Aren’t you tired of all this?
Aren’t you tired of the other side endlessly attacking, trying to encroach on the rights of your community, behaving with that infuriating, hypocritical indecency? Whatever their side wants to do is fine, and the media enables it, and no charge, however justified, seems to stick. And whenever your side makes even the smallest, most insignificant mistake, they’re all vultures swarming in to peck away your every scrap of power. Aren’t you tired of always having to be on the defensive, always pushing back against constant onslaughts of corruption, partisanship, and utter disregard for your most basic right to live without fear of mistreatment for who you are and what you believe?
Your presidential candidate is here to help — whether that’s President Trump or presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Beyond personality and policy, pandemic and protests, both are running on the same promise to their base: “I will keep you safe. I will let you rest. With me in office, you can unclench your jaw, let down your guard, at least for the next four years.”
Trump’s version of this promise has been evident for some time, most obviously in its reception among his white evangelical supporters. As I’ve argued, their relationship to Trump is not like flock and preacher or even constituency and politician. It’s more like vassal and lord or racket client and mafia don.
The value Trump offers them is protection. He’ll fight for them, be their champion in a duel they can’t hope to win themselves. “If that were the only thing the electorate cared about — which one’s more moral? — I’d go with Ted [Cruz]. But Donald has the skill set we’re looking for,” one evangelical said in 2016. “So yeah, we’ll put our blinders on.” Now-suspended Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., a vocal Trump ally, has made clear this is his primary rationale, too: “I’ve never talked to him about that in particular,” he said of Christianity in an interview late last year. Anyway, “you don’t choose a president based on how [personally] good they are,” Falwell told The Washington Post in January 2019.
I’m not the only one to think protection is integral to Trump’s base appeal. “By the time Trump arrived proclaiming himself their savior,” writes Calvin University historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez, in her book, Jesus and John Wayne, conservative white evangelicals had “resolved to defend their faith and their nation.” To that end, they welcomed Trump as an ally.
A New York Times story this week proffered this analysis too. “He is [white evangelicals’] protector, the bully who is on their side, the one who offered safety amid their fears that their country as they know it, and their place in it, is changing, and changing quickly,” wrote Times religion reporter Elizabeth Dias. “An entire way of life, one in which their values were dominant, could be headed for extinction.” Dias quotes an Iowa Trump supporter who expressed a deep sense of security in the re-election he expects Trump will win. “I feel like we are safe for four more years,” he said. “You know. So that’s a good feeling.”
It’s a feeling Biden gives his supporters, too, albeit in a very different style. Biden’s is a campaign of negation. He doesn’t have a clear slogan in analogue to Trump’s “Make America Great Again”/”Keep America Great” — the Biden campaign Wikipedia page lists eight slogans, most too long, none very memorable. Gear in the Biden campaign store touts at least one more. This hazy messaging doesn’t matter, though, because Biden’s main pitch doesn’t need a slogan or even a detailed platform. The pitch is simply undoing Trump — returning the country to the now-nostalgic Obama years, to a state of relative normalcy in which a malicious, unstable, stressful, triggering, traumatizing president doesn’t dominate Americans’ thoughts and incite their fears every day.
That this is a welcome pitch is evident in the way Biden’s base speaks of voting “like our lives depend on it” and “to protect” people of color. Biden’s comments about standing “up to President Trump’s relentless attacks on LGBTQ rights,” people of color, women, immigrants, and more reassure his base he’ll keep them safe. (When I interviewed people in my neighborhood about their decision to display politically progressive yard signs, their reasoning centered on self-identification to these demographic groups as households that are “friendly,” “welcoming,” and “safe.”)
Also revealing is the common claim that political disengagement generally and not voting for Biden specifically is a luxury of privilege. “[A] lot of people simply do not have the privilege to not participate in politics, because they are fighting for their own rights,” explains a representative argument. “The rights of so many groups — Native Americans, illegal immigrants, disabled people, low-income Americans, BIPOC, the LGBTQIA community (just to name a few) — are severely threatened by another term of Trump. These groups of millions of people can’t wait four more years because they are facing life-threatening decisions right now.”
My aim here isn’t to judge whose fears are justified, whose protection is actually needed, or which promise is more likely to be meaningfully fulfilled. I only want to note the fears are sincerely held and the protection honestly felt necessary. As my colleague Damon Linker has ably conveyed, both sides are convinced they’re in the defensive position, hedged in by an aggressive, existential threat.
Neither imagines itself to be attacking unprovoked or claiming any unfair advantage. Both conceive of this election as a choice between four more years of siege and a much-needed R&R.