Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Two presidential candidates presenting two very different American realities.
Although the pair agree on little, they are united in their belief that November’s election is one of existential importance. Mr Trump’s campaign is pushing a narrative of anarchy in Democrat-run cities. They argue that the recent violence in Kenosha after the shooting of Jacob Blake – an unarmed black man – is but a preview of an apocalyptic Biden presidency.
Putting aside the irony of this message (for Donald Trump is the President after all) this purposeful inflammation of racial tensions, as part of a larger ‘law and order’ message, simply isn’t resonating with voters.
A recent poll from The Economist and YouGov found that 41% of Americans considered the protests “mostly peaceful,” while 40% perceived them as “mostly violent.” This marks a significant shift from July, when 54% viewed the protests as peaceful and 31% as violent.
Despite this, Biden’s lead in the polls has been remarkably stable. He leads Trump by 6.5 percentage points nationally, according to RealClearPolitics’ polling averages, whilst also consistently leading in all battleground states. Put simply, the decline in support for the Black Lives Matter protests has not been accompanied by a decisive break in Trump’s favour.
Perhaps Trumps promises of “law and order” would be more effective if he were the insurgent. After all, Trump played heavily on the politics of racial resentment in 2016, when he promised to end “American carnage”.
This time around, the “carnage” Trump once decried appears increasingly a product of his own machinations. In June, for example, the President ordered law enforcement to tear gas protesters at Lafayette Square. The next month, he sent federal agents into Portland, Oregon, in what can ostensibly be described as an attempt to incite a confrontation with protesters. The Trump campaign clearly view the perpetuation of violence and confrontation as central to their Nixonian campaign of ‘law and order’, yet it remains to be seen whether this message is a winning one.
In many ways, Biden is well suited to neutralise Trump’s rhetoric of anarchy and chaos. On a basic level, Biden benefits from stereotyping. His campaign is keen to capitalise on his moderate image, exemplified last month during a speech in Pennsylvania when, with a witty smile, Biden asked “Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?”.
Crucially, Biden has consistently refused the pull from those further left of the Democratic party, stopping short of more ambitious policy proposals such as Medicare For All and the Green New Deal. And, despite Trump’s wishes, he has not proposed defunding the police. Instead, Biden has unequivocally denounced the violence on both sides, a test the President himself has failed.
Meanwhile, Trump has defended Kyle Rittenhouse – the seventeen year old gunman who shot and killed two protesters in Kenosha – refused to meet with Jacob Blakes family and, in an interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, compared Blake’s shooting to missing “a three foot putt” in golf.
However, with the devastating loss of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday night, Republicans are presented with a once in a generation opportunity to solidify a robust conservative majority on the Court, whilst also serving as a distraction from the President’s botched coronavirus response.
As the ultimate arbiter of the US Constitution, the Court litigates on a plethora of contentious social issues. From Obamacare to abortion, everything is on the line.
Trump’s team are already preparing a list of potential nominees. Although it is uncertain whether a vote shall reach the Senate floor before the election, the Supreme Court will doubtless become a fixture of both campaigns, a welcome change for the Trump campaign.
Still, it is not at all clear that appointing another judge before the election would benefit Trump electorally. Nor is it clear that the Senate would confirm a Trump nomination. In that case, just as in 2016, a Supreme Court vacancy could well be on the line in November.
Continually behind in the polls, Trump has turned his focus to the electoral infrastructure itself, viciously attacking attempts at expanding mail-in voting across the nation. Trump’s team argue – without evidence – that such expansions will invariably lead to fraud. In reality, electoral fraud is remarkably rare.
Still, both campaigns have already filed over 200 COVID-19 related lawsuits over voting. In Texas, the Trump campaign sued Nevada over a law that sends absentee ballots to all registered voters, increases the number of polling places to reduce queues and consequent disenfranchisement, and allows non-relatives to deliver the ballots of disabled or elderly voters.
Elections being fought out in the courts is not new. In 2000 the Supreme Court effectively handed Bush the Presidency after halting Florida’s re-count.
But in 2000, Bush’s Democratic opponent Al Gore stood down. In 2020 however, there seems a legitimate possibility of an incendiary transition of power. The consent of the loser is paramount to a peaceful transition, yet this cannot be guaranteed in November, especially if the race is close. The President has repeatedly suggested that the only way he will lose is through electoral fraud. Not only does this undermine the integrity of the election but arguably incites those dissatisfied with the results to take to the streets.
Though Biden’s lead in the polls is strikingly static, much remains uncertain about November’s election. Bitter court battles, delayed vote counts and violent protests cannot be ruled out. After all, election season began with fierce protests. Perhaps that is also where it shall end.
By Michael Gaughan
Image: by Gage Skidmore via Flickr