If the last American election was about anger – anger at the disappearing American dream and the lies of a generation of politicians – this one is surely about fear. Fear of a pandemic that has claimed 100,000 lives; fear that America’s powder-keg cities have been set alight; and fear that life is never going to be the same again.
Candidate Trump surfed the anger wave all the way to the White House. Professor Roderick Hart’s excellent book, Trump and Us: What He Says and Why People Listen, lays out exactly how it did it. I’ll leave you to decide whether Trump is a politician without equal or he just got lucky. Either way, Hart spells out how his use of language exactly mirrored a growing tide of fury across the country (plotted by the rising temperature of letters sent to newspapers.)
But, Hart told me, this fear and weariness and Trump struggles with fear. Expressing fear, using fear words, talking about fear are not things we expect from this president. His belligerent style has no room for weakness or anything that could be interpreted as weakness.
We saw that throughout the coronavirus crisis. America was ready for anything, Trump told me back in March as we toured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on our way to Mar-a-Lago and the Bolsonaro Covid weekend. Trump would not be wearing a mask, he announced a few weeks later, as he unveiled CDC guidance recommending the wearing of masks.
“I just don’t want to be doing — somehow sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful resolute desk, the great resolute desk, i think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know, somehow I don’t see it for myself,” is how he put it.
But of course there are no presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens visiting the Oval Office. Well there have been one or two – and I’ll leave it to you to decide which was which – but there have been far from the normal number of visitors.
And that’s what this boils down to: The search for normal.
Both sides in this election offer versions of normal, with different appeals, to different types of voter. For Trump it has been the push since before Easter to reopen the country, to declare victory over the coronavirus, race towards a vaccine, and talk up every advance in therapeutics. He sees a logistics and manufacturing challenge to be overcome. He’s a builder trying to build normal or a commander in chief trying to police his way back to normal on the streets. Anyone who sees things differently is a Never Trumper, intent on sabotaging his beautiful economy.
On the other side, Joe Biden spent much of his summer at home – like the rest of us. He wears a mask in public now he is out and about, and his campaign events are scaled back, socially distanced. This is the “new normal” that we hear so much about. Get used to it.
It is less attractive than Trump’s normal, a more limited, restricted version of the future. But it has appeal nonetheless. It comes without the constant swirl of controversy, upset, anger that accompanies the current president, a man who sees chaos not so much as the absence of order but as an organizing principle and personal/political philosophy.
Some of my friends and colleagues think Biden offers none of the reassurance that voters seek. They point to his age and frailty, his unerring ability to misspeak. But I think they underestimate the public’s ability to differentiate between muddling billions and millions, and suggesting that bleach could be injected into Covid-19 patients.
Anger has given way to weariness. And with wildfires ripping across California, the economy on a knife-edge and the novel coronavirus ramping up for the winter months, there is a lot to be said for a creature of Washington who has been around the block and had his tyres kicked a few times.
I write this the day after President Trump was flown to hospital for treatment. No-one has any real idea about the severity of his COVID-19 symptoms. Nor any idea how quickly he can recover. Would a more cautious president have escaped infection? Maybe. Maybe not.
Will it impact the election? Certainly. The president’s campaign is as good as suspended, its most powerful asset is in bed. The conversation is firmly focused on Trump’s handling of COVID-19, negating all his efforts to switch it to the economy or law and order or China or anything else.
The few weeks has been an extraordinary time to be a journalist in Washington. Is it only a six days since the New York Times dropped its bombshell story on the president’s tax returns? Seven days since I stood in the Rose Garden (which we now learn was swirling with coronavirus) for the unveiling of Amy Coney Barrett as Trump’s Supreme Court nominee? And 15 days since we sat watching Trump speaking in Bemidji, Minnesota, as word filtered through that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. Was there a debate? Something about Proud Boys?
For journalists, abnormal times are interesting times. While others are learning how to play the guitar or nursing sourdough starters, my pandemic year has been frantic. The past month has been a blur; late nights and early mornings all fused together. The next month will be gone before I know it.
That means savouring moments along the way. And finding new ways to unwind and reflect, given that the journalists’ standard escape – the boozy bar nights with colleagues dissecting the day just gone and swapping war stories – is not available.
So three cheers for one element of the new normal and DC’s decision to allow restaurants to deliver drinks with meals. Last night, a six-pack of Ghost White IPA came with a burger and tater tots from Duffy’s Irish Pub. And the beer (after a day that began at 6am when I groggily realised that NPR was saying Trump had contracted Covid0-19) was more essential than the food.
The burger was slathered in mushrooms and cheese, and came heavily charred. Maybe a touch too charred. But it made for a serious umami hit, all washed down with an IPA that even at 5.9 percent (come on America, what is wrong with you?) managed to keep its hoppy sourness under control.
I write about politics. But I’m a reporter and I try to stay out of the actual politics, pontificating side of things. Its up to you which normal you want. But I can live with this kind of new nom nom normal.