President Donald Trump’s reelection bid is faltering. Former Vice President Joe Biden has led in virtually every national poll of the campaign, he has a double-digit advantage in several recent polls, he has the edge in key battleground states, and he’s catching up to Trump’s once-dominant fundraising position. Trump’s supporters can’t make up ground by pointing to his record with the nation pummeled by a deadly pandemic and economic devastation under his leadership. And their efforts to tarnish Biden have been contradictory and ineffective -- in part because the right’s culture war playbook has proven less convincing against a white male target, and in part because the president would rather talk about West Point’s treacherous ramps than his opponent.
With both positive and negative messages failing, Trump’s right-wing media allies at Fox News and elsewhere have decided to raise the stakes. They have started claiming that this fall’s election isn’t really about the relative merits of Trump and Biden. Instead, they have turned Biden -- the septuagenarian center-left liberal who capped four decades in public service as Barack Obama’s vice president and speaks movingly about loss, grief, and the need for reconciliation on the campaign trail -- into a stand-in for dark forces poised to shatter civilization.
In their telling, Trump’s reelection is all that’s standing between the American public and a communist, anti-white regime. That’s an argument that will countenance virtually any step imaginable to prevent a Biden victory and will require months of intense fearmongering about the threat posed by civil unrest to sustain through the election.
This new talking point builds on the Trumpists’ desperate effort to terrify their audiences about the threat of civil unrest in American cities posed by “antifa" protesters, Black Lives Matter activists, and statuary vigilantes. It repeats Fox’s 2018 campaign strategy of warning viewers that their physical safety is on the ballot. And it tracks with Trump’s own messaging that Biden is a “very willing Trojan horse for socialism.”
Indeed, Fox star Tucker Carlson used the same classical allusion during his Monday monologue. “We should stop pretending that this is an election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. There is no Joe Biden; the Joe Biden you remember no longer exists,” he said. “The candidate has no independent thoughts of his own. He has no core beliefs. He is empty. He's a perfect Trojan horse.”
He went on to claim that if Biden were elected, “the people who've taken over the Democratic Party” would conspire with the media, federal law enforcement, intelligence agencies, and perhaps the military to ban the First Amendment, smear their political opponents as white supremacists, and imprison them for hate speech. (White supremacists love Carlson’s show because he echoes their talking points; Carlson has claimed that the threat posed by white supremacists is a “hoax.”)
“Only Republicans can save us from that,” Carlson concluded. “We have no choice but to ask for their help. The Republican Party is the only power center left in this country available to people who dissent.”
Victor David Hanson, a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, echoed Carlson’s framing later in the program. “I don't want to get political, but this election no longer is about Donald Trump's tweeting," Hanson told Carlson. “It’s not about Joe Biden's cognitive impairment. It has nothing to do anymore with a lockdown, the virus, the economy, foreign policy.”
“It's a existential question, a Manichean choice between whether you want civilization and you believe that America doesn't have to be perfect to be good and we are not ... going to destroy all that people died for, or [whether] you feel it was inherently flawed with a cancer and we have to use radiation and chemotherapy and kill the host to kill the cancer.”
“And that's the choice we're looking at, and I'm going to vote for civilization,” Hanson concluded. “Yes. Well, it's our only option. The Republican Party is our only option,” Carlson replied.”
Carlson’s prime-time colleagues have offered up similar takes.
“Socialism is on the ballot, safety and security is on the ballot,” Fox’s Sean Hannity claimed on Monday, later saying, “Will we triumph or will we fail? We will fail and America will become unrecognizable.”
“Democrats, they now want to fundamentally rip out those core principles and it's up to you, the people,” he added. “They win, guess what? This country will be unrecognizable, if these plans are implemented. What we are seeing, what we are witnessing in the cities, we will see nationwide.”
And Laura Ingraham argued last week that “the idea that a president Biden would return America to some quaint imagined past is a dangerous fantasy. If he wins, the hard left wins and that means that the culture wars are going to get a lot worse than they are right now.”
“His administration will use the full reach of the executive branch to torment all political and cultural enemies,” she warned. “Anyone who has a traditional view of American history, or let's say Bible believing Christians, observant Jews, even Muslims, religious schools, all of them will be marked for punishment. Now, statues coming down, that’s going to be the least of our problems.”
“Their aim is to pull down our whole culture,” she concluded. “The American founding, western civilization, and everything that sprang from it.”
Brian Kilmeade made a similar point on Fox & Friends Tuesday morning during a discussion of the “autonomous zone” that protesters had set up in a Seattle neighborhood.
“That’s what this presidential run is going to be about. It’s going to be less about Biden and Trump and more about what you see in Seattle and then the results that we all are witnessing in Seattle. You’ve got to decide what you want.”
And Rush Limbaugh, the talk radio host who received the Medal of Freedom from Trump this year, chimed in later that day.
“The American people have a clear choice here, and it’s unlike a choice that they’ve ever had,” he said. “This is not a choice between Republicans and Democrats. This is a choice between America, as founded, and bye-bye America, as founded. And that’s exactly what’s on the plate. That is not an exaggeration.”
“These people on the left … tearing down statues,” he continued, but “not because the past offends them. It’s because they’re getting ready to wipe out this country. They’re getting ready to totally scrap it and start again.”
He concluded: “We find ourselves in this campaign not against Republicans, Democrats. This is the American people versus Marxism. It’s the American people versus communism. In stark terms, it’s exactly what we face here.”
It is, in fact, nothing like what Republicans actually face, riding a shockingly unpopular incumbent against a well-known opponent with mainstream views. But with few other options available, they’re going to see if they can scare the public into clinging to the strongman they know by making the election about anything other than the actual candidates.