Trump knows that patriotism is his strongest card, and he’s playing it.
There is a unique moment on the night of an election where an individual is momentarily caught between two positions. It occurs at a time when the result is clear but not yet formalised. They remain just like us. An individual in society, nervously calculating what the numbers on the television mean. And yet they are about to be propelled into a world like no other. A world where before their name, stands the title of President. Their previous identity lost and replaced by one to be defined by their time in office. A world which very few can speak of or understand.
There are only four previous presidents alive today.
Leaders describe this moment as one caught between elation and fear. Around 10.30 p.m. Donald Trump won Ohio. This marked his moment: standing between the life he once had as a business magnate and TV celebrity, and the person he was about to become. President of the United States of America.
Past leaders can be split into two categories. Those who allow events and the machinery of government to define them. And those who leave their mark on the country they rule. Yet few of the previous 44 have fought against being defined as ‘President’ quite like Donald Trump. Although employing his power to sack officials and trigger executive orders to a great extent, Trump has adopted the label of ‘president’ less smoothly. It is as if he froze at 10.30 p.m., saw what was coming, and blinked. Trump was scared of adopting an identity that was antithetical to what had won him the election.
During the campaign Trump was the consummate outsider — when outsiderism was a priority for many voters. Of those who wanted an outsider to rule, 73 per cent chose Trump. Aware of this, he has tried his best to remain that outsider, continuing to speak of a ‘swamp’ who is doing all it can to stymie his mission for ‘real Americans’.
Recent events however have made this outsiderism more difficult to own. The Trump campaign is hoping that race riots will mean he can adopt the Nixon playbook — back when Nixon successfully posed as the law and order candidate in the 1968 election. Meanwhile, Trump blames the media for misrepresenting his handling of coronavirus, insisting that the rise in cases is down to more testing. Yet there is a problem. As the incumbent, talking about the need to impose more law and order only brings to attention the lack of control you have.
Covid-19 is Trump’s crisis. Events have made it difficult for Trump to maintain his status as the outsider fighting against the establishment. At last, he has been forced to own his presidency.
Back to his roots
Yet this weekend his attempt to regain ‘outsider’ credentials was given another chance. In a speech at Mount Rushmore Trump argued that loving America and its history is something elites in Washington (the insiders) scorn. Thus he sought to make patriotism the property of the outsider and himself the symbol of American patriotism. This was helped by much of the media responding hyperbolically, claiming his speech sowed racial hatred.
This is a clever strategy, with its problems for Biden encapsulated when Trump said: ‘Our founders launched a revolution and set in motion the unstoppable march of freedom’. The claim that America was born out of ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ runs directly against arguments made by some on the left. Popular on twitter is an image of the words July 4th, 1776 replaced with August 20th, 1619, the date when the first enslaved Africans arrived at Jamestown. The Black Lives Matter group claim racism is systemic, with some arguing that this has been so from America’s first days as a nation. Biden has argued that Americans need to commit to ‘fulfil’ the founding principles and ‘give the oppressed a full share of the American dream’.
Joe Biden has fallen into Trump’s trap.
The inference to be drawn from the Democrats’ argument is that America and its history were not built on ideas one should be proud of today. In the polarized crucible of American politics, even Biden’s nuanced approach in such debates will only feed into Trump’s charge that, ‘the left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American revolution’.
Joe Biden will never get his 10.30 p.m., moment if he allows Trump to regain his outsider credentials and accuse the Democrats of being unpatriotic, by lacking pride in America’s foundation.