Last October, standing on the front porch of a small two-story house that had seen better days, I witnessed one of the more unsettling conversations of my adult life.
I had embedded with a team of community organizers in Alamance County, North Carolina, an hour’s drive west of Raleigh. This was Trump country. The president had won here in 2016 by 13 points. The sheriff was on the record as having accused “criminal illegal immigrants” of “raping our citizens in many, many ways,” and the county had inked a $2.3 million contract with ICE to detain migrants who’d crossed the border and were living in the state. The local neo-Confederate group had seen a remarkable resurgence in the wake of Trump’s election, motivated by the fight over Confederate statues.
The organizer I was tagging along with that day was Sugelema Lynch, a soft-spoken former schoolteacher whose parents had immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico and moved around the West Coast as farmworkers. As an organizer, she engaged local citizens on the issues of undocumented immigration and Medicare for All as part of a larger experiment into whether compassionate face-to-face conversations could break down prejudice.
The husband and wife who lived in the house were our last door for the day. The wife eyed us warily at first, but soon warmed up and came out on the porch. Her husband took notice and joined the conversation. The couple nodded along as Sug (pronounced shug) talked about the greed of big pharmaceutical companies and protecting the vulnerable members of the community, but when it was their turn to talk, their responses sounded as if Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity had been directly piped into their mouths. The “deep state” was thwarting President Trump from fulfilling his agenda. Democrats wanted to give “illegals” free health care while shafting the rest of us. There were a few casual references to liberal billionaire George Soros, the right’s go-to conspiracy-theory punching bag, and a jab at Hillary Clinton. When Sug or I asked where they’d gotten a piece of information or gently offered a counterpoint, they were polite but firm, certain in their position.
For almost an hour the conversation went on in that fashion, as the last bit of sunlight drained from the sky. The couple thanked us for the visit, and the wife even wrapped Sug in a big hug. As we walked back to the minivan, we were in a bit of a daze. “My brain hurts,” Sug told me as we pulled away.
I have replayed that conversation in my mind many times. We weren’t so much speaking past one another as trying to connect across different planes of existence. We’ve all had moments like this in the past few years — the uncle at Thanksgiving who sounds like an online comments section in human form. What I didn’t fully appreciate was how that exchange in Alamance County would encapsulate the central dynamic of the 2020 presidential election.
The contest between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden is not a choice between competing policy agendas or rival ideologies. It’s a choice between reality and anti-reality. Fact versus fantasy. Amid a pandemic that has killed more Americans than World War I and Vietnam combined, an economic recession that has rivaled the Great Depression, and a reckoning over racism and police violence, Trump’s plan for winning re-election is to sell the American people not on a vision for the future but an alternate reality of the present.
In that reality, Trump is the law-and-order president even as he foments violence in the streets of Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C. — or, in the case of Kenosha, Wisconsin, defends a 17-year-old vigilante (and Trump supporter) who allegedly shot three people, killing two of them. Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is a great “success story,” to quote son-in-law Jared Kushner, no matter that the death toll in the U.S. outpaces most of the developed world. He inherited a “stagnant” economy (he didn’t) and turned it into the “greatest economy in the history of the world” (it wasn’t), only to be sidetracked by a disease he vowed would “disappear one day” (it hasn’t). Most brazen of all, Trump clings to the notion that he’s an outsider who will raze the existing political order, despite having stocked his administration with lobbyists, faithfully done the deregulatory bidding of oil and coal companies, and rained money down on defense contractors and billionaires. His signature accomplishments — like slashing corporate tax rates or appointing more than 200 mostly right-wing federal judges to the bench — were made possible by establishment cronies such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And yet Trump says with a straight face that he has “ended the rule of the failed political class.” In a lifetime filled with lies and fraud, Trump’s 2020 pitch may be his most audacious con yet. Except now, instead of bankrupting his own companies, he could very well bankrupt the country.
The man who stands between us and the triumph of Trump reality is himself a creature of the political class, a six-term senator and three-time presidential contender who has worked in politics his entire adult life. To defeat a sitting president unbound by facts, truth, and reality, Joe Biden is trying to hold together a center that may or may not exist anymore in American political life, and pull the country back from the brink of splitting beyond repair.
On paper, Biden enters the final leg of this endless campaign in possibly the strongest position of any challenger in modern times. His opponent has never once hit the 50-percent mark in Gallup’s presidential-approval ratings. On Trump’s watch, in a matter of months, Covid-19 vaporized the national GDP by a staggering 33 percent and took 20 million jobs with it, erasing all employment growth going back to the 2008 financial crash. The deep-seated animosity so many people — including some Democrats — felt for Hillary Clinton doesn’t seem to apply to Biden. The energy among Democrats to defeat Trump is so astronomical that Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, the first woman of color on a major-party presidential ticket, raised $364.5 million in the month of August alone, a new record. The demographics of the country should also play into Biden’s hands. The Republican Party has won the popular vote in a presidential election only twice in the past 32 years. Without the Electoral College, the two most destructive presidents in recent history, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, would never have been elected.
But we do have the Electoral College, and it means that Biden can’t afford a razor-thin margin of victory in the popular vote and a repeat of 2016 or 2000. In practical terms, the challenge that Biden faces is not only galvanizing his party’s most reliable voters in cities like Milwaukee, Detroit, and Philadelphia, but also winning back voters in the suburbs and rural counties where Trump trounced Clinton four years ago.
Biden’s pitch to these voters is more about values and patriotism than any specific policy agenda. From the day he entered the race 18 months ago, he has vowed to “restore the soul of our nation” and bring decency back to the presidency. His campaign has unveiled ambitious proposals on clean energy, green jobs, affordable housing, and closing the racial wealth gap, but he doesn’t often mention these in his speeches. At its core, the animating message of Biden’s candidacy — a return to a kinder, calmer, and more peaceful era — is itself a kind of magical thinking, a nostalgic kumbaya to a bygone era.
In the face of Trump’s strategy of activating his most loyal voters, Biden is appealing to a much larger audience and trying to give the impression of a big-tent Democratic Party that welcomes disillusioned Trump voters and independents into the fold. At the Democratic National Convention, an anti-union, anti-abortion former Republican governor in John Kasich spoke alongside a Democratic socialist and liberal celebrity in Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Biden’s standing in Florida, arguably the most important state in the entire race, illustrates both the promise and pitfalls of this approach. Steve Schale, a strategist who works for Democrats in the state (including a pro-Biden super PAC), says Biden is seeing stronger support from college-educated white voters and even non-college-educated women than Clinton did, while his backing among Florida’s Hispanics has lagged. Winning Florida, Schale explains, will come down to places like Pasco County, an exurban swath of land north of Tampa that’s home to more than half a million people and hasn’t gone for a Democratic presidential contender since Al Gore in 2000. Biden almost certainly won’t win Pasco; it’s a matter of narrowing the margin of defeat. Barack Obama lost Pasco by 8,000 votes in 2008 and 14,000 in 2012; Clinton lost by 52,000. “In a place like Pasco, do we get back to what Obama did? No,” Schale says. “But if we get back three or four percentage points, that’s a big deal.”
The same story can be told of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, where Trump’s lopsided victories in exurban and rural counties in 2016 overwhelmed the turnout for Clinton in the cities and suburbs. In Wisconsin, the once-reliable Republican suburbs outside Milwaukee have drifted leftward and away from Trump, says Charles Franklin, a pollster at Marquette University. That’s partly due to Trump’s extremism, but also the result of renewed on-the-ground organizing by the Democratic Party. The challenge for Trump, meanwhile, is re-creating the off-the-charts support he received in the northern and western parts of Wisconsin — which delivered him huge margins in 2016 but moved toward the Democrats in the 2018 gubernatorial race — without conceding too much ground in the suburban counties.
The risk Biden faces with his big-tent approach is that he turns off progressives, young people, and African Americans, who want more than lip service to big structural change and feel-good appeals to restoring the soul of a country that never did well by them in the first place. This summer, I caught up with Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher, who worked on Obama’s two campaigns. On the one hand, Belcher says, a dramatic swing toward Biden in the suburbs could portend a realignment of the two major political parties, an exodus of moderate voters from the GOP in the way white voters in the South fled the Democrats in the 1970s and 1980s. But he voiced concern about whether Biden had done enough to galvanize that diverse, multigenerational, cross-class coalition that put Obama in the White House.
“If you look at Biden right now, he is still off of Obama’s mark with voters under 35 and still off of Obama’s mark with both Latino and African American voters,” Belcher says. “It can’t be about just voting against Trump. It has to be about giving them something to vote for.”
Karen Finney, a Democratic consultant who worked on the Clinton campaign in 2016, tells me that Biden’s choice of Harris as his running mate will help mobilize those faithful Democratic voters. But that can’t be where Biden’s outreach to his core supporters ends, she says, and he can’t assume those core supporters will turn out en masse. “The biggest lesson for me [from 2016] is you can’t take anything for granted, and all the traditional models we thought we knew are out the window, especially with Covid,” Finney says.
At least for now, though, Democrats appear more united behind their presidential candidate than four years ago, and more energized to vote Trump out of office. Franklin, the Wisconsin pollster, notes that fewer voters in his state say they won’t vote for either candidate than did at this point in 2016, and that Sen. Bernie Sanders’ supporters quickly got behind Biden in a way that didn’t happen for Clinton.
In Pennsylvania, the Democratic Party stands its best chance in a decade to regain control of both chambers of the state Legislature, which has activists and donors energized in a way that should lift Biden’s candidacy, says Joe Corrigan, a Democratic consultant in Philadelphia. “The real theme here is that Democrats are coming out in a way that we haven’t done in the past as a party,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if the person is a good Democrat or a middling Democrat. They’re not being fooled by the moderate Republicans anymore. They recognize that every Republican has enabled Donald Trump.”
Trump’s response has been to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. His campaign and its allies have tried to paint Biden as somehow both a senile tool of the establishment and a radical socialist at the same time. Lately, Trump has tried to spook those coveted suburban voters by calling Biden “the most extreme left-wing candidate in history,” who wants to “abolish the police” and even “abolish the suburbs.” But these attacks rely on an outdated notion of who actually lives in American suburbs, and while post-convention polls have shown a tightening race, there’s little evidence so far to suggest Trump’s suburban strategy is having any real effect.
The Biden campaign is banking on voters seeing Trump’s tactics for what they are — a desperate ploy to distract from the administration’s failures. They’re counting on, in other words, the bare facts of our pandemic moment being too visceral and too frightening to be waved away by Trump’s mass delusions. “It’s very hard to convince people that everything’s fine when their kids are at home and they’re not going into the office and everything’s been upended by a crisis that Trump has wanted to ignore,” says Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. “It’s rare to have such a direct link between the everyday experience of Americans and what the American president does.”
It will go down as one of the enduring images of the Trump presidency. On the final night of the Republican National Convention, some 1,500 of the mostly maskless MAGA faithful squeezed in together on the South Lawn of the White House. They listened intently as Trump regaled them with the story of how his administration rose to meet the challenge of a grave crisis, marshaling “the largest national mobilization since World War II” to defeat “an invisible enemy,” and setting an example for the rest of the world.
Watching that spectacle, I thought of something Rush Limbaugh, long the voice of red America, had said on his show in 2009. Limbaugh explained to his listeners that they and their opponents on the left “live in two universes.” One, he said, “is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie.” The other universe, the one in which he and his audience lived, is “where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes
Limbaugh had it backward, of course, but the point still stands. For so many Americans, 2020 has been an annus horribilis for the record books, a nightmare of lockdowns and job losses, evictions and infections, confusion and desperation and death. But at the White House on that final convention night, there was joy and jubilation, a true sense of accomplishment, capped off with a fireworks show worthy of the Fourth of July, as towering bursts of red and gold rained down over the National Mall and the Washington Monument. It was a hell of a show. What a shame the 1,129 Americans who died that day from Covid-19 missed it.
What we can see of Trump’s playbook would suggest that if Biden does win, Trump won’t go quietly, not if there’s any reason, however flimsy, to question the result. Just as Trump is now concocting an alternate reality for his followers about his record as president, there’s nothing to stop him from ordering his phalanx of lawyers to file lawsuits challenging the vote count while encouraging his supporters to reject the outcome of the election.
Trump’s re-election strategy isn’t as audacious as it sounds when you understand that probably one-third of the country already disbelieves what they see and hear unless it’s coming from Fox News, Ben Shapiro, some other pillar of the right-wing echo chamber, or Trump himself. Remember: A thrice-married, maybe-billionaire from New York City with a long history of bankruptcies and deceptions succeeded at selling himself as the candidate of the Everyman. Trump’s party — for he’s captured it lock, stock, and barrel — denies the science of climate change and has made the simplest of public-health protections, wearing a mask, into a political statement, preferring to risk infection or death if it means they can “own the libs” and show solidarity with the president. The running tally of current and former GOP congressional candidates who have endorsed or lent credence to QAnon, the mega-conspiracy theory about a global cabal of child-trafficking elites, is up to 79, according to Alex Kaplan, a researcher at Media Matters for America. At least one of those, Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, is expected to win her race.
Trump, then, is the perfect candidate for such a party. Tony Schwartz, who co-wrote Trump’s 1987 book, The Art of the Deal, and writes about his relationship with the president in Dealing With the Devil: My Mother, Trump, and Me, says Trump has lived in a bubble for so long “that he takes it for granted he can indeed do whatever he wants to do, whenever he wants to do it, with no ultimate consequences.” What makes Trump so dangerous, Schwartz tells Rolling Stone, is that he believes his own cons: “He has an infinite capacity for self-deception, but also an infinite capacity to deceive.”
With millions of Americans planning to vote by mail amid the pandemic, Trump has waged a fact-free assault on mail-in voting, saying it will lead to “massive fraud and abuse” (there is no data to support this). He floated the idea of postponing the election, which he by law cannot do, and even encouraged his supporters to commit voter fraud by voting twice — once by mail and once in person — to test “the system.” It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which Trump opens up a sizable lead on election night, but as mailed-in ballots are counted and Trump’s lead shrinks in the ensuing days, he incites his supporters into mass unrest, not unlike when he urged them to “LIBERATE” Democrat-led states that had taken swift action to respond to the coronavirus, encouraging the heavily armed militia-style protests in state capitols.
Trump’s attacks on voting represent a “dagger at the very heart of democracy,” says Steven Levitsky, a political scientist and Harvard professor. “When you raise questions about that repeatedly for four years and convince 35, 40, or 45 percent of the population that it’s rigged, you’re doing a hell of a lot of damage.”
The first term of Donald Trump’s presidency has acted like a stress test on the American body politic, our democratic system pushed to its breaking point. Now, that body politic is on life support. The question on the ballot in 2020 is greater than who will be the next occupant of the White House. Democracy, reality, rule of law, and quite possibly the fate of the planet are at stake. In the long view of history, four years of Trump can be written off as an aberration. Eight years of this president will be a confirmation.