We haven't seen how low it can go

We haven't seen how low it can go
© Getty Images

Bring in the children, cats and dogs: This presidential campaign is about to get really ugly.

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDeWine tests negative for coronavirus a second time Several GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Beirut aftermath poses test for US aid to frustrating ally MORE, in desperate political shape, plans to better “define” Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says Trump executive order is 'a reckless war on Social Security' Trump got into testy exchange with top GOP donor Adelson: report Blumenthal calls for declassification of materials detailing Russian threat to US elections MORE. That's a euphemism for smear. Democratic strategist Paul Begala, in an assertion a number of Republicans privately agree with, told me that Trump unencumbered "by ethics or principles has more tools."

There will be the customary attacks that any candidate would wage: Biden and Democrats are left wing socialists who will raise your taxes in the middle of a crisis and destroy any economic recovery. In our system, that's fair.


Political watchers familiar with Trump and his record leave no doubt he primarily will get down and dirty on two fronts: personal attacks on the former vice president and his family and more subterranean efforts to suppress his vote.

This may prove harder than other negative campaigns. In 2004 the unfair “swift boat” attacks on John KerryJohn Forbes KerryThe Memo: Biden faces balancing act Budowsky: Trump October surprise could devastate GOP Hillicon Valley: Democrats request counterintelligence briefing | New pressure for election funding | Republicans urge retaliation against Chinese hackers MORE's Vietnam war record were more credible — while untrue — because of the senator's earlier flip-flops on his Iraq war votes. In 2012 Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyFrom a Republican donor to Senate GOP: Remove marriage penalty or risk alienating voters Tennessee primary battle turns nasty for Republicans NRCC poll finds McBath ahead of Handel in Georgia MORE facilitated Democratic attacks on him as a heartless royalist when he insisted “corporations are people.” Four years ago, voters already were suspicious of Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBlumenthal calls for declassification of materials detailing Russian threat to US elections Hillary Clinton roasts NYT's Maureen Dowd over column Hillary Clinton touts student suspended over crowded hallway photo: 'John Lewis would be proud' MORE's truthfulness before Trump started the “crooked Hillary” charge.

It's harder to convince swing voters that Joe Biden is corrupt — or illicitly helped enrich his family — or is a zealous left wing crazy — or an enemy of African American aspirations. Nevertheless, Team Trump is sure to try.

“One thing that Trump does,” says Tim MiIler, former communications chief for Jeb Bush turned anti-Trumper, “is take the shit that has bubbled out of the nether regions of the internet and elevate it.” Although this is crazy stuff — Democrats are running a child trafficking scam at a Washington Pizza place, or Biden is helping Bill Gates corner the COVID-19 vaccine market for personal profit — it gains traction on social media.

Miller expects the “dementia stuff will kick in high gear.” That's the baseless charge the 77-year-old former vice president is cognitively slipping. Miller also expects “Tara Reade to be resuscitated.” That's the discredited allegation by a former staffer that more than a quarter century ago Biden sexually assaulted her in the public hallways of a Senate office building.


The president openly is playing the race card, attacking racial justice protesters and even a black race car driver. Other Presidents have wrapped themselves in the American flag; Trump is wrapping himself in the Confederate flag, championing Confederate “heritage.” (I dislike gotcha questions, but a reporter should ask Trump a couple of easy ones: “Where and how did Stonewall Jackson die?” and/or “Where was the battle of Shiloh fought?”)

The Trump team will triple down on Biden's son, Hunter, and his deals in Ukraine and in China. They've tried before — it was at the core of why the president was impeached — without success.

Don't be surprised, some Trump watchers say, if they also malign the vice president's son Beau, the former Delaware Attorney General and Iraq war veteran, who died of brain cancer five years ago. The aim would be to make Biden go ballistic. The dubious ethical track record of Trump’s own offspring won't deter any such attacks.

A major effort, already underway, by Trump and allies — domestic and probably foreign — is to drive down turnout among African Americans and young voters. “Trump can't win the popular vote,” John Podesta, the 2016 Clinton campaign chair, told me. “To have any chance to win enough electoral votes there has to be a targeted suppression of black and young voters.”

There are numerous ways, Podesta says, but the most effective is using social media — “unpoliced by Facebook and Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergHillicon Valley: Trump order targets TikTok, WeChat | TikTok fires back | Chinese firms hit hard in aftermath Female lawmakers pressure Facebook to crack down on disinformation targeting women leaders Hillicon Valley: Facebook removes Trump post | TikTok gets competitor | Lawmakers raise grid safety concerns MORE.” To African Americans they will recycle the left-wing complaints about Biden's earlier support for tough crime bills and opposition to school busing; for young voters, it'll be the election doesn't matter.

Voter suppression helped a little last time, with lower turnout in some heavily black areas and more votes than expected for Green Party candidate Jill Stein. The Mueller report found the Russians, through social media, “encouraged minority groups not to vote in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election" or vote for a third party candidate.

Democrats are less worried that Trump may invoke a national security crisis than what he and Attorney General William BarrBill BarrGOP lawmaker calls for Justice Dept. to probe international court Barr pulls over to thank pro-police rally in Virginia Trump: Yates either lying or grossly incompetent MORE might have up their sleeves. Begala warns: “We could see politically motivated indictments this fall a la Putin's Russia.”

The Democrats are much better prepared on monitoring social media and for legal challenges. And as Tim Miller notes, there already has been a lot of mud thrown at Biden “and not a lot of it has stuck.”

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.