COMMENT

There is a reason Donald Trump's attacks on Hillary Clinton worked so well four years ago. And it explains why he's failing this time around, writes Sam Clench.

There is a humongous problem with Trump's re-election strategy. The more strident his rhetoric against Joe Biden gets, the more obvious it becomes.

Think of it as a missing ingredient. The president's attacks on Biden lack the one crucial factor that made his campaign against Hillary Clinton so effective four years ago.

Advertisement

They are fundamentally not believable.

Trump's run for president in 2016 may not have been particularly subtle, but there was a shrewdness at the heart of it.

When he labelled Clinton "Crooked Hillary", called her corrupt and told people he would "lock her up", Trump was reinforcing voters' pre-existing perceptions of her.

Donald Trump's attacks on Clinton might not have been particularly fair, but they were at least plausible and coherent. Photo / Getty Images
Donald Trump's attacks on Clinton might not have been particularly fair, but they were at least plausible and coherent. Photo / Getty Images

Rightly or wrongly, millions upon millions of Americans really did believe the Clintons were corrupt. They felt Clinton was dishonest, untrustworthy and out of touch.

Clinton herself likes to blame her defeat on the FBI's investigation into her private email server. But that, too, fed into people's existing suspicions of her – that she thought she was above the rules that other government officials were expected to follow.

Trump instinctively identified Clinton's biggest weakness, and he kept hammering it.

His attacks on her, overblown as they often were, did at least bear some passing resemblance to reality.

You cannot say the same about his current campaign against Biden.

Advertisement

Consider what Trump told his supporters during his visit to one of the most important swing states, Ohio, yesterday.

"[Biden is] following the radical left agenda – take away your guns, destroy your Second Amendment. No religion, no anything. Hurt the Bible, hurt God," the president said.

"He's against God, he's against guns."

Each of these claims is, on its face, utterly absurd.

Biden's policy platform does not call for Americans' guns to be taken away.

He says he would ban the sale of new assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, while allowing people who already own such weapons to sell them back voluntarily, or otherwise register them with the government. He also wants to implement universal background checks.

Advertisement

This is all very incremental stuff.

The idea that Biden is "against God", wants to get rid of religion and will "hurt the Bible" – whatever that means – is even more laughable.

The former vice president is a practising Catholic, and has spoken publicly about the central role his faith played in helping him deal with the tragic deaths of his first wife Neilia, 1-year-old daughter Naomi and eldest son Beau.

"For me, my religion is just an enormous sense of solace," Biden told late night TV host Stephen Colbert in 2015, shortly after Beau died.

"Some of it relates to ritual, some of it relates to just comfort, in what you've done your whole life. I go to mass and I'm able to be just alone, even in a crowd. You're alone.

"What my faith has done is, it sort of takes everything about my life, with my parents and my siblings and all the comforting things, and all the good things that have happened have happened around the culture of my religion.

Advertisement

"I don't know how to explain it more than that. It's just a place you can go."

He cited a quote by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: "Faith sees best in the dark."

I mean, come on. Calling this guy anti-God is like calling me anti-chocolate. And that's before you compare him to Trump, who couldn't even name a Bible verse he liked four years ago and has spent 74 years indulging in more than his fair share of sin.

Donald Trump's attacks on Clinton might not have been particularly fair, but they were at least plausible and coherent. Photo / Getty Images
Donald Trump's attacks on Clinton might not have been particularly fair, but they were at least plausible and coherent. Photo / Getty Images

The "God and guns" attack from yesterday is really just the latest example of the Trump campaign's strange core strategy. It is trying to portray Biden as a "tool of the extreme left" who will radically change American society, should he become president.

If you vote Biden, this argument goes, you'll end up with the policy agenda of Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

"Joe Biden would be nothing more than an auto pen, a Trojan horse for a radical agenda so radical, so all-encompassing that it would transform this country into something utterly unrecognisable," Vice President Mike Pence said last month.

Advertisement

Joe Biden is going to transform the United States into something "utterly unrecognisable". Joe Biden. The embodiment of the moderate Democratic establishment. Seriously?

Again, this is absurd on its face. Biden is very obviously the closest thing to a political centrist that exists in 2020, which is why he faced such sustained resistance from the left during the Democratic Party's primaries.

Trump is running against the candidate he wishes Biden would be – an extreme leftist who wants to defund the police, abolish religion and turn the US into a socialist state.

He is not running against the candidate Biden actually is – a fairly unimpressive and bumbling politician, yes, but one who is temperamentally centrist.

Trump's core supporters, who naturally believe everything the president says, will undoubtedly swallow the argument, but they were always going to vote for him anyway.

Will it resonate with the people Trump actually needs to win over to beat Biden? The voters who disapprove of the president's performance, but could still be convinced to give him another shot?

Advertisement

Surely not. It is too implausible; too disconnected from reality; the sort of shrill nonsense you expect from someone who is throwing absolutely everything at the wall in the hope that something, no matter how crazy, will stick.

The other line of attack Trump keeps trying is one I could envision being quite effective, if it were used by literally anyone else.

This is the idea that Biden lacks the mental acuity to do the job, as evidenced by his frequent gaffes, memory lapses and verbal stumbles.

The thing is, it's hard to make fun of someone for mangling their words when you're the guy who mispronounces Thailand as "Thighland" while reading off a prompter, or brags endlessly about passing a cognitive test designed to screen for dementia, or spends a quarter of an hour ranting about your ability to walk down a gentle ramp.

I defy anyone to watch Trump's interview with Jonathan Swan this week, or read the transcripts of his frequently incoherent streams of consciousness, and honestly conclude he should be making mental health a campaign issue.

Besides, it's a little contradictory to tell voters Biden is mentally incompetent, while also claiming he is dangerous enough to remake American society into something unrecognisable. It can't be both. Pick one!

Advertisement

This time last week, we examined Trump's abysmal polling, which has consistently shown him lagging way behind Biden. The president hasn't led in a single national poll since February.

We have no way of knowing how accurate the polls are until election day – they clearly missed a very late surge of support for Trump in 2016 – but whatever he says in public, the president himself seems spooked by them.

Nothing he has thrown at Biden so far has made a difference. So he has kept escalating his rhetoric, to the point where he is now accusing Biden, of all people, of being the harbinger of a socialist apocalypse.

This isn't how Trump won four years ago. The key ingredient that made his campaign against Clinton so devastating is missing, and he's running out of time to rediscover it.