Trump's Personality Is Not the Point—What's Really on the Ballot

A Curmudgeon Column

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Trump's Personality Is Not the Point—What's Really on the Ballot

This election has been framed by most folks—from media commentators to Democratic strategists to suburban voters—as a referendum of Donald Trump. It would be pretty hard to not see it that way, given that Trump has spent the past four years tweeting, trolling and fibbing, anything to call attention to himself.

But he has also made himself the face of every rightward move the nation has made over the past four years: slashing taxes for the rich, caging immigrants at the border, repealing environmental regulations, suppressing urban votes, attacking public health, disregarding science, favoring foreign dictators over parliaments, backtracking on women’s and LGBTQ rights and winking at white supremacists.

One can’t really blame Joe Biden for campaigning against Trump’s character and calling for a return to decency. The president’s behavior is an irresistible target and it’s looking like a winning strategy. And in the short run, getting Agent Orange out of the White House has to be the priority.

In the long run, however, such a strategy harms American politics by focusing too much on personality and too little on policy. As long as U.S. voters are distracted by the celebrities at the top of the tickets, they won’t focus on the laws, regulations and rulings that actually affect their lives.

Because the crucial difference in this election is not the one between the individual make-ups of Biden and Trump but the one between the Democratic and Republican Party platforms. Just look at the nine rightward trends listed in the first paragraph. Trump didn’t invent a single one of them; he was merely presiding over ongoing, decades-long campaigns by his party. And the Democrats have long taken the opposing position in all nine areas.

By focusing on Trump’s personality—“the drunk guy at the end of the bar,” as Bill Maher put it—we obscure what’s truly at stake. We suggest to some voters that if only someone more restrained and better behaved—someone like Mike Pence or Nikki Haley—were at the top of the ticket, it would be perfectly OK to vote Republican. But you would be voting for the same nine trends listed above.

By focusing on Biden’s personality—“Mr. Rogers,” as Trump campaign adviser Mercedes Schlapp put it—we muddy the waters even more. We suggest that if someone less avuncular and more abrasive—someone like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren—were at the top of the ticket, it would be perfectly okay to vote against the Democrats. But that would mean voting for the nine reactionary policies.

So let’s put aside the individual characters of the presidential candidates for a moment and look at what the two parties are offering at every level of government: president, senators, representatives, governors, state legislators, mayors, even Supreme Court justices. Not since World War II have the Democrats and Republicans been so starkly different in their political philosophies. Third-party supporters who claim that the two major parties are the same are ignoring the evidence every bit as much as climate-change deniers do.

The Republican platform has always been regressive, but it’s more so this year than it was under Reagan and the Bushes. The Democratic platform has always been progressive, but it’s more so this year than it was under Obama and the Clintons. Yes, that’s right, Biden is running to the left of Obama and is far closer to Sanders and Warren than anyone wants to admit.

Consider, for example, the social safety net. The Republicans have long tried to curtail or privatize Social Security and Medicare, and they’re tried to abolish the Affordable Care Act—and its protections for pre-existing conditions, twentysomethings, reproductive rights and the poor—in federal and state legislatures and in the courts. By contrast, the Democrats want to expand the net by lowering the age of Social Security eligibility, securing its finances and strengthening the ACA. Maybe Biden isn’t willing to go as far as Medicare for All, but he is promising a government-run Public Option, which is a kind of Medicare for All Who Want It.

Or consider the environment. It’s too late to ward off the impact of climate change; it’s already here. This year’s hotter wildfires, bigger hurricanes and drier droughts make that clear. At a time when the response should be as urgent as the situation, the Republicans and their fossil-fuel funders are weakening the regulations we already have. The Democrats, by contrast, are all on board with reducing carbon emissions. Some want to go faster than others, but they’re all moving in that direction, and even the slowest want to go faster than Obama and Clinton did.

Or consider policing. Too many innocent citizens are being gunned down by government employees. The Republicans, however, have returned to their Nixonian playbook of “law and order,” and are urging harsher measures by the police. In Portland, federal troops were even snatching people off the street and throwing them in unmarked vans. The Democrats, by contrast, are arguing for reforming the police so bad methods are outlawed, bad cops are held accountable, non-crime situations are handled by medical and social workers, and good cops can focus on crime.

I don’t want to turn this column into a laundry list, but you get the idea. Even if this election pitted Mitt Romney against Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, the issues would be the same and the choice just as stark. The votes for or against Amy Coney Barrett, David Perdue, Thom Tillis, even Susan Collins tilt on this same dichotomy in political philosophy. Barrett may be much more polite and dignified than Trump, but she is just as dangerous.

Because the lies, the insults, the dog whistles and the mangling of the English language are not worst aspects of the Trump Presidency, It’s the tax giveaways, the environmental rollbacks, the reactionary judges, the voter suppression and the attacks on health care that matter the most. Those policies are standard Republican positions at every level of the ballot—and will still be in the future when Trump is a talking head on Fox.

For the same reasons, Biden’s personality doesn’t matter that much either. He’s a 77-year-old man with a lifelong stuttering problem, and to criticize him for either is to engage in a Republican-like prejudice against the elderly and disabled. Maybe he wasn’t your first or second choice in the Democratic primary—he wasn’t mine—but he was the party’s consensus choice to represent the most progressive platform in our lifetimes.

What it comes down to is this: older Black women have proven themselves the most loyal voters the Democratic Party has. When those women decided, with a nudge from James Clyburn, that Biden was their pick, none of the other splintered factions in the party could match their strength. I would remind those Bernie loyalists who bemoan Biden’s candidacy of one thing: Black votes matter.

And your vote matters too. I urge you to vote on Tuesday—and I urge you to vote for policies, not personalities.

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