playbook against an old, moderate white guy.

Whether or not you accept that Biden’s identity makes him immune from standard right-wing demonization, it’s clear the attack lines Team Trump has attempted aren’t working. Here are the two we have heard most often:

1. Biden is the senile puppet of the “Radical Left.”

Trump’s regular jibes about “Sleepy Joe” and suggestions that he’s senile signify more than the president’s love for tasteless personal invective. The idea is to neutralize Biden’s reassuring persona as irrelevant because he’s just a mask for the extremists who really run the Democratic Party — you know, the socialists and the America- and Israel-haters and Antifa and feminists and those people (Black and Latino people, that is) who do seem threatening to the white voters Trump is seeking to attract and mobilize.

This line of attack does not seem to be working, perhaps because Biden has not played into the bumbling-old-man stereotype, or (more dangerously for Trump) a solid majority of Americans just aren’t that afraid of social and economic change at a time when the status quo is so unsatisfying. Trump’s senior abuse toward Biden may have even contributed to the Democrat’s strength among over-65 voters, which should horrify Republicans.

2. Biden’s record disqualifies him from Black support.

Trump and his campaign are never handicapped by any concern for consistency, so with amazing frequency this champion of race-baiting has drawn attention to Joe Biden’s association with policies now blamed for mass incarceration of minorities, particularly in the 1994 Crime Bill Biden unquestionably led through the Senate. Invariably Trump contrasts Biden’s record with his own signature on a criminal justice reform bill, part of his bizarre claim that he’s done more for Black Americans than any president since Lincoln.

This line of attack may simply reflect Jared Kushner’s eccentric belief that Trump can significantly cut into Black support for the Democratic ticket in November; the president’s son-in-law did, after all, push and pull Trump into reluctantly signing that watered-down criminal justice bill he talks about so often now. In any event, at a time when Trump is defending Confederate statues and military base names and snarling about deploying the armed forces against racial justice protesters, he’s not getting any visible traction from going after Joe Biden as racially insensitive. If Kamala Harris couldn’t get Black voters to turn away from Biden because of his Senate record during the primaries, Donald Trump isn’t likely to do any better.

So what will Team Trump try next? Here are a couple of possibilities:

3. Biden is the senile puppet of his running mate.

If Joe Biden’s whole persona does not expose him much to racist or sexist demonization, perhaps the running mate he chooses will be a different proposition. Let’s say he chooses Elizabeth Warren. Her perceived radicalism among conservative- and even some mainstream-media circles will likely make her a target of attacks to a degree unusual for veeps, along with all the racist “Pocahontas” nonsense. And any “strong woman” on the ticket (virtually certain no matter who is chosen) will get the Hillary Clinton treatment from Trump and his allies. If it’s a Black woman, Team Trump may return happily to the combined racist and sexist stylings that Serwer accurately describes as central to Trump’s rise. Either way Biden might well be treated as the hen-pecked and emasculated figurehead of a political marriage dominated by his partner.

While this may be tempting to Republicans, it’s not something that’s ever worked before. Veeps rarely if ever have a tangible effect on a presidential candidate’s public support. And when they do (arguably in Sarah Palin’s case), it’s because of mistakes they make rather than any attacks on them. The 2008 Obama campaign didn’t need to focus attention on Palin. She drew it to herself, with some help from Tina Fey. It’s unlikely that Biden’s running mate will compare to Sarah Barracuda as a galvanizing figure.

4. Biden is a traitor to his people.

The riskiest angle of attack against Biden is a variation on the “senile puppet” claim, without the senility. Team Trump could be driven by desperation to the argument that all of Biden’s reassuring characteristics disguise a man who has sold his soul to dark and radical forces who will inherit the country immediately after if not during a Biden administration. He’s a traitor to the hard-working Heartland Americans from which he sprang. He’s the Catholic who’s for abortion rights; the old man aligned with rioting youths; the white man dependent on Black votes; the career institutionalist who would let those people take over his country. He’s a China-lover and an immigrant-lover who has traded his patriotism for 30 pieces of political silver.

The idea would be to run against Biden as though he were Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris or Tulsi Gabbard and make his old moderate-white-guy identity a sign of unique perfidy. You could see this kind of attack nicely meshing with the inevitable GOP claims that Democrats are stealing the presidential election via illegal voters. Biden and his party, it would be said, represent a Trojan horse harboring all those who want to keep America from its God-destined greatness.

However Team Trump decides to tackle Joe Biden, it’s unlikely to be enough to make 2020 a “choice” election rather than a “referendum” election in which all of Trump’s accumulated high crimes and misdemeanors, and the sheer exhaustion his excesses have produced, do him in. Sure, he could still win with the right combination of luck, an opponent’s mistakes, and the peculiarities of the Electoral College. But campaigns that count on forces beyond their control to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat don’t have a very high rate of success.

Trump Must Demonize His Opponent. It’s Hard to Do to Biden.