Effectively combating Donald Trump’s appeal will require going beyond rational appeals to economic self-interest.

Donald Trump at a rally in Rome, Georgia, on March 9, 2024. (The Washington Post / Getty Images)

Joe Biden and Donald Trump are both old men, born four years apart during the 1940s. Biden is eighty-one and Trump is seventy-seven; the average life expectancy for men in the United States is seventy-three years. If Biden wins reelection, he would be eighty-five years old at the end of his second term; if Trump retakes the Oval Office, he would be eighty-one at the end of his second term.

While the name “Biden” has become a metonym for public lapses of memory and verbal slipups, Trump does not lack for senior moments of his own. Jamelle Bouie cataloged a few of them in a recent New York Times column, but they elicit far less coverage and commentary than Biden’s. Trump, according to Bouie, benefits from the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” because few expected him to become president or behave like a “normal” politician in the first place. So when he mixes Nikki Haley up with Hillary Clinton, or Kim Jong Un with Xi Jinping, or describes the workings of a missile defense system in a bizarre string of bleeps and bloops, barely anyone bats an eye.

There’s definitely something to Bouie’s argument, but I think the dynamic goes deeper. Trump gets a pass while Biden does not because this is ultimately not about whether Biden is too old to be president. It’s about whether he is too weak to maintain American power and protect American citizens in a tumultuous world.

Before Biden’s State of the Union address, a Trump-aligned super PAC ran an ad titled “Jugular,” which used the president’s age to highlight his ostensibly fatal flaw. The ad “seeks to set the terms of the general election for voters as one of ‘strength’ versus ‘weakness,’” according to a report in the New York Times. The message, as the super PAC’s chief puts it, is that “Biden is weak, and America is suffering because of it.” Without a strong hand on the levers of power, everyone from Venezuelan migrants to Hamas to Xi Jinping will be tempted to take advantage of Washington’s softness.

The Trump campaign is casting Biden as a doddering dotard while celebrating its man as a paragon of virile masculinity. In their telling, Trump is the great father whose mere presence in the White House is enough to keep migrants away from our borders, hold China and Russia at bay, and keep a lid on violence in the Middle East. This has become one of Trump’s favorite themes on the campaign trail. He used it to great effect against Haley by repeatedly associating her with Biden’s “weak” border policy.

In an anti-Haley ad Trump’s campaign that ran in New Hampshire, the aggressively male narrator intones, “Haley’s weakness puts us in grave danger. Trump’s strength protects us” while images of migrant caravans flash on the screen. In a recent call into Fox & Friends, Trump claimed Hamas wouldn’t have dared to launch their attack on Israel last October if he were still president.

“They wouldn’t have done it to me,” Trump boasted, while insisting that the Israelis should keep bombing until they “finish the problem” in Gaza.

He also claimed that Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine “would have never happened if I was president.” There are a lot of bad guys out there, Trump’s story goes, and the only thing they respect is strength. He wants you to feel that the “sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory,” as the special counsel report on classified material described Biden, can’t protect you from a dangerous and violent world. Only Trump can.

Trump is trying to pull off a remarkable feat of political judo. He is trying to convince the electorate that a vote for him, of all people, is a vote for stability and competence. This was precisely what Biden ran on in 2020; Trump is working to return the favor this time around. It’s a brazen strategy. By all rights it should not succeed. But our political system only offers a binary choice for president, many people are deeply dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, and Biden is the one sitting in the Oval Office.

Projection of strength has been a central aspect of Trump’s appeal since he descended the gilded escalator to announce his first campaign for the presidency in 2015. From his verbal belittlement of Republican rivals to his claim at the 2016 Republican National Convention that “I alone can fix it” to his attempts to channel Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy mantra of “Peace Through Strength,” Trump has never hesitated to cast himself as the proverbial strongman. It’s an essential aspect of his appeal. But the miasma of dysfunction that surrounded his administration persistently undercut these attempts at image-making among anyone who wasn’t already MAGA-pilled. He seemed like a man who couldn’t fix a clogged toilet, much less a country.

By 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic racked the country and mass anti-police brutality protests were sweeping the streets, most Americans decided they’d seen enough. Time to hand the reins over to a seemingly steady hand like Biden, who campaigned not as an agent of change but the bearer of a return to normalcy. But these are not normal times, and nobody seems capable of bringing order out of chaos.

Trump and the GOP tried to cast Biden and the Democratic Party as the true chaos agents in American politics since the beginning of his term. But this attack line didn’t really catch on beyond the MAGA base until the Biden administration executed what, for many progressives, is one the best things it’s done so far: the August 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan. The tumultuous scenes at Kabul’s airport, where masses of desperate Afghans crowded the runways and threw themselves at departing cargo plans, were shocking to many and reinforced fears that the country simply doesn’t work anymore. It was followed just a few days later by a deadly suicide bombing that killed one hundred seventy Afghans and thirteen US service members at the same airport.

Biden’s approval rating dropped sharply in the wake of the withdrawal, falling below 50 percent for the first time. It’s never recovered since. According to a Gallup pollster, the withdrawal’s lingering but underappreciated impact on public opinion reflected how “Americans today are very concerned about the efficacy of public institutions generally,” not just the military or the foreign policy apparatus.

Trump and the GOP have done their best to seize on these anxieties in an attempt to cast Biden, not Trump, as the chaos candidate in 2024. “They have chaos now. They have chaos at the border. They have chaos in the military. People are going woke,” Trump routinely claims in his campaign appearances. “Today you have chaos. We have a lot more with Joe Biden. He can’t put two sentences together.”

In Trump’s telling, when he was president, the economy was roaring, inflation was low, the border was secure, the Middle East was calm, and Russia wasn’t making any trouble in Europe. It’s a just-so story that leaves out a raft of inconvenient facts, above all Trump’s absolutely disastrous handling of COVID-19. But it’s a clever strategy that aims to transform Biden’s ostensible strengths into his biggest liabilities. Biden’s age and apparent infirmities are, in that sense, the most useful foil for Trump’s claim that he, and he alone, is strong enough to whip inflation, silence the woke mob, and turn back the barbarians at our border who would “poison the blood of our country.”

You can’t outbid the right-wing politics of strength, but of course this is exactly what mainstream Democrats always try to do. The only thing that stopped the passage of a right-wing border bill the Biden administration backed was the GOP’s pathetic fealty to Trump, who demanded Republicans vote against it solely to deny Biden any kind of legislative “win” on immigration in an election year. Last week, New York governor Kathy Hochul ordered the deployment of National Guard troops bearing body armor and long guns to the New York City subway system, on the grounds that this would make commuters and tourists feel safer.

Of course, it does nothing of the sort. All it does is reinforce right-wing ideologemes while alienating progressives and convincing nobody that Democrats are “tougher” than Republicans. Emily Gallagher, a Democratic Socialists of America member in the New York State Assembly, ably denounced Hochul’s stunt as a “ham-fisted and authoritarian response” that “validates GOP propaganda about urban lawlessness in an election year.” Given the choice between the original and a pale facsimile, many people will go with the original.

The Left absolutely should not adopt a strategy of Clintonian triangulation on these questions. But does this mean we have politically effective alternatives close at hand? I’m not sure we do. The politics of crime and immigration are often not conducive to any kind of rational discourse, regardless of what the facts or the data tell us. This is a terrain of perceptions and vibes. This is difficult to counteract by pointing to the data, even if the data clearly does not support the narratives reflecting and reinforcing the vibes.

It is true, for example, that crime rates in the New York City subway are down, not up. There is ample evidence to suggest that the country would be worse off economically if immigration levels were lower than they are now. That and $2.90 will get you on the subway. However true they might be, impersonal data like this cannot cut through the relentless fire hose of fearmongering stories the tabloid press and TV outlets pump out on a daily basis. It’s effective precisely because anyone venturing into public could conceivably fall victim to a criminal act, even if the chances of that happening are not particularly high.

The fact that withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan, the site of a failed war that nobody believed in anymore, is one of the most politically damaging things the Biden administration has done is sobering. It reminds us that millions of Americans, across every conceivable line of social difference, are deeply invested in an identification with the United States as the greatest, most powerful nation on earth. Anything that challenges or undermines that image is very disturbing to many people, which in turn gives oxygen to reactionary figures peddling fantasies of “peace through strength,” both at home and abroad.

What will happen to our politics as the relative strength of the United States continues to decline, and its military, economic, and political primacy can no longer be assumed? Will Americans ever be able to accept a conception of our collective identity that is not grounded in projections of national greatness and armed supremacy? If we can, something which is by no means assured, it will be the product of a long and wrenching process of cultural transformation.

We are dealing here with ideology, and as the British Marxist Stuart Hall put it in The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left, ideology “does not obey the logic of rational discourse.” Nor is MAGA likely to be defeated by a focus on economic self-interest, which is weak stuff compared to the power fantasies Trump invites his followers to identify with. His campaign ads promise that his strength will protect us. But who is part of “us” in the first place? Protection for whom and from what? These are the basic questions shaping politics today.

To paraphrase Hall, the Left cannot effectively combat MAGA’s appeal without directly addressing the moral, cultural, and ideological questions it raises, or without an adequate conception of the subjects of our project: those who we are building a new society for and with.

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