Even by the overblown standards of the past five years, the political news from the weekend before the first presidential debate had an all-encompassing quality. Nothing challenged his hold. President Donald Trump announced his Supreme Court nominee, deeply conservative Amy Coney Barrett, and said he thought it was “certainly possible” for the full court to overturn Roe v. Wade. He followed up the pick by insisting his rival Joe Biden, the seventy-seven-year-old former vice president, used drugs to improve his public performance, and demanding that both candidates submit to a test. drug screening before going on stage on Tuesday. Brad Parscale, the six-foot-eight Ferrari-driving web development professional who until early summer worked as Trump’s campaign manager, has been taken into police custody in southern Florida, after his wife fled their mansion and called 911, saying Parscale was armed and threatening to harm herself. On Sunday evening, the Time published perhaps the biggest investigative story of the Trump era, revealing that the president, by most estimates a billionaire, had paid no federal income tax for ten of the fifteen years prior to 2016; that the IRS is investigating the legitimacy of a $72.9 million tax refund he claimed in 2010; and that in 2016, while campaigning for the presidency as a business success model and friend to the common man, he was paying precisely seven hundred and fifty dollars in taxes. This all happened just days after Trump refused to commit to handing over power if he lost the election.
Viewers tuning in to the first presidential debate on Tuesday might get the faint feeling that they’ve been here before. News of the “Access Hollywood” tape broke on October 7, 2016, just two days before the second presidential debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton. To distract, Trump first claimed that Bill Clinton had “told me much worse on the golf course” and then held a press conference with three women who had accused President Clinton of sexual misconduct. Polls taken after the debate found that viewers thought Clinton had “won,” but the victory turned out to have a shorter half-life than Trump’s bullying performance. Trump interrupted Clinton to tell her that if he were president, “you’d be in jail.” The central image of the event, and perhaps the entire campaign, remains the moment Trump left his desk to stand directly behind Clinton as she spoke, towering over her. Clinton might have outdone Trump, but she didn’t move him out of the center of the screen. The debate and the election always revolved around him.
This year, little new in the Trump campaign. As he prepares for the debate, in which he intends to defend the conservative heart against big-city elitism, he surrounds himself with familiar advisers: his son-in-law Jared Kushner; disgraced former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie; former Christie aide Bill Stepien, who is now Trump’s campaign manager; and Jason Miller, a communications official in the first Trump campaign, who quit after he impregnated a subordinate and then alienated her while pushing for an abortion. (Miller denied the latter claim.) As in 2016, Trump held large celebratory rallies; his allies used news footage from Black Lives Matter protests to suggest the mob would rule in “Biden’s America,” as if Trump was not currently in charge. By repeatedly warning that the election would be stolen and refusing to commit to a power transition, Trump made it easy to imagine a very bleak November; it made it hard to imagine the next four years. If the first Trump campaign had the effect of crowding out America’s past, the second has had the effect of clouding the future, so that all that’s left is an overwhelming present, with a set of rotating but a familiar pair of antagonists. This has been the central experience of the Trump era; it also mirrors the cable news format.
One difference between the 2016 and 2020 campaigns is that the real world continues to encroach on this one in a way it rarely did four years ago. Tuesday night’s debate will take place in Cleveland, where, outside of the makeshift studio, the number of families seeking food each week from the Greater Cleveland Food Bank has nearly doubled since late July, when the federal welfare supplement unemployment has run out. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Clinic is leading an extraordinary effort against the coronavirus – swab teams sent to sites of small outbreaks, to quickly test for the spread of the virus, and a community testing program (assisted by religious and community leaders and the Ohio National Guard) intended to ensure hospitals do not run out of potential transmission sites led to a statewide positivity rate of 2.8%. None of this suffering or achievement has reached the main stage of the Trump events that I have watched. There was no celebration of first responders, no discussion of children deprived of an education due to the strict confinement measures the president opposes, no insistence on the many acts of charity that have helped to alleviate the suffering. . Last week, at a rally at Toledo airport, the president insisted that covid-19 “affects older people with heart problems and other problems.” Beyond that, he continued, “it hardly affects anyone.” Two hundred and five thousand people have died in the United States. The president isn’t trying to spin the pandemic so much as ignoring it.
Trump wants voters to forget or disbelieve the facts of the pandemic. Biden, on the other hand, pointed them out. But there is a deeper strategic tension between the two campaigns. Trump wants a television scene so encompassing that it subsumes the experience of a suffering country, while Biden wants to open the windows and let in news from the rest of the world. Time’ The tax survey provides useful insight into what Trump did well in his years as a political figure and also what he didn’t. In this period of time, the Time found, Trump had invested in “a collection of businesses, mostly golf courses, which in the years since have steadily devoured cash.” He was able to bear the losses thanks to his success as a television producer – his half share of “The Apprentice” earned him four hundred and twenty-seven million dollars.
It hasn’t been widely noticed, as his campaign has been one of the quietest in modern history, but Joe Biden has been good lately. Many Republicans (mockery) and Democrats (anxiously) have wondered what the former vice president has been up to while spending much of the spring and summer diligently obeying coronavirus restrictions at his home in the Delaware. Turns out he was watching the president. “Oh, he loves his rallies, but next time he’ll be keeping a close eye,” Biden said last week at Manitowoc, Wis., in a speech that seemed like an obvious tryout for the debate. “Trump is keeping his distance from anyone in the rally. The people coming are as tight as they can get . . . but not Trump. Without naming her, Biden quoted Olivia Troye, a former national security adviser from Mike Pence, who told reporters the president said one good thing about the pandemic was that he no longer had to shake hands with his supporters. “Now we know what he really thinks people who come to his rallies,” Biden said.
At Manitowoc, the audience was typically small (citing the pandemic, the Biden campaign has generally limited its crowds to less than twenty-five), and the candidate spoke through a thin blue surgical mask, which drew attention to his worried little eyes. . What Biden seemed to realize then was that, even though he was only talking about the coronavirus, he could say anything he wanted to say about Trump. It wasn’t just a matter of Trump’s incompetence or hostility to science. “Do you think, like Trump, that fifteen dollars an hour is too much for America’s essential workers?” Biden asked. “Are you trying to starve twenty million Americans out of health care in the midst of this pandemic?” Biden dwelled on Trump’s insistence, to Bob Woodward, that he had been silent this winter about what he knew about the virus – that it was deadly and would spread widely – because he was afraid of causing panic. Biden argued that the “panic” Trump worries most about is a panic in the market, which could jeopardize his presidency. The virus has given Biden a way to talk about the constant blurring of the news and what it obscures. “What worries me now is that we have been living with this pandemic for so long, I fear we risk becoming numb to the toll it has taken on us, our country and our communities,” Biden said. “We cannot lose the ability to feel the grief, loss and anger for so many lives lost.”
Five weeks before the election, it has become a little easier to see Biden’s strategy. His campaign is focused on the Midwestern belt where the Clinton campaign, by most accounts, lost the election. Polls look promising in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Two polls last week put Biden slightly ahead of Trump in Ohio, a state Clinton lost by eight points. Biden will travel there by train after Tuesday night’s debate, a trip that will also take him through western Pennsylvania. From a CNN town hall he did in his hometown earlier this month, Biden has pitted his upbringing against Trump’s golden one: “Scranton versus Park Avenue.” It may not be the most original closing speech, but it’s why Democratic primary voters chose Biden when more transformative opportunities were available. An important question in any presidential debate is how the challenger will be defined. In that case, is Biden a defender of the middle class under pressure or simply a representative of the Democratic establishment? Win this argument, and Biden can make a second: that the material stakes in this election outweigh the symbolic stakes, and that not every event in American life can be handled in the frenzied format of cable news. There are many more meaningful ways to frame this election than whether you are for or against Trump.