Trump projected his flaws on Hillary Clinton, and it worked — but 2020 is different

Trump baits the media by claiming Biden has a "racism problem." So far this false equivalence isn't sticking

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published August 12, 2020 2:38PM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Joe Biden (AP Photo/Salon)
Donald Trump and Joe Biden (AP Photo/Salon)

Mere hours after former Vice President Joe Biden made history by picking Sen. Kamala Harris of California as his running mate — making her the first Black and Asian woman on a presidential ticket — Donald Trump coughed up his response. A little after 10 p.m. on Wednesday night, Trump posted a tweet claiming that "Joe Biden has a racism problem."

The response on Twitter was, as one can imagine, contemptuous, given that Trump is an overt racist who leans heavily on white nationalist rhetoric. His niece, psychologist Mary Trump, says she's heard him use the N-word, an accusation that no one sincerely doubts. 

"Let's be real: Trump attacking Biden as racist after Biden nominates the first woman of color for vice president in American history is beyond idiotic," tweeted Mark Follman, the national affairs editor at Mother Jones, in a typical response. 

"Not to mention Trump's 'white power' tweet, his boost for 'very fine' torch carrying neo-Nazis etc etc etc," Follman added. 

But this wasn't yet another case of the president of the United States, intoxicated from Fox News, idiotically lashing out on Twitter. On the contrary, the "racism problem" tweet was a well-edited video that had clearly been put together by the Trump campaign, compiling audio clips of Biden misspeaking or saying tone-deaf things about race, including comments about his 1970s relationships with segregationist senators, for which Harris famously criticized him in a 2019 debate

In other words, this was a strategic choice by the Trump campaign, which has quietly become more competent in recent weeks (despite having to manage an overgrown toddler as a candidate), after dumping relative newbie Brad Parscale as campaign manager in favor of the more experienced Bill Stepien. This was an example of the false-equivalence strategy, and Democrats should be on alert, since earlier versions of this same strategy were used to great effect to defeat Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Al Gore in elections Democrats expected to win. 

Folks who dunk on Trump on Twitter don't understand that this strategy isn't meant to convince anyone that Trump isn't a racist, which Stepien and other campaign officials know full well is an impossible task. The point is to convince potential Democratic voters that both candidates are irredeemably flawed, and they might as well sit this election out rather than sullying themselves by voting for "the lesser of two evils."

This isn't even really a Trump innovation, but pretty standard operating procedure in Republican politics. A GOP candidate's team figures out the various strengths that the Democrat has over their candidate and then systematically starts trying to sow doubt about that with voters, often by projecting their own candidate's flaws onto the Democrat.

What Republicans understand, and too many political commentators don't, is that no election is strictly a choice between two candidates. There are always other choices: Not voting at all or throwing your vote away on a third-party candidate. Republicans know they can't win over more voters than the ones they've got, so they win by poisoning the well against the Democrat. 

In 2016, the Republicans were saddled with a candidate who is a pathological liar with a long history of corruption, and who doesn't seem to be in the greatest mental or physical condition. So they turned around and falsely accused Clinton of all these things, giving her the nickname "Crooked Hillary" and claiming she had secret health problems she was hiding from the public. 

It was the same story with the 2004 election, when Democrats ran Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, against George W. Bush, whose draft-dodging only made his eagerness to send other people's kids into a quagmire of a foreign war more suspect. But the Bush campaign directly attacked Kerry's record, falsely accusing him of embellishing his service record and implying he hadn't earned his Purple Hearts. 

Same story, again, with the 2000 election, in which the Bush campaign was successful in portraying Gore as a liar and a fabulist, and distracting from Bush's own habit of telling lies — including the ones he unfortunately employed shortly after that, trying to justify his invasion of Iraq. 

This "I know you are, but what am I" strategy only works because the mainstream media — living in perpetual fear of conservatives accusing them of "bias" (which they'll do no matter what) — is all too eager to play along with Republican efforts to wildly exaggerate Democratic flaws, all so journalists can crow about how they give it equally to "both sides," and without quite noticing that they are abandoning their duty to the truth with these false equivalences. 

The 2016 election offers a perfect example of how the media falls for this trick. Clinton is actually one of the most honest politicians in America, pretty much free of any proven "corruption" despite endless harassment and investigation. Nonetheless, journalists ran with every fake Clinton scandal right-wingers threw at them, from the false accusations against the Clinton Foundation to the email server debacle, because they were more motivated by the desire to look "balanced" than they were by telling the truth. (Sexist stereotypes about female mendacity also drove much of the coverage.) Kerry and Gore got similarly unfair treatment by the press in the name of "balance."

As I warned repeatedly in 2019to no avail — Biden's foot-in-mouth disease makes this an easy play for the Trump campaign. As my colleague Chauncey DeVega explained this week, Biden possesses a "sense of affinity" with Black voters that makes him too comfortable and leads him to share "impolitic observations at inappropriate times."

In the past, that kind of nuanced explanation has too often fallen on deaf ears in a media environment more driven by the need to portray "both sides" as equivalent than to explore the truth. 

That said, there's reason this time around to be mildly optimistic that Trump's efforts at sowing a "both sides are bad, so don't vote" narrative might not work as well as it did for him in 2016, or as well as it did for Bush in 2000 and 2004. The media just doesn't seem as interesting in elevating nonsense this time around. 

That's probably because the Trump presidency has been such a massive disaster that even the journalists most devoted to both-sides-ism have, however temporarily, been shocked out of their addiction to false equivalency. As the economy collapses and the U.S. succumbs to the coronavirus pandemic in a way unmatched by the rest of the world — all because of Trump's maliciousness and recklessness, as well as Republican opposition to competent governance — it's become impossible to keep a straight face while asserting any moral or political equivalence between Democrats and Republicans. 

A similar situation happened in 2008, when the disaster of the George W. Bush presidency finally overcame the mainstream media's desire to pretend there was no meaningful difference between Democrats and Republicans. Oh, there were efforts to scandalize Obama with nonsense, such as when right-wingers got journalists to take the bait of painting Obama's Chicago pastor as anti-white and anti-American. But it basically never worked, because that kind of circus sideshow seemed weak in the face of the economic disaster of 2008, the failed response to Hurricane Katrina and the ill-fated invasion of Iraq. 

Compared to Donald Trump, Bush is small potatoes in the failed-presidency department. The seriousness of our current crisis makes it difficult for the press to play their silly both-sides false games. So it's not working for Trump so far.

But it's still two and a half months until the election, and we know it will feel longer than that. The media's desire to appear "unbiased" is strong, even in the face of an economic catastrophe and a soaring COVID-19 death rate. Trump will keep trying to make this election about bullshit, and it's important to stay vigilant against a press that struggles to resist the siren call of false equivalency. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

MORE FROM Amanda Marcotte

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Donald Trump Editor's Picks Elections Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Kamala Harris Media Racism