Traditionally, American voters have liked to have a Man with a Plan in the Oval Office. But Trump has shaken up a thing or two in terms of popular perception in that department by invoking fears of a ‘socialist’ takeover and the perceived shades of ‘over-government’ that the threat accompanies. He mentioned it at least a couple of times during the Cleveland debate on Tuesday night, going to the extent of trying to force a Bernie Sanders-Joe Biden hyphenation. In this sceheme of things, ‘Having a plan’ is tantamount to ‘Having a cunning (socialist) plan’.
Biden’s charge of a ‘planless’ president unable to take the right decisions to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, to ensure that workers get back to safe workplaces, have an environmentally clean and safe America, and put a lid on racial tensions in the US was obvious to many. The nature of Trump’s interventions (read: attack dog interruptions) itself in the debate was a naked advertisement for extreme laissez-faire. The question now being whether Trump supporters are still enthused enough by the president’s machine-gunning style and substance to keep ‘socialists’ and ‘anarchists’ at bay, or find him to be playing an overused hand.
Take the issue of race violence that debate host Chris Wallace brought to the table. The line was very quickly drawn along Biden’s the need to treat the blight of institutional racism and Trump’s the need to maintain law and order. And down this fat binary the two did traipse. At one point it was Wallace — the 72-year-old Fox News anchor, who surprised many (at least, non-Americans) for his tough interventions against Trump’s verbal demolition derbying — who called out the president when the latter was repeating his position on race violence of ‘both sides need to be roped in.’
The anchor asked whether Trump would then specifically call out White Supremacists to stand down – in the name of law and order. Trump hedged for a bit and then went down his familiar road, calling out Antifa, the anti-fascist and left wing movement that made headline news in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in the hands of a White policeman, and the ‘radical Left’ for the destruction and mayhem of property and lives. Biden was left standing in his corner looking like the ‘moderator.’
Tuesday’s debate further underlined the entrenched positions of both sides – Biden promising a bigger, fresher Obamacare, Trump calling it an expense that America can do without; Biden calling for a better Covid policy that would ensure more Americans to work safely while listing the damage done under the president’s chaotic actions and reactions, Trump stating that under Biden millions more would have died from Covid and that the former vice-president wants to keep the economy shut till Election Day under the pretext of a pandemic; Biden’s prognosis of a Z-shaped economic recovery with a vaccine not yet visible in the horizon, Trump’s belief in a V-shaped recovery with the vaccine probably ‘weeks away’….
There was nothing in the debate that could fundamentally make a Trump supporter not vote Trump, or make a Trump opposer not vote Biden (some with their eyes tightly shut), come November.
The Kardashians vs The Brady Bunch show went downhill with the brakes off when Trump took over both lecterns and the moderator’s chair when injecting in the debate (sic, by then) the high probability of fraud in the counting of votes. This has been a regular theme for Trump for some time now. Remember, this time, with social distancing norms in place, many if not most voters in many if not most states will avail of sending their votes by mail. Trump believes that the Democrats are in a great position to rig this – even stating outright at one point, ‘They have mailmen selling ballots.’
Letting out this ‘Heads I win, tails you lose’ ink in the water on national TV will have its takers. But if there’s one thing that Americans like is a winner — backing the candidate who they believe most likely to win. This is what brought Donald Trump, the brash outsider, bull in a china shop (and now firmly in an anti-China shop) to the White House in January 2017. For him to hedge his bets by saying the votes will be hedged doesn’t elicit confidence to those potential voters who instinctively want to back winners.
In the 2006 sports comedy film, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, the hero is a race car driver whose mantra is: If you ain’t first, you’re last. After winning several championships, and gaining much fame and fortune in the NASCAR world, Ricky exceeds his limitations and crashes in a race – subsequently traumatised into believing that he’s on fire and running around only in his underwear and racing helmet. Joe Biden may not be the formidable ‘NASCAR driver’ for most anti-Trumpers. But Trump’s show on Tuesday may have given people a glimpse of his ‘concern’ of being on fire and running around not in his presidential suit. For, not ‘being first’ on November 3 actually seems like something he has planned.