The 2020 stage is set: character, chaos and the Marx Brothers

The 2020 stage is set: character, chaos and the Marx Brothers
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In politics, as in comedy, timing is everything.

If you are the party out of power — that is, the party not in control of the White House — your job is to figure out what voters want that they are not getting from the incumbent president. Then you have to come up with the candidate who can sell it. It’s essentially marketing.

The story is told of an Oxford undergraduate who wrote a letter to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli asking the great man how he should prepare for a career in public life. In his handwritten reply, the prime minister wrote, “Young man, there are two things you must know if you want to be successful in public life. You must know yourself. And you must know the times.”


Knowing the times is often the greater challenge. Times change. The market shifts. What voters want now may be completely different from what they wanted at another time. 

What got Donald Trump elected (without a majority or even a plurality of the popular vote) was resentment. His base was, and still is, white voters without a college degree who resent a government run by educated liberal elites. The fatal flaw of liberals is condescension. White working-class populists — Trump’s base — can sniff out condescension. As they did in 2008, when Barack ObamaBarack Hussein Obama Kid reporter who interviewed Obama dies at 23 Obama shares video of him visiting Maryland vaccination site GOP votes to replace Cheney with Stefanik after backing from Trump MORE spoke disdainfully of small-town voters who “cling to guns or religion.” Or in 2016, when Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCongress won't end the wars, so states must Democrats say it's up to GOP to stop Trump 2024 Hillary Clinton to speak at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders summit MORE said many Trump supporters belong in “a basket of deplorables.” Donald Trump is the revenge of the deplorables.

What are voters looking for this year? Democrats have come up with their answer: character. Barack Obama had this to say about Joe BidenJoe BidenWarren calls for US to support ceasefire between Israel and Hamas UN secretary general 'deeply disturbed' by Israeli strike on high rise that housed media outlets Nation's largest nurses union condemns new CDC guidance on masks MORE at the Democratic convention: “He made me a better president. He’s got the character and the experience to make us a better country.” And Trump? “Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t. And the consequences of that failure are severe — 170 thousand Americans dead.”

Biden is not an exciting or inspirational figure like Barack Obama or Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonObama calls on governments to 'do their part' in increasing global vaccine supply China's emissions now eclipse the developed world — preventing climate protection Trump endorses Glenn Youngkin in Virginia governors race MORE. He tried to compensate by naming Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHere's why Joe Biden polls well, but Kamala Harris does not Immigration experts say GOP senators questioned DHS secretary with misleading chart Carper urges Biden to nominate ambassadors amid influx at border MORE as his running mate. Harris adds excitement to the ticket, at least for Democrats. In her acceptance speech, Harris, a former prosecutor, offered a biting takedown of Trump: “I know a predator when I see one.”

Joe Biden drew an explicit contrast with Trump in his acceptance speech. “Character is on the ballot,” the Democratic nominee said. “Decency. Science. Democracy. They’re all on the ballot.” Biden attacked Trump as someone “who takes no responsibility, refuses to lead, blames others, cozies up to dictators and fans the flames of hate and division.” Nearly half the voters (46 percent) in a June Pew poll called Biden “a good role model.” Fewer than a third (31 percent) called Trump — the president of the United States! — a good role model.


Republicans defined the election as a choice between a “secret Trump” and a “secret Biden.” Speakers described the “secret Trump” as empathetic and caring, at least behind closed doors. Ronna McDanielRonna Romney McDanielDetroit police chief planning GOP gubernatorial run against Whitmer New York Post deletes story alleging Kamala Harris book given to migrant children Virginia GOP reverses course, will let those with religious obligations cast absentee votes for Saturday convention MORE, chair of the Republican National Committee, said, “There’s only one person who has empathized with everyday Americans . . .  and that is President TrumpDonald TrumpSunday shows preview: House GOP removes Cheney from leadership position; CDC issues new guidance for fully vaccinated Americans Navajo Nation president on Arizona's new voting restrictions: An 'assault' on our rights The Memo: Lawmakers on edge after Greene's spat with Ocasio-Cortez MORE.”

Former senior White House counselor Kellyanne Conway described President Trump “comforting and encouraging a child who has lost a parent, a parent who has lost a child, a worker who has lost his job, an adolescent who has lost her way to drugs . . .  assuring them that they are not alone, that we see them, we hear them and that we are here to help them.”

President Trump may have stepped on that message in his bitter and vengeful acceptance speech: “This election will decide whether we will defend the American way of life or whether we will allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it.” Ronald Reagan endeared himself to voters, even to those who disagreed with him, with his generosity of spirit. That quality is not evident in Donald Trump. In response to the violence in Portland, Trump appeared to escalate the conflict by tweeting, “The big backlash going on in Portland cannot be unexpected. . . Bring in the National Guard!”

The “secret Biden” portrayed by President Trump is a dupe manipulated by sinister left-wing forces. Trump called Biden a “Trojan horse for socialism” who “doesn’t have the strength to stand up to wild-eyed Marxists like Bernie SandersBernie SandersWarren calls for US to support ceasefire between Israel and Hamas Prominent Muslim group to boycott White House Eid celebration over stance on Israel-Gaza violence Biden speaks with Israel's Netanyahu again amid ramped-up strikes in Gaza MORE and his fellow radicals,” adding that “When it comes to his agenda, Biden wants to keep us completely in the dark.”

OK, how’s this for keeping voters in the dark? Republicans refused to adopt a new party platform. The party pledged instead to “continue to enthusiastically support the president’s America First agenda.” The message is, re-elect Donald Trump, and nothing will change.

“Joe Biden is weak,” Trump contended. “He takes his marching orders from liberal hypocrites who drive their cities into the ground while fleeing far from the wreckage.” The president warned that “this election will decide whether we will defend the American way of life or whether we allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it.”

Biden defended himself by relying on his familiarity after 47 years in public life. “You know me. You know my heart. You know my story, my family’s story,” he said in Pittsburgh. “Ask yourself: do I really look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?” To make sure, Biden said, “I want to be very clear about all of this. Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. It’s lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted.”

Voters can see who Biden is and they can see who Trump is. By posing a choice between a “secret Trump” — caring and compassionate — and a “secret Biden” — dangerous and radical, Trump was asking a “Marxist” question, that is, one first asked in a Marx Brothers movie: “Who are you gonna believe — me or your own eyes?”

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).