In recent days, with cases of the potentially deadly coronavirus spiking across much of the United States and the jobless rate still foundering above 11%, the president was obsessed with what a Washington Post front-page story described as “an urgent task for Trump and his team.” That would be coming up with a new nickname for the political foe Trump had dubbed “Sleepy Joe Biden” — even as he watched Biden sprint past him in many polls by double digits.
In the Oval Office where his predecessors had made life-or-death decisions on dropping the atomic bomb on Japan or how far to push Moscow in the Cuban missile crisis, the 45th president and his top political advisers discussed whether a moniker like “Creepy Joe” or “Swampy Joe” might be just the thing to get voters to forget about their grandma on a ventilator and pull the level for Trump on November 3. POTUS, according to the Post, was leaning toward “Corrupt Joe” — with the details about what makes the former vice president so corrupt presumably to be invented later.
Donald Trump’s June was probably the worst month that any U.S. president has experienced since 1974, maybe since 1861 … and yet that doesn’t really bother him. What does bother him is that his poll numbers look exactly like what you’d expect they’d resemble for a commander-in-chief who’d had such a lousy 30 days. Currently 56% of Americans disapprove of the job Trump is doing, according to the Real Clear Politics average. He’s losing to Biden in every major battleground state. Voting blocs that went for him in 2016, like non-college white women, are heading for the hills. And Trump really thinks he can turn it around by pinning a scary nickname around Biden’s neck?
It’s funny. Trump once knew exactly how to rise from the morass of business failures and shady scams like Trump U. to leading White House contender, simply by insisting that America’s first Black president must have been born in Kenya. Next, he built a GOP primary lead that he never surrendered after coming down an escalator to call Mexican migrants murderers and rapists. And then fate intervened to offer him a 2016 opponent whom he could brand as “a nasty woman,” while packed arenas chanted “Lock her up!” in an incantation worthy of the Salem witch trials.
Hillary Clinton? Trump could work with that! But an avuncular 77-year-old white-haired straight white dude? Trump and hapless campaign team refuse to admit the reason they can’t come up with a nickname for Joe Biden — let alone a rationale to prevent him from becoming the next president — is because a presidency powered by hate doesn’t exactly know how to hate someone like that. Even worse for the GOP, neither does Trump’s fan base.
Remember Trump’s disastrous attempt at a campaign rally in Tulsa, at the arena that was only one-third full? Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel went there and — while some Trump stans were wearing their crude anti-Hillary T-shirts from 2016 — he found few voters who were particularly terrified by Biden, few vendors who were selling anti-Biden gear, and little evidence that folks were buying any of it. “He (Biden) doesn’t stand out as a strong candidate,” one vendor told Weigel.
In 2016, some Republicans had ambivalent feelings about Trump but felt so strongly about keeping Clinton out of the White House that one right-wing pundit called it a “Flight 93 election,” that GOP voters had to rush the cockpit and maybe crash the plane to prevent what they saw as looming disaster if she’d succeeded in her quest to become America’s first woman president.
“Trump stoked the anti-woman theme with relish,” Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia historian and veteran observer of presidential politics, told me via email, adding: “Things couldn’t be more different with Biden. Trump will viciously attack him, naturally, but he simply doesn’t hate Biden like he did and does Hillary. Trump has even said some good things about him.”
It’s just different in 2020. Recently, the New York Times drilled deep into the sliver of Trump-to-Biden voters who appear to be responsible from turning what was supposed to be a nail-biter into a solid lead for the Democrat. It wasn’t hard to find those who could not abide Hillary Clinton but were OK with the man from Delaware.
John Crilly, 55, a retired commercial diver in Reeders, Pa., told the Times he’d pulled the lever for Trump “because the other option was Hillary Clinton.” Flash forward four years, and this Pennsylvania voter who rejected a former U.S. senator and secretary of state seems shocked, shocked that the narcissistic neophyte that he preferred is overwhelmed by COVID-19.
With Americans assaulted this year by crisis after crisis, it’s hard not to live in the moment. The realization that half the country is ready to replace Trump with a man who, for all his imperfections, has the experience and the empathy that the Current Occupant lacks, is something of a feel-good story for many. But there’s a flip side that we need to have a national conversation about.
America is having a long-overdue moment of reckoning around race — and clearly white supremacy is a driving force behind Trumpism. But so is misogyny. Unlike so many other developed nations, the United States has never elected a woman president, and when a super-qualified (but, yes, also imperfect) one was finally nominated by a major party, millions flocked instead to a buffoonish TV-reality star who was incapable of saying “no” to adult film stars or Vladimir Putin … but who had a Y chromosome.
Not only was that “lock her up” toxic masculinity Trump’s secret sauce on November 8, 2016, but it’s poisoned the way that this president has governed for the last 41 months. CNN’s Carl Bernstein reports that Donald Trump’s dripping contempt for strong women has ruined our relations with key allies such as Germany — he lashed out at Angela Merkel as “stupid” and, ironically, in the pocket of Russia — and the United Kingdom, at least when Theresa May, with whom Trump was “aggressive and bullying,” was its prime minister. Of course, POTUS fawned over “strongmen” like Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Closer to home, the president has the bare minimum of female cabinet members, no close women advisors (other than his daughter), and has embarked on a project to stock the federal judiciary for the rest of our lifetimes with right-wing zealots who are predominantly white but also predominantly men — 76% male, in an era when a majority of law-school graduates are women. These young white dudes in their black robes will still be placing undue restrictions on women’s reproductive rights on the day that your unborn granddaughter is commuting to her job designing robots, in her flying car.
Biden seems to understand that on some level he owes his easy nomination to the fears of rank-and-file Democrats that dynamic and highly qualified women like Sen. Elizabeth Warren would have been “Hillary’ed” by Trump in the general election. He’s promised a female running mate and that his first appointment to the Supreme Court will be a Black woman. Both moves are praiseworthy, but a Biden presidency must do much more to fight systemic sexism in America.
The lack of affordable daycare options, stone-age policies around sick leave or consistent working hours, the insanely low minimum wage, and the lack of universal health care — America’s lack of leadership in these areas has made it easy for vulture capitalism to put millions of women in low-wage jobs and untenable situations. This summer’s seeming political shift toward the Democrats doesn’t only signal an end to Trumpism but a shot at the most progressive Congress since the 1930s. Whether a President Biden can seize that moment — much more than his vice presidential pick — will determine his legacy.
Yes, the odds are better than ever (if everyone keeps their guard up and votes, no matter what obstacles are thrown up by the GOP) that “Sleepy Joe Biden” will wake up in the White House on January 21, 2021, and not Donald Trump. But we need to stay woke to the fact that tiki-torch-lit mobs chanting “Lock her up!” and the inherent sexist bias that fuels them will still be with us.
The fact that only another white man could dislodge Trump and his woman-hatred from the presidency isn’t so much a cause for celebration as a reminder that removing the twin towers of racism and misogyny from their concrete foundation in American society is the great challenge of our 21st century, and there is so much more work to be done.
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