Can Incumbent Trump Win with an Anti-establishment Message?

By: Alice Salles

Tuesday is the last chance for (most) Americans to cast their vote for president. What will make the difference in attaining victory? When it comes to messaging, Team Biden relies on elite news outlets for assurances of victory, while Team Trump’s preferred sources are blacklisted by social media and ignored by broadcast news organization.

But what does recent history tell us about which voice is most likely to prevail?

In 2016, Trump’s unusual and unrefined demeanor brought him closer to those who had long been left out of the political discourse.

But despite his apparent popular appeal, pundits and major cable news outlets all but gave former secretary of state Hillary Clinton the victory. On Election Day, however, things didn’t go as the Democrats planned. Few predicted the outcome.

After four years, his anti-establishment rhetoric has continued to cause many to see him as the antipolitician candidate, even though he has ultimately failed to deliver on many of his promises.

Can the populist strategy work again?

Maybe. The lessons of 2016—taking a stand against the status quo—don’t seem to have stuck with Democratic activists. The party has remained energized by its long dedication to exploiting identity politics and pushing ideological concepts that often don’t resonate with its own base.

From promising to maintain the US’s failed foreign policy strategy in the Middle East to pushing the already debunked “Russia did it” talking point to exhaustion, the Democrats have stuck with what has been used to shore up the base in recent years, while ignoring much of the center. Instead, they have chosen to double down, even threatening with physical violence those who oppose their message.

Consider Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, who went as far as promising that the violent riots that followed the death of George Floyd “were not going to stop” until “there are people in the system who are willing or pushing” to make a difference.

Biden, meanwhile has hurled threats at much of the population by promising “nationalization” of mask wearing and vaccine distribution. Presumably, such measures would require enforcement by armed agents of the state.

Many voters are likely to find Trump to be relatively laissez-faire in comparison. Yet that remains a low bar. Trump promises to downsize the US military’s presence in Afghanistan but has not done so. But in practice, his approach to fighting the pandemic has been far less reliant on mandates and state coercion than what Biden proposes.

When it comes down to the main differences between the two candidates, many voters may ultimately conclude it’s clear that Biden is the professional politician whereas Trump remains the loudmouthed, anti-establishment guy. This may help Trump with some voters. Moreover, although Trump is now an incumbent, he is nonetheless running against lifelong politicians like Biden. As Trump was careful to note during the first debate: “If I thought [Biden] did a good job, I never would have run.”

The other difference is that now, compared to 2016, Americans are likely to be even more weary of politics thanks to the coronavirus lockdowns, BLM riots, and the destruction of businesses by both the mob and state governments. Whatever the motivation, Trump stands to benefit so long as he can cultivate the image of being the candidate fighting against the madness while Biden and Harris stand stoically as the candidates willing to legitimize the mob.

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