If Donald Trump is going to defeat Joe Biden he’s going to have to define Joe Biden. It’s not looking good right now.
It’s forgotten now, but there was a time when some of the crazier right-wing types thought President Dwight Eisenhower was a Soviet agent. The idea was popularized by the John Birch Society, which was sort of the QAnon of its day. When asked about this nutty theory, Russell Kirk, a renowned conservative intellectual, famously responded, “Ike’s not a communist, he’s a golfer.”
In fairness to Ike, he was also one of the most successful military leaders in world history, successfully overseeing the invasion of Europe and the defeat of Nazi Germany, among other resume highlights. But Kirk’s quip captured the otherworldliness of the idea that President Eisenhower—who worked assiduously to fortify the NATO alliance against the Soviet Union—was really a pawn of Stalin.
We’re in a somewhat similar moment these days. The Trump campaign recently released an ad claiming that Joe Biden was “Endorsed by Osama Bin Laden.” Put aside the fact that Bin Laden was unavailable for comment since he’s been dead for a while—killed on the orders of the Obama administration in which Biden served. The Trump campaign’s defense of the ad revolves around the fact that bin Laden apparently thought it would be good if al-Qaeda could kill Obama, putting Biden in charge.
But the “endorsed by Bin Laden” silliness is part of a larger effort to paint Biden as a dangerous figure. Trump has called him a “puppet of the radical left.” He’s been at pains to claim that Biden will be the poster boy for defunding the police and will grease the skids for America’s descent into socialism.
So far, Biden has been able to deflect much of this. At the beginning of the George Floyd protests he rejected calls for defunding the police. In the primaries he opposed Medicare for All and abolishing ICE.
The Trump team’s response has been to undercut its own messaging by also claiming that Biden is sleepy and boring and not really radical at all. You see the problem right? Either he’s a dangerous Jacobin or he’s a low-energy run-of-the-mill pol.
Again and again, the Trump campaign smears Biden with mud with one hand and then cleans him off with the other. They claim he will be a Trojan Horse for the Black Lives Matter movement and the Defund the Police agenda, and they denounce him for his record of putting more cops on the street. They attack him for working with segregationist senators while playing footsie with Confederate symbols.
The Trump campaign thinks it can resolve this contradiction by arguing that he’ll be a pushover for the radical left. On the merits, this is not as absurd a claim as they sometimes make it sound. Biden is a consummate go-along, get-along, Democratic politician who never positioned himself as a centrist so much as a difference-splitter between liberal Democrats and more conservative ones. In other words, Biden’s not a socialist, he’s a hack.
But, as the polling indicates, he’s a serviceable one because a boring, likable, hack sounds pretty good to a lot of people right now.
Trump’s problem is that he needs the votes from people who don’t like him. Contrary to a lot of myth making about the power of his base, Trump has always needed the voters who don’t like him. The base got him close to the finish line (in the Electoral College, not the popular vote) in 2016, but the voters who put him over the top were those who disliked Hillary Clinton more than they disliked Trump. A late September 2016 Pew poll found that 11 percent of Trump voters would be disappointed if Trump won.
Without those voters, Trump would have surely lost in 2016. And he needs them this time even more. He can lose a few points among his base—who cares if he wins Alabama by 5 instead of 10?—but he desperately needs Trump-exhausted former Trump voters in the suburbs of swing states. And he’s losing them in droves.
It’s way too late to make those voters like Trump. There’s theoretically time to convince them to fear Biden more than they fear Trump. But to do that, they need to come up with a disciplined message that Trump can deliver not at his base but at the voters who will decide the election. And there’s no sign they know how to do that.
Photograph by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.