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Opinion: The Trump-Biden election hinges on character — not just of the candidates, but of the nation

President Trump leans on the podium during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on Thursday night.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

President Trump gave one of his regular performances Thursday night, his body language full of arrogance and his speech full of lies and half-truths. His mendacity runs so deep that it seems to be instinctual. That is not new, of course, and regardless of how outrageous his behavior is, it doesn’t matter to his supporters.

This is the same Trump who won election four years ago. And this election, same as that one, will not be decided by facts and policy positions, but by demeanor and salesmanship.

So what are Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden selling?

Trump is selling a paranoid vision of America that is largely disassociated from the truth. He doesn’t focus on the disturbing number of Black people — often unarmed — getting killed by police, or on armed vigilantes showing up unasked to “protect” property during demonstrations. Instead, he focuses on the fringe of protesters who have themselves become violent over frustration and anger at societal indifference to systemic racism and police brutality.

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For her own sake, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany should probably hope Trump stops having any say at all in healthcare policy.

Trump offers no sign that he has the least interest in why his cities are burning during his presidency, in why protests and denunciations of police and the status quo have risen during his presidency, or in why the movement demanding change stretches from urban neighborhoods to suburban enclaves to rural America. He is oblivious because he doesn’t care.

Where a normal politician — indeed, anyone with a sense of empathy — would seek answers and try to lead society to a better place, Trump hunkers down inside his mental bunker and conjures up screaming hordes of socialists. He’s a red-baiter out of his time, hoping to sell the fear of dark, subversive forces to, once again, win the game. And it’s unclear how much of his own spiel he actually believes himself — as long as he makes the sale, it doesn’t matter.

Biden, on the other hand, is selling himself as the brakeman on a runaway train, and as a healer and uniter to Trump’s fear-mongering and divisiveness. The Democratic convention was a four-day Joefomercial pitching Biden as an experienced leader and a deeply caring man who has gracefully endured searing personal tragedies.

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Biden says he was moved to run after Trump said the white nationalists who wreaked havoc during the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., two years ago included “some very fine people.” Never mind that Biden has run twice before without gaining traction among his own Democrats (he dropped out of the 1988 race before the primaries in the wake of a plagiarism scandal; he quit the 2008 campaign after drawing 1% in the Iowa caucuses). He has hungered for this job for most of his career.

So a slew of Trump officials have violated the Hatch Act barring on-the-job federal employees from political acts. What good is a law that no one bothers enforce? Move on to the bigger issues.

Notably, neither convention, and neither candidate, spent much time detailing policy. The Republicans didn’t even bother to put together a platform, even though the state of the nation is much different today than when they last crafted one four years ago. But when your candidate is a president who often doesn’t know what he’s going to do until he does it, a party platform is rather meaningless.

While the Democrats do have a platform, it didn’t get much of an airing last week. (Trump and other GOP speakers this week talked about it more than the Democrats did.)

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Both sides implicitly recognize that this is not an election about ideas, but about contrasting visions of what this nation is and can become, and about the character and principles of the next president.

“Character is on the ballot,” Biden said last week. “Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy. They are all on the ballot.”

“At no time before,” Trump said Thursday, “have voters faced a clearer choice between two parties, two visions, two philosophies or two agendas.”

Actually, the nation has faced such choices before. Two elections come immediately to mind: Herbert Hoover versus Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, and Richard M. Nixon versus Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968. Both elections came during anguished times for the United States, and as internal tensions tugged at the country’s soul.

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So what is America shopping for now? We won’t know, of course, until after the polls close on Nov. 3, just over nine weeks away. But in a sense, both Trump and Biden are right. This is a campaign about two visions of the present and future America, but also about character — of the candidates, and of the people who will choose the next president.


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