Biden campaign buttons. Photo credit: Jana Shea / Shutterstock.com.
As Plato suggested in The Republic, politics is driven more by stories than facts.
As different as they are in all other regards, America’s last two presidents both won wildly improbable electoral victories while telling completely contradictory stories about their country. Barack Obama made his own hopeful story a symbol of the American quest for greater unity through embracing diversity — e pluribus unum, out of many, one. Donald Trump told a dark story of how selfish liberal elites had rigged a system only he could fix, while representing himself as a quintessential American businessman and patriotic Christian who could make America great again. (Hillary Clinton’s story stressed how she would be the nation’s first woman president, signaled by the slogan, “I’m with her,” which Trump crushed by telling voters, “I’m with you.”)
Facts can, however, discredit stories. Obama’s tale of himself as the nation’s great unifier foundered on the obstructionism of Republicans in Congress. Trump, who promised to end “American carnage,” entered the summer of 2020 beset by a public health crisis, an economic crisis, and a crisis of national outrage against racist police abuses, all of historic proportions. His initial response — “I don’t take responsibility at all” — belied his promise that he alone could fix the system’s problems.
As the summer proceeds, both Trump and Biden will strive to elaborate stories of America that they think can win voters and, perhaps, guide successful policies. What stories about America will they tell Americans in 2020?
The stakes could not be higher. And more than ever, the candidates will present starkly opposed narratives of American identity and purpose.
As the incumbent, Trump’s only hope is to update his 2016 campaign narrative. He has already shown that he will do so by doubling down on its ugliest themes. He now insists his “Make America Great Again” policies were working until America’s malignant Chinese competitors infected the world with Covid-19, until cowardly and partisan Democratic officials locked down their citizens in violation of personal liberties, and until those same feckless officials failed to “dominate” unruly protesters who falsely accuse decent citizens, including the nation’s police, of racism.
But facts still matter: more Americans than ever are seeing the video evidence of racist police killings as reasons for change. And rising Covid-19 cases are forcing even Republican state and local officials to restore shutdowns. The economic forecasts of most experts are now dire.
Rather than proposing fresh solutions, Trump is intensifying his race-baiting smears of China as responsible for the “kung flu.” He defends the “beauty” of Confederate memorials, and retweets images of senior citizens shouting “white power” alongside videos of gun-toting white people threatening peaceful Black protestors. He hopes to paint Joe Biden as the puny captive of a lawless, America-hating radical left, against whom his nationalist crusade must triumph again.
In so doing, he is removing any doubt that “Making America Great Again” means restoring as much of the white Christian nativist, racist, patriarchal, and brutal capitalist America of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as he and his allies possibly can.
That story cannot command broad support in twenty-first-century America. But it may not need to do so.
Given Republican advantages in the Electoral College, Biden still faces major challenges in building a coalition broad enough to defeat Trump. And given the historic crises America now faces, Biden cannot do so by calling on Americans to dismiss Trump as an aberration, or urging a return to the Obama era. He must become a credible champion not only for old-line white Democrats like himself but also for younger progressives and militant people of color seeking big changes. He must do so by telling a story of America that portrays bold initiatives as fitting with what is best in America’s past and present.
Biden’s age, his record on criminal justice policies, and his mistreatment of Anita Hill during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, all make him a less than ideal embodiment of the American story he now needs to tell.
Yet he made a good start in his June 2 Philadelphia speech on the protests. He said that American history “isn’t a fairy tale with a guaranteed happy ending,” but rather a battle, never finally won, to “become the nation where all men and women are not only created equal — but treated equally.” He sought to unite Americans around that sense of unfulfilled common purpose by addressing “systemic racism,” “real police reform,” “growing economic inequality,” and the failures in American health care. He did not look back to a mythic American past, but ahead, towards building an America that will be “better than it was,” and by seeking (in an echo of the preamble of the Constitution and the First Inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln) to “make this imperfect Union as perfect as we can.”
Biden’s story, like that of Lincoln and Obama before him, envisions America as a great historic project, grounded in the best aspirations of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which Americans today must carry forward in ways that benefit all but those clinging to past privileges. His candidacy has the potential to unite many working- and middle-class white people with people of color and many progressives, given Biden’s existing credibility with the first two groups and his potential advocacy of programs that may attract the third.
To succeed, Biden must hit hard on how Trump’s story expresses the worst American traditions, instead of the best. He must persuade voters that he personally is now truly committed to needed major changes. And he must spell out concrete policies that make the contrast with Trump clear, and the promise of a better future tangible to all Americans.
Still, these are early days. Biden is fond of saying this election is a battle for the soul of the nation, and like the title of my most recent book, he often says of Trump’s vision, it’s not “who we are.”
But as I argue in my book, and as Biden acknowledges, “who we are” is something a people in our democracy gets to decide for itself when it elects a President. If Biden in 2020 fails to appeal to the better angels of our nature, then Donald Trump will have four more years to sow division and discord — and America will have chosen a vision of itself that is mean, even vicious.
Rogers M. Smith is the Christopher Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania.