Flanked by a forest of American flags and facing an adoring, mostly unmasked close-packed crowd, President Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination Thursday night with a speech so familiar it sounded to some like his State of the Union address, only retreaded with some choice blasts at Joe Biden. The speech signaled Trump’s satisfaction with the oratorical form that won him the nomination four years ago and drove his victory over Hillary Clinton: Proclaim his role as the architect of America “greatness” and defame his opponent as its “destroyer.” Meet the new Trump, same as the old Trump.
As Trump prepares to run the same campaign as he did in 2016, the Democrats shouldn’t feel obliged to return the favor. Clinton, like some of the Republicans who ran against Trump then, spent a great deal of her energy accentuating Trump’s many negatives—his chauvinism, his bigotry, his caustic personality, his political shallowness, his flip-floppery, his cruelty, and his endless lies, just to name a few. Clinton extended her attack on Trump into an attack on his supporters, depositing half of them in a “basket of deplorables.”
Trump’s flaws seemed like easy targets, but when the votes were counted, it turned out they didn’t matter much. Few of the punches at Trump’s negatives landed with the people whom Clinton needed to reach, and those that did were canceled out by what his supporters consider his positives—his professed love of America, his Reaganesque optimism about the future, his projection of strength, opposition to illegal immigration, his pro-gun policies, his plain-spoken, “candid” responses to the issues, his anti-government and anti-Washington rhetoric, sticking it to insiders like Jeb Bush and Clinton, and his promise to return the nation to the good old days. So great are Trump’s positives that they have provided him qualified immunity—in the eyes of his supporters, at least—from the critiques of the fact-checkers.
As I wrote in 2016, shouting about Trump’s negatives did little to persuade his supporters to abandon him, because they had already discounted—practically embraced—his warts. Trump might be the most flawed human being to run for president in generations, but what mattered to them were his strong points. Not until a candidate found a way to convert Trump’s positives into negatives, I maintained, would his supporters think about abandoning him.
Might this happen in 2020? There’s already evidence that the Biden campaign has gotten Trump’s number. Throughout the summer, Trump has needled and poked Biden on the issues, doubted his mental fitness, and insisted in a moment of unintentional self-parody that Biden is “against God.” In his acceptance speech last night, Trump repeatedly framed Biden as a “destroyer” of American greatness, jobs, the economies of the energy states, and the American way of life. Biden hasn’t played the patsy, but neither has he gone full bore in retaliation, preferring to project himself as the paragon of positivity, empathy, and the American way. Biden hasn’t exactly gone high, but he hasn’t gone low, either, leaving Trump with little fresh mud to throw back at him.
What would successful attacks on Trump’s positives look like? Anti-Trump Republicans who started the Lincoln Project, a political action committee, released a commercial spot this week that went after one of Trump’s most positive positives—his promise, stated in the 2016 campaign and reiterated in his acceptance speech, to keep America safe. Safe? the spot asked, when we’ve passed 178,000 dead from Covid-19; when Trump has adopted no coherent plan to defeat the contagion; and with tens of thousands more projected to fall by year’s end? Such a line of attack might persuade older voters, who tilt toward Trump and are more vulnerable to the virus than the young. “A vote for Trump is a vote for death” might overdo it, but its gist would not.
Trump has boasted endlessly about building the greatest economy in the history of the world, making it one of his most positive positives. Even if that were once true (and plenty of experts would step up to dispute it), it no longer is. Thanks to Covid-19, the economy is proceeding at a stagger. Millions remain out of work, thousands of schools remain shuttered, restaurants face extinction, thousands of small businesses have closed, and economic and social uncertainty prevails. If Biden can’t cancel this Trump positive by November, he doesn’t deserve to be president. Every time Trump dispatches economic adviser Larry Kudlow to brag about a V-shaped recovery, Biden should portray Trump as our generation’s Herbert Hoover.
Perhaps Trump’s most indelible positive is his status—among his supporters, that is—as a “truth-teller,” which has allowed him to upend American politics on his terms and rewrite the rules of conduct. He sensed and took advantage of a hunger for political plain talk caused by decades of hedging, triangulating and obfuscating politicians—would-be leaders who talk like they’re always scared of the next gaffe. He exudes a gritty authenticity we haven’t seen in American politics since George Wallace, and like him or not, this persona connects with voters in a way that even a solid retail politician like Joe Biden can only dream about.
How might Biden blunt this arrow in the Trump quiver? Unlike other politicians, Trump has never pretended to be a better person than he is, so rolling back this positive might be impossible. His opponents can’t do Trump any further damage by conveying to his supporters that he’s insincere, hypocritical, and contradictory because his supports have already gleaned that.
Biden might be able to defeat Trump in November, but as a creature of the Washington swamp for 48 years, he’ll never convince voters that Trump is less authentic than he is. That task would be easier for a candidate attacking Trump from the right, pointing out that Trump claims the Russia thing is a hoax but that QAnon is harmless, pointing out that he hasn’t built the wall, that he didn’t lock Hillary up, that he didn’t really crack down on the rioters, that he has failed to bring back the manufacturing base, and that it’s not 1955 again.
But it’s not clear you have to attack every strength to win. In 2004, John Kerry really just needed one leg knocked out from under him—the military-hero part of his résumé—to lose to an opponent who was barely treading water. So the lesson for the Democrats remains: Forget the lies, the corruption, the personal life, strangely dyed hair. Focus on the Trump glow itself. Put a damper on it and his light might just go out.
“Lights Out” by the Angry Samoans is the song of the day. Send your favorite classic punk song to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts do everything with the lights out. My Twitter feed accompanied my RSS feed to the 930 Club in 1983 to watch the Angry Samoans. It was a short show.