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United States: A Campaign That Is "Emotional" Above All Else

United States: A Campaign That Is
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

The candidate of "compassion" on one side, the man of "humiliation" on the other. In their attempts to win the November 3 vote, Joe Biden and Donald Trump both, in their own ways, adopt an emotional register in a campaign that is unlike any other, writes Dominique Moisi.

On the steps of the White House, Donald Trump triumphantly displays the peace treaty that Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have just signed. How could a man who deserves - at least in his eyes - the Nobel Peace Prize not be re-elected? There is, of course, the precedent of the 1992 elections, when George H. Bush emerged victorious from the Gulf War in Iraq but was defeated by Bill Clinton, a young Democrat. "It’s the economy, stupid," we heard at the time. Americans were more concerned about their wallets than the glory of their country. In 2020, should we not say, "it’s the epidemic, stupid"? A historic agreement in the Middle East is less likely to determine what voters will do than America’s public health situation is. And the US administration’s unconvincing management of the crisis is revealing several of Donald Trump’s weaknesses.

Communicative emotion

In 2008, Barack Obama won as the candidate of hope; in 2016, Donald Trump won as the candidate of fear. In 2020, both these emotions are still present: Biden presents himself as the candidate of Light who’s up against Darkness. But Joe Biden’s strength lies first and foremost in the coherence between message, messenger and context. When he speaks, compassionately and emphatically, about the suffering of Americans facing Covid-19, economic misery and racial violence - America’s original sin - he is credible. He has experienced and overcome many tragedies in his family life. And when, after attacks by the military’s commander-in-chief against the "losers" who died in battle or were taken prisoner, he defends the honor of his son who died of brain cancer and who served in the US Army, Joe Biden shows communicative emotion. He gives a glimpse of the traits we are likely to see from him in the upcoming presidential elections.

Come November 3, can Donald Trump be the ultimate victim of the rarity of his displays of compassion?

"Rodrigue, do you have a heart?" Pierre Corneille’s Don Diegue asks in the tragicomedy Le Cid. In the case of Donald Trump, it is not clear that the answer would be a resounding yes. It took three weeks of gigantic fires and dozens of deaths for Donald Trump to take an interest in the fate of the thousands of Californians who fell victim to the flames. And he did so while denying global warming as the primary cause of the disaster: "It’ll start getting cooler, you just watch".

Come November 3, can Donald Trump be the ultimate victim of the rarity of his displays of compassion? The 2020 elections are quite exceptional in American history - and not only because the United States is facing a crisis on three fronts: public health, the economy, and race. What really makes this election unique is the personality of the incumbent president running for re-election. Many observers wonder whether he will accept the ballot results, should they - as the majority of polls currently project - be unfavorable to him. According to biographer Garry Wills, George Washington, the first president of the United States, won the respect of his contemporaries because, like Cincinnatus, he was ready to give up his power at any moment. It is not clear that Donald Trump has a George Washington in him, or, for that matter, an Abraham Lincoln, when it comes to racial issues, or a Franklin D. Roosevelt on economic and social matters.

"The party of humiliation"

Will the November 3 elections be a simple anti-Trump referendum, with the movement to "get him out" turning out to be stronger than the supporters of his re-election? The upcoming ballot will, above all, be the most "emotional" in the history of the United States. Its emotional nature is reinforced by the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG). This year’s elections can be described as a face-off between the "party of compassion", embodied by the Democrats, and the "party of humiliation", in which Republicans play to the sense of humiliation felt by its electorate.

This year’s elections can be described as a face-off between the "party of compassion", embodied by the Democrats, and the "party of humiliation", in which Republicans play to the sense of humiliation felt by its electorate.

Therein lies the paradox of Donald Trump’s campaign. After four years in the White House, he still presents himself as the outsider. He mobilized his troops - who have remained loyal to him for the most part - by playing to their reflex of fear, but even more so to their feeling of humiliation at the hands of the elites. "I speak your language, I do not despise you." The loyalty of his supporters leads some analysts to say Trumpism could continue without Trump in the case of the Republican candidate’s defeat. But populism needs personification by an individual at the top. What would Orbán’s Hungary be without Orbán? The personality of those who "commence as demagogues and end as tyrants", to use Alexander Hamilton’s beautiful phrase in the Federalist Papers, makes all the difference. But there are no two Donald Trumps. His particular mixture of personality traits makes him a unique counter-model in the history of the United States.

Donald Trump had foreseen everything except the pandemic and the fact that it would strengthen his Democratic opponent, who may have been his party’s default choice. But his age and personal history may make Joe Biden the man for the job. He is no longer "Sleepy Joe" but "Uncle Joe", the man who is ready to listen to you because he understands hardship.

Of course, we cannot exclude unexpected outcomes, whether due to external forces or not. Nothing is played out yet. But the United States is not a banana republic. Its judges and army serve as the guarantors of democracy.




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