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You are forgiven if, like me, you’ve been looking for but failing to find a coherent election campaign featuring Donald Trump, the current president, versus Joe Biden, the inevitable Democratic nominee for that same office.

trump vs trump

It could be argued that the election has been submerged beneath the turmoil of converging injustices connected by 500 years of systemic racism — the pandemic and George Floyd’s murder. The truth is you can’t find the Trump vs. Biden election because it isn’t happening. Democracy’s essential feature — a debate that lays out and contrasts different visions of a country’s future — is MIA in America.

The presidential race will be determined when one of them loses by running the most self-defeating, politically suicidal or merely uninspiring campaign.

Instead, we are viewing two separate, disconnected political battles: Trump vs. Trump and Biden vs. Biden. The presidential race will be determined when one of them loses by running the most self-defeating, politically suicidal or merely uninspiring campaign — the campaign that excels at alienating or failing to turn out its potential voters. The next four years will then determine whether there was a winner or, alternatively, whether everyone lost, including the American people.

The absence of a coherent political contest is partly explained by the work of three Harvard economists who confirm that both sides of our binary political divide — Republicans and Democrats, Trump voters and non-Trump voters — don’t just hold different beliefs, but cling doggedly to different “facts,” almost all of which, on both sides, are wrong. (Their paper, “The Polarization of Reality,” was published in January and described in The Harvard Gazette.)

That Americans tend to live in two non-congruent universes with alternate facts — call them the Conway Universes — doesn’t explain how things got to this pass. What does explain it is understanding that this is what happens when neither the candidates for national office nor the major political parties tell a coherent story about the nation we will inhabit or the lives we will live under their differing leadership.

The lack of such coherent stories creates a vacuum in which there’s no way to figure out the consequences of voting or not voting. There’s no answer to the threshold question that most strongly influences participation: “What’s in it for me?” Not having an answer to that key question, in turn, helps us know why roughly 100 million Americans — about half of all eligible to vote — don’t.

The Democratic Party tends to win when there’s wider participation. It should be eager to fill the vacuum by narrating the future that Democrats are working to create. This is especially true since most current research shows groups where Democrats are strongest — young people, Black people and Latinx people — do not feel well motivated to participate now.

Barack Obama expressed concern this week about people giving up on voting entirely. “I’ve been hearing a little bit of chatter on the internet about voting versus protest, politics and participation versus civil disobedience and direct action,” he told the country on national TV.

The protests can be seen as a different kind of election campaign where it’s the people versus all the politicians. This week, at least, the people appear to be winning and marching looked more effective at creating change than voting for leaders who aren’t articulating any fundamental change they would create. Obama, at least, felt compelled to endorse voting in addition to protesting. “To bring about real change, we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable, but we also have to translate that into practical solutions and laws that can be implemented,” he said.

In the absence of a real election campaign, the good news for progressives is that Trump is losing to Trump. In the last week, Biden’s lead over Trump has jumped by more than a third, from a relatively lackluster 5.3 points to a healthier 7.2 on Friday, according to Real Clear Politics’ average of the polls.

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The bad news is that Biden’s growing lead can’t be pegged to anything the candidate himself has said or done. Biden emerged from his basement and delivered a good, emotionally soothing speech in Philadelphia on June 2. But his first formal appearance in some 12 weeks could not have helped widen the gap between him and Trump. Only two of the eight most recent polls averaged by Real Clear Politics included responses after Biden’s speech. Those polls were the worst of the week for Biden, showing him leading Trump by only 3 and 6 points.

Trump’s tumbling numbers, then, can only be explained by his own repeated stumbling and lethal mismanagement of everything — the pandemic, the protests, the country, his own mouth.

Logically, the numbers should get worse for Trump in the short term. We’ll see. Polls don’t yet reflect his illegal use of the military to gas and beat peaceful protesters so he could cross Lafayette Park for that bizarre photo op. Also not yet affecting the polls are the barrage of criticisms from Trump’s own past and present Defense secretaries or the mass denunciations from a phalanx of generals, including John Allen, the former four-star Marine, who wrote a piece for Foreign Policy titled, “A Moment of National Shame and Peril—and Hope.”

Still, this is Trump losing to Trump. Not Biden winning.

In Biden’s speech, he leaned hard on the mission of building “a more perfect union.” This national purpose was initially stated 233 years ago in the first line of the Constitution and was often repeated by Biden’s ex-boss, Barack Obama, most famously in 2008. Biden referred to that more perfect union twice, pointing out the imperfections without narrating what a perfect union would look like.

Biden promised health care through expanding Obamacare. He supported an end to police chokeholds and a beginning for “a model use-of-force standard.” He committed to “a national police oversight commission.” Most of what he promised amounted to a third term for the Obama administration. Nothing too stirring.

Fortunately, Biden did nothing this past week that should lose ground for him. His strongest moments, as always, were the personal stories that reveal his decency and humanity:

“Just a few days ago marked the fifth anniversary of my son Beau’s passing of cancer…. I also know that the best way to bear loss and pain is to turn it into...purpose. And Americans know what our purpose is as a nation.”

But it really isn’t clear that Americans do know what our purpose is. Biden’s metaphors were heartwarming but mixed and foggy. He said “the presidency is the duty to care” and the “work of America” is “to love one another as we love ourselves.”

Care and love are good, but they aren’t enforceable and they aren’t the new constitutional protections and fundamental change that everyday Americans need to shift from struggling to thriving. They aren’t an answer to that basic question: What’s in it for me? How will my life be better?

Kirk Cheyfitz 200

Kirk Cheyfitz
Political Narrative

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