The fuzzy battle lines of the 2020 election

It’s been real, hasn’t it? Two weeks of montages about who is the nicer grandfather and competing testimonies from small business owners, two unmemorable speeches delivered far too late for the target audience of senior citizens in the Midwest to watch them live. The guy who wrote the draconian crime bill is accusing the guy who (partially) repealed it of being an authoritarian monster; the latter is insisting that the former, along with his party, are simultaneously too soft and too tough on crime.

In 67 days we will know whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden is going to be the next president of the United States. What we might not know is why. Obviously in the barest formal sense we will learn that one man managed to win a majority of the 538 electoral votes and that the other did not. But this is not an election in which there are well-defined “issues” at stake or competing visions of the common good that are even remotely as clear as partisans on both sides believe.

In fact, we cannot even agree on what the national mood is or what the country has been through in the last year. Did we just narrowly survive a naked coup attempt against a sitting president by rogue partisan elements in the FBI and the Department of Justice held over from the last administration? This is what the president and his supporters were telling us as recently as February, but if the Republican National Convention was any indication, this is something that everyone, not least Trump himself, has agreed to live and let live.

The GOP’s rhetoric concerning the lockdowns was similarly incoherent. Poll after poll suggests that public feeling about the coronavirus is split on more or less partisan lines. Listening to Trump and his children, one would get the impression that no one has taken the virus more seriously, that no issue has been of more importance to him and his supporters than continuing to take every possible precaution to arrest the spread of the virus whose victims are predominantly older than 65. The fact that every single speaker was not hammering away at the need to reopen schools, easily the single best wedge issue available to Republicans since the War on Terror in 2004, beggars belief. Instead, a handful of people didn’t wear masks. This is what we call saying the loud part quietly.

Meanwhile, last week’s Democratic convention was similarly baffling. Over and over again we were told that the most pressing issue facing the country was not unemployment or rising crime or the pandemic or even Trump himself but a kind of grand coalition of systemic prejudices — Big Racism, Big Sexism, Big Homophobia, Big Transphobia, etc. — of which the president is merely the public face. We are already seeing the half-hearted pivot, as senators like Chris Murphy of Connecticut tweet both sides-ism (and then repent of it) and mayors like Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., decry the iniquity of harmless upper-middle-class white people being harassed outside of their favorite brunch locations. What is the real crisis again?

I think it is fair to say that so far this has not been the election anyone thought it would be. It is not being fought on schools being closed or on the efficacy of lockdowns, much less on impeachment, but on who should be in charge of the stock market and which septuagenarian is more avuncular.

The first step is not admitting you have a problem. It’s deciding what the problem should be.

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