Trump’s success in the 2016 election came in part as a result of his ability to demonize Hillary Clinton as a corrupt member of the establishment political machine. Trump’s favourite nickname ‘Crooked Hillary’ resonated because it encapsulated so many Americans’ fears that Clinton was a self-serving politician seeking office for personal gain, out of touch with the issues facing them. Sleepy Joe just doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
Trump’s inability to pinpoint Biden’s weakness into a simple nickname exposes a more fundamental problem with his 2020 election campaign. He lacks a clear line of attack against Biden.
Trump’s attacks have thus far floundered in their inherent contradictions. Trump wants to present Biden as a feeble old man, incapable of handling the pressures of the Oval office; yet also as a powerful agent of the radical left. Biden lacks “the strength, the stamina, and the mental fortitude to lead America”, but is simultaneously a dangerous operative who would defund the police, threaten America’s cultural heritage and cripple the economy by imposing socialist policies.
Trump’s campaign used the recent Republican National Convention to depict a dystopian picture of a lawless America under Biden. Mike Pence gravely told the American people, “the hard truth is you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” Republicans have conflated the Democrats’ support for the peaceful protestors who demand racial justice with a support for (or at least an indifference) towards the looting and rioting plaguing American cities. They claim a restoration of order in such cities is only possible through a Trump presidency, seeking to attract moderate voters, who would not otherwise vote for Trump, yet do not want to see America go up in flames.
The problem with Trump’s strategy in targeting Biden as a radical with no respect for law and order is twofold.
Biden himself is a veteran in American politics who has been in the public view for over 40 years. Biden, unlike colleagues like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, has consistently remained on the moderate side of the Democratic party with a clear record on issues of crime and policing. Indeed, he was widely criticised in the Democratic Primaries for being too conservative on law and order, most notably by his own vice-presidential pick Kamala Harris for her role in the 1994 crime bill.
The 1994 crime bill sought to address criticism at the time that Democrats were soft on crime. It increased penalties for 70 crimes, and funded 100,000 new police officers and 125,000 new prison cells; but has subsequently been castigated for contributing to the mass incarceration of African-Americans. Trump even tried to use the bill to drive a wedge between Biden and African-American voters. In addition, Biden was influential throughout the 1980s in legislating harsher penalties for drug crimes.
The merits of these bills have been widely debated and often criticized, but what cannot be debated is Biden’s commitment to maintaining law and order. Unlike Trump who refused to criticise the violent actions of his supporters, Biden this week issued a powerful condemnation of the violence spreading in Kenosha and other American cities:
“Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting, it’s lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted. Violence will not bring change. It will only bring destruction”
Hence whilst Trump might have found success in exploiting a less experienced candidate from the progressive side of the Democratic party, his attacks on Biden will likely fall on deaf ears.
Moreover, the disorder and violence that is engulfing America has occurred, and is occurring under Trump’s presidency. The irony for Trump is that the evidence he points to for why Americans won’t be safe in Biden’s America, is the violence that is spreading in his own America. It is Trump, not Biden, who has refused to condemn the violence of his own supporters; and it is Trump’s mismanagement of race-relations and blatant incitement of violence that has fostered the unrest spreading throughout America.
Trump shockingly would not even condemn the actions of a violent right-wing vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse. Rittenhouse was arrested for first-degree intentional murder for shooting two protestors after travelling to Wisconsin from Illinois to fight against the protestors. Trump is also set to visit Kenosha, the source of recent riots following the shooting of Jacob Blake, despite a plea from the Governor of Wisconsin Tony Evers that Trump reconsider with his concerns that his presence will only create further division.
Kellyanne Conway, a close advisor of Trump, claimed that “the more chaos anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.”
Trump’s campaign seems to believe that fanning the flames of the unrest will benefit his election chances. However, his divisive rhetoric might appeal to his supporters in his base, but it will not broaden his support to those affected by the riots in swing states. Instead, Biden’s nuanced message of the need to transform race relations in American society and eradicate systematic racism, whilst simultaneously condemning the violence that is harming urban communities is far more powerful.
The Trump campaign has also sought to capitalise on Biden’s supposed mental frailty. However, in mocking ‘Sleepy Joe’, they have also unwittingly alienated a large percentage of the American electorate. 23% of the 2020 electorate will be over 65 and over. Those 65 and over are also the demographic with the consistently highest turnout. Relentless campaigning fixating on Biden’s age has unsurprisingly polled badly among such groups, viewed as harsh and in poor taste.
Moreover, by conditioning voters and the media to think of Biden as this gaffe-prone mumbling mess, even an average performance or speech makes Biden look impressive. Biden received widespread praise, even among some Republicans, for a speech which in large parts was copied straight from his convention speech in 2008. Months of Republican attack ads have actually benefited Biden in setting the bar so low that he only has to speak in complete and vaguely coherent sentences to achieve a positive response.
Trump, catchy nickname or not, needs to find a compelling message to show voters why he is a better choice than Joe Biden, and needs to find it quickly to have a chance in November.
If not and Biden keeps his commanding lead in the polls, by November, he won’t need a nickname for Trump. He, like many of us, will just be happy to call Trump: the ‘former president’ of the United States.