vision 2020

The Flaw in Trump’s Plan to Paint Biden As Kamala Harris’s Puppet

The puppet master? Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

For months now, Donald Trump has been portraying Joe Biden as a rickety old Trojan horse chock-full of antifa super soldiers.

The president has described the Democratic Party’s center-left standard-bearer as a “puppet of Bernie Sanders and AOC” — and warned that the second Biden takes power, “Your guns will be taken away, immediately and without notice,” while the police will be promptly abolished, leaving God-fearing suburbanites defenseless against the depredations of MS-13 (and/or the construction of affordable housing in their communities).

Now, with Kamala Harris’s ascension to the Democratic ticket, Trump has doubled down on this line of attack. In a new campaign ad, the president notes that Biden has described himself as a transition candidate, that Harris embraced many left-wing positions during her primary campaign, and thus, that Biden’s election would clear the way for a radical left-wing takeover of the United States.

In the abstract, this narrative has some political potential. Some progressive policies that Harris adopted last year, such as the decriminalization of illegal border crossing, poll very poorly. And several ideas that Harris hasn’t endorsed, but which are now associated with the American left, such as the defunding of the police, also lack broad popularity. Meanwhile, the notion that Biden is a placeholder, and that Harris is now positioned to lead her party in the imminent future, are both quite credible given the nominee’s advanced age.

But Trump’s execution of this gambit is flawed in several respects. For one thing, his campaign ostensibly recognizes that (1) Harris is not quite a progressive-left darling (and has actually earned the resentment of many criminal-justice reformers), and (2) her abrupt shifts on policy over the course of her primary campaign leaves her vulnerable to charges of fraudulence. For this reason, their attack on Harris does not portray her as a die-hard socialist pulling Biden’s strings, but as a “phony” whose opportunism has led her to align herself with the “radical left.” Which is to say: Trump’s message is that Biden is a puppet of Kamala Harris, who is a puppet of the radical left — but also, a disingenuous climber whose avowed commitments to progressive policy can’t actually be trusted.

Team Trump’s desire to depress African American support for Biden leads them to muddle their “Trojan horse” narrative further still. In its attack ad on Harris, the Trump campaign substantiated the claim that the California senator kowtows to the far left by noting that she accused Joe Biden (of all people) of supporting racist policies. Hours later, Trump tweeted out an ad that portrays Biden as a racist — a charge it substantiates by citing things Kamala Harris has said about him.

All this said, consistency in messaging can be overrated. To the extent that the Trump campaign successfully matches its mutually contradictory messages to their disparate target audiences, its efforts to portray Biden as both too soft on crime and too supportive of harsh, racist criminal-justice policies could pay dividends.

The more fundamental problem with Trump’s attempt to paint Biden as a tool of the militant left, however, is the president’s own compulsion to portray himself as a tool of the far right.

The president has a neurotic anxiety about losing the ardor of the GOP base and the media personalities who preach to them. Objectively, the last thing that Trump should be worried about is losing the allegiance of Tucker Carlson’s nightly viewers. If the past four years of polling have taught us anything, it is that Trump’s grip on the conservative base is rock solid. At this point, the president’s primary concern should be broadening his appeal to Americans who live outside the far-right fever swamp. But Trump has proven both unable and unwilling to adjust his messaging to better fit the sensibilities of such voters. The mogul’s animating political ambition isn’t to foment policy change but, rather, to secure public adoration. By many accounts, his campaign was initially conceived as a ploy for media attention. Even after assuming the presidency, Trump could think of few better things to do with his newfound power than convene more campaign rallies.

In other words, Trump craves reverence more than ballots, and only the GOP base offers him the former. Thus, he is forever seeking to elicit the adulation of his party’s faithful, rather than to win the tepid support of reluctant converts. The administration’s various conservative apparatchiks have reinforced Trump’s neurotic fixation by warning him that failing to pursue their desired policy (whether that be a supply-side tax cut or trade war or stingy stimulus) will risk alienating his core supporters. As a result of all this, despite majoritarian support for police reform, Trump redoubled his advocacy for heavy-handed policing, going so far as to defame a 75-year-old white victim of taped police brutality. Despite having no room for improvement with right-wing Evangelicals, the president prioritized a photo op with a Bible over not gassing a crowd of peaceful protesters on live television.

Meanwhile, the president is so accustomed to preaching to the reactionary choir, he can’t help but phrase his warnings about left-wing extremism in the terms of a right-wing extremist. The ostensible purpose of Trump’s charge that Biden is a puppet of the left is to secure himself the mantle of relative moderation. And yet, the president pitches his allegations of radicalism in the shrill, paranoid key of far-right agitprop: Joe Biden won’t merely be “soft” on crime — he will abolish the police, and then confiscate all law-abiding Americans’ firearms so that they have no public or private means of defending themselves. Trump does not dog-whistle to the latent racism and classism of some white suburban moderates, thereby speaking to their anxieties without threatening their self-conception as enlightened people of goodwill. Rather, he informs “suburban housewife” voters that they will support him because they know that under Biden, “low income housing would invade their neighborhood” and an African American senator would be in charge of implementing forced integration.

Again and again, Trump phrases allegations of the Democratic Party’s extremism in terms that confirm his own. As a result, even as he’s succeeded in denting Biden’s reputation for “moderation,” voters still view the president as being more conservative than the Democratic nominee is liberal. Notably, this represents a reversal from 2016, when voters saw Trump as the more moderate of the two major-party candidates.

Graphic: PEW Research Center
Graphic: Morning Consult

Much can change between now and November. And recent polls show Trump is already narrowing Biden’s lead. Given the president’s structural advantage in the Electoral College, the 2020 campaign remains more than competitive. But among the many obstacles to the president’s reelection is his inveterate inability to accept that the median American isn’t as psychedelically reactionary as the typical Tucker Carlson devotee.

Trump’s Plan to Paint Biden As the Left’s Puppet Won’t Work