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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Trump Still Preaching Only To His Choir

After pondering the first presidential candidate debate, I noticed a telling habit of Trump’s and wrote about it at New York:

Viewers who endured to the end of the first Biden-Trump presidential debate in Cleveland did not come away with the impression that either candidate was a modern-day Demosthenes; indeed, there were long stretches in which a complete sentence was not uttered. But unlike Joe Biden, who was as intelligible as most people his age when forced to stay up late, President Trump exhibited an increasingly visible habit of speaking in a sort of shorthand or code. National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty explains it very well:

“By far Trump’s most self-defeating habit in these debates is to refer to stories rather than tell them. He speaks as if he’s talking to people who, like himself, spend hours a day watching Fox News and have a shared folklore of scandal stories that can be referred to in shorthand. He refers to events, like ballots found in a wastepaper basket, but doesn’t tell the story of where they happened, or why they matter.”

Sometimes Trump adopts characterizations from conservative media that are axiomatic to their audiences, but not to puzzled undecided voters. A good example from the debate was the follow-up to Trump’s charge that Biden wants to eliminate private health insurance, which he hotly denied (unsurprisingly to anyone who watched the interminable discussions of Medicare for All in the Democratic primary debates). Trump’s riposte was not entirely in the English language:

“Joe, you agreed with Bernie Sanders, who’s far left, on the manifesto, we call it. And that gives you socialized medicine.”

Trump is alluding to the policy recommendations of the “unity task force” set up by Biden and Sanders in the wake of their primary fight. In a Wall Street Journal column someone must have clipped for Trump, former Republican senator Phil Gramm called the agreement a “manifesto,” and claimed that Biden was accepting Medicare for All “on an installment plan.” In fact, the “unity task force” recommendations and his own campaign’s plans don’t go in that direction at all, which produced some bitter disappointment among single-payer health-care fans at the time

But Trump wouldn’t let go of it during the debate:

President Donald J. Trump:

Listen, you agreed with Bernie Sanders and the manifesto.

Vice President Joe Biden:

There is no manifesto, number one.

Chris Wallace:

Please let him speak, Mr. President.

Vice President Joe Biden:

Number two.

President Donald J. Trump:

He just lost the left.

Vice President Joe Biden:

Number two.

President Donald J. Trump:

You just lost the left. You agreed with Bernie Sanders on a plan that you absolutely agreed to and under that plan … they call it socialized medicine.

Convinced that he had nailed Biden for abandoning an imaginary deal with “the left” that conservative media invented, Trump seemed very pleased with himself.

At another juncture, the president showed an impressive ability to telescope multiple conservative myths about crime policy:

President Donald J. Trump:

You did a crime bill, 1994, where you call them super-predators. African-Americans are super-predators and they’ve never forgotten it. They’ve never forgotten it.

Vice President Joe Biden:

I’ve never said …

Chris Wallace:

No, no, sir. It’s his two minutes.

President Donald J. Trump:

So you did that and they call you a super-predator and I’m letting people out of jail now, that you have treated the African-American population community, you have treated the black community about as bad as anybody in this country.

Conservative media have gleefully seized upon progressive criticism of Biden and the Clinton administration’s sponsorship of a 1994 comprehensive crime measure that, among many other things, toughened mandatory federal sentencing for drug offenders. The bill at the time was attacked by Republicans as weak and loaded with liberal social spending (e.g., “midnight basketball” programs), not to mention gun control. Biden indeed never referred to anyone as “super-predators” (a term actually devised by crime policy maven John DiIulio, who later worked in the Bush White House), and Hillary Clinton’s single use of the term for members of gangs working for drug cartels came two years later.

The idea that Biden locked up Black voters while Trump is “letting people out of jail” comes from the claim by Trump and his fans that his single step toward criminal-justice reform, his signature on the First Step Act, executed reluctantly after he stalled more substantial legislation for years, was of revolutionary significance. Indeed, the idea that Trump single-handedly opened prison doors has been reinforced by some conservative attacks on “his” legislation.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who wasn’t familiar with this elaborate backstory understanding that exchange between Trump and Biden. But it was crystal clear compared to what the president did when the subject of election integrity came up at the very end of the debate, when Wallace asked the candidates: “What are you prepared to do to reassure the American people that the next president will be the legitimate winner of this election?”

Biden went first and assured viewers that he’d accept an election loss once all votes were counted, and that Trump would have no choice but to do the same. Here’s how Trump responded:

“So when I listen to Joe talking about a transition [he really didn’t], there has been no transition from when I won. I won that election. And if you look at crooked Hillary Clinton, if you look at all of the different people, there was no transition, because they came after me trying to do a coup. They came after me spying on my campaign. They started from the day I won, and even before I won. From the day I came down the escalator with our First Lady, they were a disaster. They were a disgrace to our country, and we’ve caught them. We’ve caught them all. We’ve got it all on tape. We’ve caught them all. And by the way, you gave the idea for the Logan Act against General Flynn. You better take a look at that, because we caught you in a sense, and President Obama was sitting in the office.”

This is an elaborate reference to the conspiracy theory known as “Obamagate,” the claim that the former president — along with his Justice Department, law-enforcement leaders, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden — conspired to persecute the Trump campaign and administration (and notably former national security adviser Michael Flynn) with fake charges of collusion with Russia, partly to cover up their own treasonous interactions with shadowy foreign powers. It’s been the go-to conservative counterpunch in response to the many investigations of the president in Congress and elsewhere, but it’s really not something you can even begin to grok unless you watch a lot of conservative media, as the Guardian noted earlier this year:

“According to research compiled by the Internet Archive, analysed by GDELT and released on Wednesday, since last week Fox News and Fox Business have mentioned Flynn, the FBI and Obama far more often than the coronavirus.

“Nor has such coverage just been pursued by opinion hosts like Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson. Hosts of supposedly straight news content have happily followed suit.

“Critics and other media outlets have been quick to call out the supposed scandal, which the former Obama adviser David Plouffe called a ‘sideshow to distract from the shitshow.’”

After his Obamagate digression, Trump dealt with Wallace’s request (to which Biden responded positively) about reassuring viewers that the election results would be accepted by both candidates by saying: “It’s a disaster … this is going to be fraud like you’ve never seen.” And he then related an assortment of anecdotal claims about alleged mail-ballot fraud along with the big lie that Democratic-controlled states are sending out ballots “all over the place” in order to manufacture fake votes for Biden after Election Day.

Trump has himself been the trendsetter in this area of conspiracy-mongering, but what he is alluding to was laid out starkly in the reliably Trumpy journal The Federalist (among many, many examples):

“[W]hen you go to your local precinct to vote this fall, remember that coming behind in many states will be bags full of ballots from unseen persons. There will be no guarantee they’ll arrive on time. No, we will be told that the new system takes a little longer, with some likely tallied long after election day. And if the margin is narrow, is there any question as to which way the vote count will drift?

“More than this year’s election contests will be at stake. We may be witnesses to the end of election integrity.”

Trump and his acolytes have been discussing such lurid (if completely fabricated) scenarios for so long that it’s no wonder he feels little need to explain it methodically. And that’s his biggest problem, not just as a debater, but as a presidential candidate behind in the polls and struggling to deal with a dubious record. He seems incapable of talking to anyone who isn’t already a member of his base, familiar with its rituals, its catchphrases, and its eccentric view of history and current events. It’s likely far too late in this election cycle for him to change.

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