“A battle for the soul of the country.” That is how Joe Biden described the 2020 election. And he’s right. If Donald Trump is reelected, it will say something profound about the American character.
Voters in 2016 had to choose between two ethically challenged candidates: one we knew all too well, Hillary Clinton, and one we knew only from his television persona and performance on the campaign trail, Donald Trump. Clinton won the popular vote, but Trump won enough votes in usually Democratic strongholds of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan to secure the presidency in the Electoral College. Many who voted for Trump did so reluctantly, hoping he would grow into the job. Even some who did not support Trump in the primaries have been pleased by his policies: conservative judicial nominees, tax cuts, deregulation, opposition to the Iran deal, unqualified support for Israel. But no one could foresee that Trump would degrade the office of the presidency so thoroughly as he has over the last two years.
If Democrats allow the election to become about the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, free tuition for everyone and identity politics, they will lose. To date, most of the Democratic candidates seem intent on following this path. The televised forums featuring each of the 19 candidates (Biden’s entry will make it 20) have been exercises in either pandering or obfuscating. Candidates have walked back their own records in order to appear more “progressive” and made appeals to voters as if everyone voted their skin color and their sex. This approach has been exactly what landed Trump in the Oval Office. Biden has the chance to change these dynamics, but it is unclear whether he will — and just as important, whether the party is so focused on progressive shibboleths that it turns off the very voters it must win in the general election.
Biden’s announcement video, a bare three minutes long, defined the man and the stakes in the election. “If we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation — who we are — and I cannot stand by and watch that happen,” Biden said. “The core values of this nation, our standing in the world, our very democracy, everything that has made America America is at stake.”
In any other election, these statements might seem like hyperbole, but not this time. America, Biden said, is “an idea that’s stronger than any army, bigger than any ocean, more powerful than any dictator or tyrant. It gives hope to the most desperate people on Earth. It guarantees that everyone is treated with dignity and gives hate no safe harbor. It instills in every person in this country the belief that no matter where you start in life, there’s nothing you can’t achieve if you work at it.”
This is the America most of us recognize. It is not a nation of victims nursing their grievances — whether on the left or right. It is not a place defined by inequality or hopelessness. It is a country where we feel we are part of a larger whole. It is a nation where what we have in common is more important than what defines our differences. It is John F. Kennedy’s America and Ronald Reagan’s. But it is not Donald Trump’s.
In Trump’s America, the world is out to get us. We must build walls to keep out invaders who wish to do us harm. America is about the past, not the future. Only Trump can save us. But worse, we must believe only him, even if he says mutually exclusive things within hours or days of each other. And if he lies to us, well, we must pretend he hasn’t. We must never question him, and no other institution — not Congress or the courts or, especially, the media — can be trusted unless they are in lockstep with him. Trump is free to ignore the law, rewrite it without Congress and issue whatever executive order he fancies on any given day. No other president has faced Trump’s trials. Not Lincoln, who preserved the Union and paid for it with his life. Not FDR, who helped rescue the nation from the Great Depression and led us through a world war. Not Ronald Reagan, who was shot and whose military buildup bankrupted the Soviet Union.
Is there any question which man — Joe Biden or Donald Trump — loves America more? At the end of the day, patriotism — the real kind, not the phony brand that is more about hate for others than love for America — matters most. If Biden can keep his campaign focused on that love, he may even win back those Trump voters who thought they had nowhere to go.
Linda Chavez is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.
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