Sunday, August 23, 2020

Gloom and Boom


Photo via Dawn (Pakistan).

Steve M picks up on the Republican campaign strategy as outlined at the Washington Post

Republicans will open their national convention Monday with an urgent mission: To convince voters pessimistic about the state of a country battered by the novel coronavirus, economic recession and racial upheaval that President Trump deserves four more years at the helm.

Convention organizers say the president and his surrogate speakers will showcase optimism and inspire hope in a time of worldwide despair, with programming planned around themes of “promise,” “opportunity” and “greatness” for the United States in a second Trump term.

“The big contrast you’ll see between the Democrats’ doom-and-gloom, Donald Trump-obsessed convention will be a convention focused on real people, their stories, how the policies of the Trump administration have lifted their lives, and then an aspirational vision toward the next four years,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in an interview Saturday.

and wonders how a candidate like "American carnage" Trump is going to manage an approach like that, concluding that he probably won't.

I think they've settled on this line because new campaign head Bill Stepien is trying to run the campaign in a traditional way, and you're supposed to settle on some coordinated line of attack after the other guys' convention. So this is it.

Part of the problem is that Trump can't sustain a positive, optimistic tone and doesn't want to.

But I think Trump's situation is worse than that. 

The "traditional campaign" is in part imposed on both sides structurally, for obvious reasons: Biden needs to make the case that things aren't going well, and the four-year incumbent needs to say yes they are, so just as it's inevitable that the Biden campaign will have "pessimistic" things to say and the Trump campaign will counter with "optimism", so is it inevitable that the Trumpies will pull out the cliché and complain of the Democrats' "gloom and doom" message, and inevitable that when Democrats are incumbents Republicans will sound the craziest alarms:

We'll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we'll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness. (Sunny optimist Ronald Reagan on behalf of Barry Goldwater, 1964)

In 1980 Reagan suggested that the US had ceased to be great when he asked them to "make America great again"—it wasn't until 1984 that "Morning in America" had dawned, and then the Democrats were portrayed as declinists:

Mr. Reagan accused political opponents of consistently underestimating the effect of his economic policies. He faulted the press and his critics for concentrating on the ''gloom and doom'' in a study of his economic reforms released last week by the Urban Institute, which he called ''a liberal think tank.'' (Reagan, 1984)

''If you want to know my reaction, put me down as unethusiastic,'' Mr. Bush said, referring to the Mondale plan disclosed today. The Vice President's comments came as he arrived at the airport near here in the midst of a day of campaigning in the state. ''It looks to me like a program for failure and for turning the country back to the economic gloom and doom it was in when we came into office.'' (Reagan, 1984)

But while we eagerly look to the future, the naysayers, the liberal fearmongers, and the Washington gloom-and-doom-ocrats -- [laughter] -- talk about how they plan to manage America's decline. But tell me, do you believe that this, the greatest nation on Earth, is in decline? (Reagan, 1988)

"The economy is firing on all cylinders," said Steve Schmidt [remember that guy?], a Bush campaign spokesman. He pointed to rising consumer confidence, the return of manufacturing jobs and record-high home ownership as evidence of a booming economy. Kerry is offering "a message filled with doom and gloom and pessimism that is completely disconnected from reality," he said. (Bush 2004)

Journalists who were shocked by all the Republican candidates (not just Trump) in 2015

Doom and gloom of current GOP crop contrasts with Reagan’s glowing optimism

weren't paying attention to the structural facts. Because Republicans do some doomsaying of their own pretty frequently, though they don't get called on it as often, particularly by Democrats (as opposed to journalists), which is mainly because Democrats are the party of nice and understanding (let the record show Obama couldn't bring himself to name Trump as a serious threat to the nation until after even David Brooks had stopped bothsidesing it). Those are the rules, and if you're a liberal, you'll just have to get used to it. 

Anyway, everything's different this year because the damage is so appalling already, with the raging pandemic, the economic collapse, the leap in national awareness of racist police brutality, the extraordinary loss of international status, and the threat to the Constitutional order. Until this summer we could keep saying W. Bush had killed a lot more people than Trump, but that's no longer true, and Trump's relentless efforts to suborn the entire judiciary make Nixon look honorable by comparison. Democrats can't help talking about it, and of course Republicans are denouncing that, as you'd expect.

But because things are so pervasively terrible, they haven't got much ground for a traditional morning-in-America defense. Trump is reduced to stammering that he made America great again once already, so he can definitely do it one more time, without explaining why he ended up having to do it twice, and blaming Obama.

Everybody's gloom-and-doom campaign has an optimistic side to it, in that the challenger candidate claims, if you vote me in, this situation will get better. Trump's 2016 American carnage approach is maybe the most over-the-top example: Trump painted one of the ugliest pictures of American decline you've ever heard, but he was also the first candidate to claim outright that he had Green Lantern powers ("I alone can fix it!") so it didn't really matter how bad things were. 

But now he's stuck with an incredibly bad record and nothing at all to campaign on but pure faith, so he has no choice but to go crazy on his opponent (Biden is intent on "hurting God").

The Biden campaign is no exception; however unsparing they may be in describing the country's state at the moment, they're saying it can be rescued—not of course by Biden alone, we know he doesn't have Green Lantern powers, but by the whole nation working under responsible and competent leadership. I'm in love with the Build Back Better slogan, as I've suggested before, alongside the appeal to what the Founders hoped for as opposed to what they thought they had achieved:

To finally live up to and make real the words written in the sacred documents that founded this nation that all men and women are created equal. Endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

(evoking the 1619 project, a joyously hopeful response to a terrible crisis—which was also greeted with rage by Republicans who attacked its "pessimism"). The idea that we can use these multiple crises to go back to the drawing board and move back toward realizing this vision as it was advertised. It would be laughably optimistic if we didn't need it so badly.

As for the Trump campaign, it too has no choice but to condemn Biden for the "gloom and doom" of his campaign, but the cliché has never been so laughable.

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