The Trump era has afforded few moments of genuine catharsis. Utterly lacking in shame and unafraid of uttering the most egregious falsehoods, the president has an undeniable knack for bloviating his way through the most embarrassing situations or scandals. Among those anticipating Trump’s defeat in the fall, his disastrous rally in Tulsa last weekend therefore carried a certain poetic justice.
Billing the event as a comeback and clearly aiming to showcase grassroots strength in a city he carried in a landslide four years ago, the president played the hits and delivered a lengthy speech that featured all the usual bluster, but fell far short of its intended impact. Even the most zealous Republican partisans have since struggled to spin the evening as a success: the BOK Center, a 19,000-seat stadium where the rally took place, remained half empty, and plans for the president to make a second speech outside were hastily scrapped as sparse attendance failed to deliver a necessary cheering section.
Despite initial boasts from the campaign that it had received a million ticket requests, the crowd that materialized was scarcely worthy of a Boomtown Rats reunion tour — a reality Trump himself appeared to grasp when he disembarked at Andrews Air Force Base a few hours later.
The Tulsa event was the disastrous capstone of a catastrophic few months that have seen the president’s approval ratings sink to levels not witnessed since the days of George H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter (both lost re-election). Amid an impending depression, sagging poll numbers, and a historic pandemic, a new consensus is quickly crystalizing that Joe Biden is the favorite in November.
Given the obvious signs, this is in a sense a perfectly rational development. An embattled president running for re-election against a backdrop of catastrophic unemployment and well over a hundred thousand pandemic-related deaths, after all, hardly seems like auspicious ground for a political comeback. Trump’s victory four years ago, moreover, saw him win a smaller share of the vote than Mitt Romney and was enabled more by Democratic incompetence than genuine popular groundswell. Things being what they are, it’s difficult to imagine Trump adding many new votes to what was already a less than spectacular tally.
Nevertheless, the chosen Democratic strategy coupled with the inevitable uncertainty of the coming months make it uncomfortably easy to envision a scenario where the election’s outcome suddenly looks like less of a foregone conclusion. This is admittedly, in part, an intuitive supposition, born of the debacle of 2016 when virtually all the so-called experts told us Hillary Clinton would easily romp to victory.
But in choosing to nominate Joe Biden, the Democrats have gone all in on what may prove a deceptively risky exercise in electoral roulette: opting for a candidate at his best when neither seen nor heard. Biden inspires little in the way of grassroots excitement and is unlikely to marshal a national army of volunteers to his cause (Trump’s rally in Tulsa, disastrous though it was, still had better attendance than any Biden rally over the past year).
During the Democratic primaries, the tyranny of decorum blunted obvious criticisms of Biden’s record and behavior — a stricture that will disappear in the forthcoming general election campaign. The former vice president’s current standing has been aided immensely by his ability to play the role of Generic Democrat and capitalize on widespread anti-Trump sentiment as a result.
When the campaign really gets going, Biden will inevitably become more visible, and more vulnerable. The likely attacks on his political history and record, their origin in Donald Trump notwithstanding, will sting precisely because they have a basis in reality: Biden (among other things) did help create America’s mass incarceration apparatus; his family has profited from his prominence in public life; he has been accused of sexually assaulting former staffer Tara Reade in the early 1990s; and he does have a lengthy history of lying through his teeth.
Biden’s history also suggests he is likely to move to the right when challenged, a reflex that could prove a significant liability in a moment defined by social turmoil and mass protest at systemic racism. 2016, after all, was a populist election, and the Democratic adoption of a decidedly anti-populist strategy was among the major reasons for Trump’s victory. Albeit in a very different way, 2020 is a potentially radical moment in which Democrats have opted to select yet another reflexive triangulator with a mountain of political baggage as their tribune (look no further than Biden’s recent call for police departments to be given more money to see how ill-equipped he is in the present political climate).
The Democratic calculation is that none of this will ultimately matter, and in November this may well be proven correct. Trump is a deeply and deservedly hated president presiding over a growing tally of deaths and mass unemployment. Biden, buoyed by a surge in white suburban turnout, may ride the wave and cruise comfortably to victory. But if 2016 taught us anything, it was the necessity of exercising maximum skepticism in the face of establishment liberal hubris. 2020 gives us little cause to do otherwise.