TAMPA—Here in Florida, where it’s 31 degrees Celsius in late October, at a moment days before the election when both President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden arrived here on the same day to hold very different rallies, I’m thinking back to an earlier moment in the campaign.
It was a cold day on Feb. 10 in Manchester, New Hampshire, in a half-empty room where Biden was to speak on the day before the country’s first primary. I’d been to jam-packed halls and arenas for Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders events. I’d been turned away from a Pete Buttigieg rally at a high school because it was so overcapacity they weren’t admitting foreign press. I’d talked to fervent Trump supporters who’d lined up for hours in Manchester to see the president at SNHI arena.
The church where Biden was to speak appeared set up to hold only a few dozen people. It was not full.
So I approached a person there, looking to see what Biden supporters were thinking at that stage of the primary campaign.
“Well, first of all, I think Biden’s tanking,” he said. It turned out he was not a supporter, but an observer from a progressive organization. But at that moment, it seemed to sum up how things were going.
Biden was already calling the election a “battle for the soul of the nation,” which sounded a bit dramatic when he said it, especially since he didn’t seem like a warrior. When he told the set of rambling anecdotes that made up his stump speech then — full of tales of personal loss and voters beaten or abused and crying out to him for help — it had a mournful air. Sanders was leading a revolution, Warren was leading chants of “Dream big, fight hard.” Mayor Pete’s campaign had pep-rally energy. Biden almost seemed like he was addressing a wake.
“Can people look their children in the eye today and say, ‘It’s going to be OK,’ and mean it?” he asked in New Hampshire.
He’d hightail it out of town before New Hampshire’s votes were counted and he finished a humiliating fifth place. At the time, it seemed like the answer to whether his campaign would be OK was no.
All these months later, after a year of pandemic and recession, polls suggest Biden may be poised to win the presidency on Tuesday. In retrospect, it looks like maybe for this year, with this opponent, he was asking the right question and adopting the right tone from the beginning.
Campaigns are defined by moments that, fairly or not, seem to sum up something about a candidate and the country. Richard Nixon and Jack Kennedy appear on TV, Gerald Ford stumbles down stairs, George W. Bush seems a little too interested in a piece of everyday grocery store technology, Barack Obama says “Yes we can” in a speech about race.
My Biden New Hampshire moment wouldn’t rank high on most anyone’s list of election highlights, of course. But it’s also true that very few of the moments that have defined this campaign involve Biden at all. This election, from the start, has been all about Trump, and both candidates seem to prefer it that way. Throughout the year, the moments that stand out are his:
- On March 13, as the pandemic seriously took hold of the United States, on its way to killing 228,000 and counting, Trump stood in the White House Rose Garden and said, “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
- On April 17, as menacing protesters stormed the Michigan legislature protesting basic social distancing measures, Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”
- On June 1, as mass protests over police violence and racism grew across the country and video after video depicted outright, unprovoked police violence in response, Trump equated the protesters with “terrorists” and had federal forces swing batons and fire tear gas into a crowd of entirely peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square so he could stage a photo-op in front of a church.
- On Sept. 29, at the first debate, Trump interrupted Biden dozens of times, attacked the moderator, failed to say he’d commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he lost, and rather than outright condemning violent racist white nationalist groups that support him, told the Proud Boys to “Stand back and stand by.”
- On Oct. 2, Trump tweeted that he himself had tested positive for coronavirus.
There are more — so many more — and the ones that stand out in your memory as defining might be different from mine. But after observing this year in the U.S., travelling to various swing states over the course of the year (and four this week alone) and talking to voters, these jump out. Because they sum up how he approached the crises that gripped the U.S. The same way he’s done everything as president. With bluster and bullying and denial and provocation. And how doing so couldn’t address 2020s crises, or even ease them. It accelerated them.
A second and third wave of coronavirus that continues spreading in every state in the country months later — back up to 1,000 deaths and 70,000 new cases a day now. A pose of violent confrontation with the largest protest demonstration movement in American history and against Democratic party governors trying to deal with the crisis. An authoritarian disregard for any rules he doesn’t make himself. And an endless attempt to make things true simply by acting as if they are.
Even before he was president, Trump defined his own public persona by performing in a way that had the feel of professional wrestling hype — talking trash, shamelessly bragging, constantly threatening, and above all creating the impression of power and success through exaggerated flexing and preening and cartoonish displays of extravagance.
Trump applied it to business, and to politics: Fake it till you make it — or at least until everyone else is convinced you’ve made it, which might be just as good.
What else is the president’s coronavirus response but more of the same? Shunning masks, promising it’s almost over, insulting experts, holding mass rallies, insisting on trying to carry on business as usual. Trying to act like everything is all right, and hoping economic markets and voters will buy that it is. Sending the signals that the problem is solved rather than doing what’s needed to solve it.
The virus doesn’t respond to that kind of persuasion. It’s not clear this year that voters will either.
It isn’t an accident that Biden doesn’t have a lot of memorable moments from the campaign. Two things have kept him relatively quiet: a bit of Napoleonic “never get in the way of an opponent who is in the process of destroying himself,” a lot of observing COVID-19 guidelines, and a strategy to be the lower-key candidate who avoids confrontation.
For a long time this summer, Biden didn’t leave his home and kept a limited schedule of video appearances. When he emerged to campaign in earnest, he kept his rallies small (usually with the audience in their cars), and kept his tone steady and scripted, stayed on his message of mourning and recovery and unity. In his televised town hall and his second debate with Trump, he took it slow, demonstrating policy knowledge and mostly avoiding both the gaffes he’d been famous for and the angry confrontations Trump wanted.
When Biden did get fired up at one point in the second debate, it was on a question of human suffering, discussing the plight of children separated from their asylum-seeking parents at the border and now still orphaned three years later. “They were ripped from their parents’ arms,” Biden said. “It’s a violation of everything we stand for as a country.”
The Most Powerful Sale & Affiliate Platform Available!
There's no credit card required! No fees ever.Create Your Free Account Now!
Trump, who baselessly suggested maybe they’d been brought by human smugglers, switched to saying their plight maybe wasn’t so bad. “They are so well taken care of, the facilities are so clean,” he said.
Journalists who’ve visited the facilities tell a different story. But Biden’s point was about something more devastating than the cleanliness of the holding facility. Can those kids’ parents look them in the eye and tell them everything is going to be OK? No.
And knowing that, can any American look their own children in the eye and say things are fine?
There was another Biden moment that stands out from the primaries, just before COVID-19 shut everything down, and immediately before he suddenly performed the fastest campaign turnaround anyone can remember and became the de facto candidate.
In South Carolina on Feb. 26, Biden was speaking at a church that had been the site of a racist mass shooting in 2015. He was talking about how watching them recover from their trauma had helped him recover from his own when his son Beau died of cancer. He said he found hope in observing their faith, and sense of mission. “It took a long time for me to get to the point to realize that that purpose is the thing that would save me. And it has.”
This year, the U.S. has undergone a good deal of trauma. Trump’s emphatic supporters like that he wants to deal with it by blustering past it, finding people to blame, looking strong. Biden’s pitch is that he’s known trauma, and the way to deal with it as a country is to come together with a sense of mission. He repeated it in his speech at the convention in August: “The best way through pain and loss and grief is to find purpose,” he said. “We have a great purpose as a nation.”
A sign I saw on someone’s lawn in Maryland sums up something about the mood of a lot of voters this year: “Make Politics Boring Again.”
Biden’s resume and reputation aren’t the most exciting — and his politics have always been positioned wherever the centre of public opinion is. He’s never been a radical, which is likely why Republican attempts to portray him as an insurgent socialist in league with violent anarchists has fallen flat. He was the senator who took the train home to Delaware every night to have dinner with his children. A decent guy. Lindsey Graham, the prominent Republican senator, famously said in 2015 that Biden was “as good a man as God ever created,” and “the nicest person I think I ever met in politics.”
Barack Obama chose Biden as his vice-presidential nominee in order to reassure voters that he’d respect the great bland middle of the political spectrum — an older, white, experienced, reassuring presence to stand beside a candidate pitching change. This year, Biden chose a younger, black, more progressive woman in Kamala Harris to run alongside him to show that he understands the need for hope of generational progressive change. But the guy at the top of the ticket right now is the steady old bland one. The promise is stability.
Bernie Sanders, who is a self-acknowleged radical, said during the convention: “In Joe Biden, you have a human being who is empathetic, who is honest, who is decent,” he said. “And at this particular moment in American history, my God, that is something this country absolutely needs.”
Which brings us to this moment. The polls show Biden with a substantial lead, but the polls have been wrong before. Trump is leaning into what has worked for him: staging big rallies that feed his own confidence and whip up his supporters. He’s been hosting them by the airplane-hangar-load, sometimes three a day in different states. His campaign has taken to calling them “peaceful protests” because they are such a stark and obvious violation of local COVID-19 policies — and his own federal COVID-19 guidelines — with thousands of people crowded together, very few wearing masks.
His rallies sell the story: showing his own endurance as evidence of his recovery from the coronavirus and underlining his message it’s nothing to be afraid of; the giant crowds of unmasked people are meant to show a slice of the country returning to normal.
In Tampa on Thursday, Trump indicated the masses he draws to the rallies are evidence he’s going to win, saying rally attendance is the “ultimate poll.” The potential problem raised by the other kind of polls — the kind that are actually polls — is that Trump may need to attract support from people who currently say they don’t like him. And it’s not clear any of those people show up to his rallies.
Amid the usual parade of insults, accusations, and braggadocio, Trump said again that the country is “turning the corner” on COVID-19. “You know the bottom line, though? You’re going to get better. You’re going to get better. If I can get better, anybody can get better. And I got better fast.”
Florida recorded more than 4,000 new infections Thursday for the third straight day, and 77 new COVID deaths. Right now, 2,343 people in Florida are in hospital with the illness.
Trump mocked Biden for his socially distanced car rallies. “They say the fact that he has nobody at all show up is because of COVID. No, it’s because nobody shows up,” Trump said.
At his own drive-in rally in Tampa later in the day, which was cut short by rain, Biden addressed a crowd that was limited to 400 cars to allow for adequate distancing. Everyone wore masks. “Donald Trump just had a super-spreader event here today,” Biden said. “He’s spreading more than just coronavirus. He’s spreading division and discord. We need a president who’s going to bring us together not pull us apart.” Earlier in the day, at a rally in another part of Florida, Biden had expressed gratitude to his supporters for their approach to COVID-19. “Thank you for wearing your mask, and thank you for the social distancing.”
It’s unclear anyone will remember these competing rallies in Florida as defining moments in the election, but they illustrate as clearly as most others the vivid contrast between the options. One wildly trying to demonstrate, against the evidence of the polls and the virus, that everything is OK. One blandly trying to demonstrate a way to try to make it more OK.
On Tuesday, Americans will go to the ballot box and tell the world which approach they choose. And then they’ll go home to look their children in the eye, and decide what to tell them.
Edward Keenan is the Star’s Washington Bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Reach him via email: [email protected]
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe