Oh, America: The Wartime Election

In normal times, Donald Trump would not be a candidate for re-election in November. The former reality-show host and current reality-show star would never have become president, or would have been convicted by the Senate and removed from office after his impeachment. Indeed, in normal times, Joe Biden likely would have run in 2016 and won. Events have conspired to make this Biden’s moment instead. 

Lisa Van Dusen 

Oh, America. Besieged by lunacy, tormented by division and, most days, lucky to muster a glimpse of its former self in an Obama sighting or a Reagan anniversary montage. How are the mighty fallen.

Interestingly, the original version of that phrase from the Old Testament 2 Samuel 1:19, was “Oh, howe are the myghtie ouerthrowen.” The substitution of “fallen” for “ouerthrowen” from the Great Bible (1539) surfaced in the King James version in 1611. As an editor, seeing that swap via Google was a bit of a shock—fallen and overthrown are two very different words, as any lothario or dictator will tell you. 

In America’s case, the distinction is a crucial one. Is the superpower that has, for more than half a century, been the world’s flagship democracy, military cop on the beat, rules-based international order enforcer and cultural mecca falling or being overthrown? To watch its current president every day, which nobody should really do unless their livelihood strictly depends on it, the answer, buried in a core fallacy, seems obvious: Nobody that stupid could be that powerful. There are just too many built-in self-selection safety valves for anyone achieving the most powerful office in the free world to be that ignorant and incompetent when they get there, no matter how unlikely and odds-defying the trajectory that propelled them. And even if—as in a Jerzy Kosinski satire of dodgy presidential quality control come ghoulishly to life—they did somehow manage to stumble into the Oval Office, they couldn’t possibly stay there and continue to be that ignorant and incompetent. Not in real life. Not with the resources and advisors and analysts at the disposal of any president to stop them from destroying their own country. 

Sadly, real life—like America, democracy, and “me time”—isn’t what it used to be. Donald Trump’s presidency is a product of and testament to a new brand of corruption that is not your grandfather’s political corruption. It’s not about kickbacks or conflicts of interest or wheel-greasing, at least not in its most impactful manifestations, and it is what keeps him in his gravity-defying, impeachment-flouting role. Corruption Classic was about the cutting of ethical corners and contempt for the law. The new, hyper-corruption that has so altered political narratives worldwide and elevated so many inherently unelectable actors to positions of terrible influence is about the perversion of reality and contempt for the intelligence of the audience. It is far more insidious because it’s not just about money, it’s about abuse of power simply as a means to accruing and consolidating even more power until all the obstacles to absolute power have been obliterated. 

In many ways, this phenomenon isn’t entirely new. I first ran across it—and afoul of it—when I was living and working as a journalist in Washington during the late 1990s. At that point, the use of narrative engineering to produce political outcomes was simply a more sophisticated iteration of the old Nixonian dirty tricks playbook. In the years since then, the fourth industrial revolution has scaled up such hijinks to produce, among other well-documented circuses worldwide, an entire American presidency that amounts to a weaponized content stream of self-inflicted degradation evidently designed to isolate, marginalize and discredit the nation it claims to represent. Trump’s apparent maximum-mortality approach to crisis management since the dawn of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is just the most recent, and deadliest, thematic thrust of it. America hasn’t fallen, it is being overthrown. 

Image cutline: U.S. President Donald Trump joined by Vice President Mike Pence at the daily White House briefing on COVID-19 at the April 16 announcement of the states gradually ending the lockdown and re-opening for business. Joyce N. Boghosian White House photo

Which makes the 2020 presidential election the most important presidential election since the country’s last civil war. It also makes it the most vulnerable election in U.S. history. In the context of hyper-corruption and narrative warfare, the 2020 election was a target-rich environment long before the additional complication of a global pandemic became a force multiplier for sabotage. Already, Trump’s targeting of the same mail-in voting he has identified as a threat to his re-election—a stunt which, in itself, says something about the priceless penetrability of computerized election infrastructure—the state-level voter suppression tactics and fog-of-war propaganda barrages emanating from the president’s Twitter account and other sources are providing early indications of the campaign to come. Yes, as per the president’s recent claim, he is indeed a wartime president.

Enter Joe Biden. After funnelling the Democratic Party’s fears and hopes behind his candidacy with the help of African American elder statesman Rep. James Clyburn in South Carolina, securing the endorsement of rival Bernie Sanders followed by the endorsement of former President Barack Obama, Biden is now sheltering in place in Delaware. It’s a pandemic isolation requirement that, in classic narrative warfare style, has been re-cast as under-exposure, “keeping a low profile” and “not winning the internet” on Twitter despite Biden’s daily video statements, interviews and virtual town halls.

One of the markings of the new politics is that, in a battlefield populated by strange bedfellows, the source doesn’t matter as much as the intended impact. The arsenal of juvenile, lizard-brain triggering ammunition against Biden—whose status as a target of this sort of junk is not new…see Trumpian Ukraine investigation gambit—includes the usual exploitation of perceived weaknesses he can do nothing about, including his age and stutter-averse elocution gaffes. Against that soundtrack, Trump has started deploying his own trademark trolling, such as the flagrantly misdirectional hashtag #BeijingBiden, meant to project Trump’s most dubiously productive geopolitical allegiance onto his rival. 

In a normal, organic environment in which perception, interpretation and analysis of events were not distorted to legitimize a president who, by all standards of personal behaviour, leadership and basic human decency is absolutely preposterous, this election would be an unquestioned blowout. But in a normal environment, Trump would not be president. In a normal environment, Biden likely would have run in 2016 and won. Since then, the array of tricks designed to keep a candidate like Biden—authentic, patriotic, empathetic, service-driven, resilient, competent, prosaically-as-opposed-to- fatally-flawed and with a reliable moral compass—from winning and, especially this year, reversing the assisted-death narrative of America’s decline, have multiplied. 

In an atmosphere in which all of the tactics that have transformed not just American politics but politics in every jurisdiction where new world order thugs have been installed to rationalize the global trend away from democracy and freedom and toward surveillance-state totalitarianism, Biden was already going to have to fight a different kind of fight. Amid a pandemic that has hit America like a military attack and is being exploited as an excuse for all manner of previously unthinkable decision, including and especially by Trump, the long-time senator will have to operate without any margin for unforced error. 

Biden’s decision to essentially function as an administration-in-waiting, providing a counter-narrative to Trump’s daily, deadly absurdity as a public health crisis briefer, is laying a foundation and clarifying the choice, which is really a referendum on Trump. His choice of running mate shouldn’t be a difficult one given both that he has already said he’ll choose a woman and the genuine debt he owes the African American community. The field of qualified, exceptional women candidates for the job, starting with Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, only reassures that the division of labour in a Biden administration will be competently covered, regardless of who ends up in his old residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory. 

But Biden’s most relentless rival in this contest won’t be Donald Trump. It will be the firehose of professionally curated, manufactured malarkey—to coin a euphemism—of which Trump is just one purveyor, designed to systematically make any outcome seem plausible, even the outcome of Joe Biden losing this election in defiance of all reason, logic, truth and sanity, against a president whose tenure has become an existential threat to his own people. 

When Winston Churchill assumed the prime ministership of the United Kingdom in May, 1940, he was not the candidate of least resistance. He was derided by some as a loose cannon, dismissed as a drunk, smeared as an unreliable weathervane, a has-been. But he was the candidate of greatest value because he clearly understood the threat facing Britain and the world. The comparison of men is not precise, the parallel between moments is awfully close.  

Lisa Van Dusen is Associate Editor of Policy Magazine and a columnist for The Hill Times. She was Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.