Michael Moore, the political filmmaker, has predicted a repeat of Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, which he – and I – predicted.
Here’s how it could well play out as votes are tallied on November 3: Mr Trump, the wild rebel and the rich media performer, defeats Washington insider Joe Biden. While ‘rational’ progressives are overcome by disbelief at this prospect, Australian observers, after the unexpected 2019 federal poll outcome, should be less surprised.
Narrowing polls in battleground states with many Electoral College votes suggest a replay of 2016. Close poll averages, compiled by Real Clear Politics, even with Mr Biden’s leading margins (Arizona 4.2 per cent, Minnesota 10.2 per cent, Michigan 4.8 per cent, Wisconsin 6.7 per cent, Pennsylvania 4.3 per cent, and close figures in Florida 1.6 per cent and North Carolina 0.9 per cent), do not guarantee victory in November.
Local factors, such as the Florida mix of the old South, Cuban exiles, rural populations, older voters and the retired rich, evangelicals and survey-shy voters who won’t declare their Trump-voting intentions, may reduce the Biden leads.
Along with ‘won’t tell the truth’ poll respondents, turnout matters in a country in which around half the population usually votes.
Dimensions of populism and electoral politics help explain why, including Mr Trump’s maverick strongman persona. Mr Trump is a dominant authoritarian demagogue, rare in the developed democratic world. He fits the demagogue model, even with his innumerable contradictions, in a country with highly personalised presidential politics.
Bland positivity (‘incredible’, ‘tremendous’, ‘I love Louisiana’, ‘wonderful people’), simple solutions (the virus will ‘go away’; hot summers and climate change – ‘It’ll start getting cooler. Just you watch’) and nationalism (‘Make America Great Again’ – ‘MAGA’) fuse with unrestrained aggression and polarising hate.
Mr Trump comes across as the strong man in a crisis, despite the most fundamental paradox – that he is completely incapable of dealing with either the COVID-19 pandemic or street conflict.
In fact, crises which create a sense of insecurity benefit him.
Mr Trump contrasts with Mr Biden, whom he – and Fox News – portray as weak, not an ‘action man’. Mr Biden is depicted as a thinker (meaning ‘weak’ to Mr Trump’s followers), a negotiator (that is, not decisive) and as pale, thin and old – which sounds odd as his opponent is also a septuagenarian.
Prejudices can work. Since politics is about emotion, not rationality, the Trump drama echoes the old refrain, ‘The People’ vs the Washington Swamp’. Does the strong bear have more appeal to voters in the distant Mid-West rustbelt than the bland, slightly pallid Capitol Hill man?
Marketing Mr Biden as a ‘compassion candidate’, a man who has experienced grief and loss, might not sell. In election contests, difficult times demand strength, even if that works best when it also expresses the strong leadership which Trump has failed to provide.
This populist duality is even more significant than the related gambit – absurdly depicting Mr Biden as a Trojan horse for Marxist and anarchist revolutionaries It is a theme which also gains from the law-and-order noises prompted by street conflicts beaten up on Fox News. Law and order, successfully used by Richard Nixon after the wild scenes and rioting at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, may help him win the suburban ‘security moms’.
Mr Trump escalates fear of The Other – ‘the Chaiyna virus’ (sic), Mexican rapists, anarchists and cancel culture. Along with nationalism, it appeals to Middle America at a time of proliferating conspiracy theories (the pandemic ‘hoax’) on social media.
Hard times can benefit leaders; most have risen in popularity during the pandemic. The presidential contest is almost biological – the stronger beast gets to claim leadership. Mr Trump, with his bear-like presence, campaigns as a tribal leader with loyal supporters and grunted slogans. His performance is inspired by Barnum and Bailey. It is about the show!
As Michael Moore, says unless Mr Biden campaigns strongly in the swing states, November 3, 2020, may well see a repeat of Trump vs. Clinton 2016.
The debates are the other test of strength, and Mr Biden’s best chance to dominate Mr Trump, if not land a knockout blow. In our screen era (increasingly a policy-free zone), all politics are basic. Populist politics, appealing to emotions not policies, is even more so and gains from distracting gestures (in Mr Trump’s case on Twitter).
Mr Biden needs to outpoint Mr Trump like a fencer, but he also must go hard. Showing Mr Trump as weak will work far better than portraying him as foolish, selfish, even incompetent.
Besting him in the debates is key, not deriding him. Make him stumble for words, unsettle his body language repertoire – that is how stop the bear in its tracks. It is a wrestle, not a rational debate in a salon, which some ‘experts’ fail to recognise.
There are signs Mr Biden is stirring. He has recently gone on the attack, assailing Mr Trump as a ‘climate arsonist’.
If Mr Biden doesn’t win the debate wrestle, the demagogue might power on. The maverick populist already has a ‘licence’ to tell any story he likes – that is to lie frequently while branding his critics as the disseminators of ‘fake news’. His maverick performance so far demonstrates the power of a demagogic populist movement centred around a leader, rather than a party or a policy.
As an anxious US population craves answers in an uncertain and crazy world, the candidate who offers strength and hard empathy with ‘white struggler’ voters, but not actual leadership, might win.
Simplified as ‘Make America Great Again’, the ‘Trump sell’ may work.
Adjunct Professor Stephen Alomes is a populism researcher at RMIT University.