The 2020 American news cycle is about to become even more intense as the final days of the presidential campaign are upon us. This was never going to be just another election: Donald Trump is too polarizing a figure and, if every second term election is a referendum on the incumbent, it seems this upcoming one is going to be about a whole set of values and visions of America.
“Unprecedented”, from day one, has been the word attached to Trump’s presidency. The years since his inauguration have essentially resulted in an almost daily collection of previously unimaginable acts, words, disputes and scandals. Countless and relentless, these have effectively reset the expectations of what was acceptable – or even normal. With his tenure, Trump has shown just how little the proverbial checks and balances can be applied to a president who is determined to pursue his agenda, no matter how controversial, especially with his party’s support.
This year alone, Americans have watched the President get away with an impeachment proceeding akin to a sham trial, deny the reality of the pandemic, refuse to take responsibility and then admit to downplaying the gravity of the virus, use the national guard to quench protests, attempt to jeopardize the functioning of the US Postal Service ahead of an election that will have a historically high number of mail-in ballots, and demand that state agencies suspend any teaching of issues related to critical race theory.
But while many consider Trump’s actions a progressive descent into authoritarianism, and are determined for election day to be the end of Trump’s rule, many others still support the President, show up for his yacht rallies, and believe the narrative that he is unfairly criticized – and, the self-declared best America has ever had (with the exception, perhaps, of Abraham Lincoln, Trump sometimes concede).
So while Trump trails Joe Biden nationally – and in many key states – the election is far from decided, especially considering what the next few weeks will offer Trump the opportunity to do what he does best: put on a TV show. In fact, there are three televised presidential debates ready to provide him with a stage, in addition to one vice-presidential debate.
In many ways, the candidates already seem to reflect a Trumpian win of sorts: After a two-term black president, and a female candidate, even the Democratic Party voters narrowed down the most diverse pool of candidates in their history to bet on a white man, essentially sending the message that there has been little change in the way power looks.
On stage will be the two oldest presidential candidates America has ever seen, and while there are many pressing issues to be discussed – the pandemic, a recession of unknown size and shape, the apocalyptic signs of climate change – it seems reasonable to expect certain questions: Can Biden convince Trump supporters, and undecided voters, that the President is a danger to American democracy, as he and his allies have been warning? And can he persuade those who are not planning to vote to show up for him? Finally, can Biden beat Trump at his TV game, and not turn the debates into a one-man show?
It will be difficult for the candidates to even have an actual debate on the issues, as they by and large disagree on their very existence. Police brutality, racism, climate change, voter suppression tactics, even COVID-19: These all do not exist in Trump’s view of America, and he will surely take any opportunity to make statements his critics find outrageous, even dangerous.
Trump has already shown what he is capable of. After a weak attempt at pitching himself as a president of unity at the Republican National Convention, he is doubling down on his most divisive stands, all but removing the thin veil that had covered the racist tones of his campaign. He promised “suburban housewives” that he would halt low-income housing (essentially, a promise to bring back the segregated suburbs of America’s past); he incited police brutality (including through the loaded racist motto, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”); he cut money to government programs educating on racism.
In his show, the President is not pulling back on personal attacks on Biden, including about his health, his age and his mental state. He has even gone as far as voicing the wild allegation that the former Vice-President has a drug issue.
The 2016 campaign has shown he thrives in the circus. When the press and his opponents rush to repeat his words, and obsess over his behavior, they help make his presence feel bigger and more inevitable. They also feed the conspiratorial narrative that there is under attack by a corrupt group of bureaucrats, a relic of older administration,for wanting the best of the country. Biden’s hopes likely rest on whether he will be able to avoid falling into the trap of making it all about Trump – which is much easier said than done.
In any case, the Democratic candidate seems to have a potential edge if he can not only point to the numerous failures of the administration in tackling vital challenges, but offer concrete, and hopeful, solutions to the current woes of the country
Against this backdrop, the vice-presidential debate might end up having an outsized importance: Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, will be taking on Mike Pence, in a debate that will embody the two visions of America at stake in this election.
On the one side, a highly-educated, qualified black and Asian American woman, feminist, daughter of immigrants, raised with exposure to Hinduism as well as Christianity, and married to a Jewish man. On the other, an older evangelical white man, fiercely against reproductive rights, who has stood by a president whose personal conduct and political action are the furthest from demonstrating Christian values.
While the presidential candidates will probably argue over their individual appeal and persona, the vice-presidential candidates will play out the battle for America’s identity. It is more than symbolic, too: Both Harris and Biden have been clear that the vice president will have a leadership role should they be elected, and with the reasonable concerns over Biden’s age, it is very conceivable that the vice president will have an especially prominent role. With this in mind, long before there is any need to, Trump has began discrediting Harris as a potential future president—should she ever replace Biden.
And so, Harris will have an important role: She will be the image of whatever change a Democratic administration could bring to a troubled nation and have the chance -and awesome responsibility – to show America all the identities she represents belong in power.