United States

America’s existential election

As last week’s debate showed, both Trump and Biden want voters to believe they alone can save the country

July 02, 2024
Image: UPI / Alamy Stock
Trump and Biden went head-to-head in the first televised debate of the 2024 election. Image: UPI / Alamy Stock

There was a moment in last week’s US presidential debate that captured the political situation we Americans find ourselves in.

It was when President Biden reminded viewers that he had decided to run for president in the first place because of the 2017 Unite the Right rally, organised in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee from a park. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched that day while chanting “Jews will not replace us,” which is to say, pushing replacement theory—the idea that Jews are trying to flood the country with immigrants of colour so as to shift demographics for nefarious political gain. One woman, Heather Heyer, was killed when a man drove into her—the perpetrator had previously expressed neo-Nazi, white supremacist beliefs. Infamously, the man who was president at the time, Donald Trump, said at the time that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the rally.

“What American president would ever say Nazis coming out of fields, carrying torches, singing the same antisemitic bile, carrying swastikas, were fine people?,” Biden said in Thursday’s debate. Trump countered that Biden “didn’t run because of Charlottesville. He ran because it was his last chance.” Biden proceeded to take the bait, meeting Trump at these depths of political discourse. “It happened,” he said. “All you have to do is listen to what was said at the time. And the idea that somehow that’s the only reason I ran—I ran because I was worried a guy like this guy can get elected.”

With his response, Biden had managed to reduce a horrifying moment in American history, and the toxic ideology and conspiracy theories behind it, to a spat over what talking heads said when.

True, Biden has long said he ran because of Charlottesville. He could have reiterated that, while using the opportunity to explain why the debate he and his political rival were taking part in was a reminder that he was right to do so. Trump, after all, spent the evening spewing stories of immigrants coming into the country, murdering people and taking jobs (at times because it was relevant, at times not)—he talked about the border a lot. This is the same kind of thinking heard in Charlottesville on that day. Biden could have articulated that, while Trump is interested in whipping the country into a xenophobic fever dream, he, Biden, is interested in governing. Instead, he haltingly argued about what pundits said four years ago.

This is the paradox of the 2024 presidential election: Biden, aged 81, wants Americans to believe that their decision in the November election is an existential one, and that democracy itself hangs in the balance, but he cannot muster the words to make the case for why that is. 

The incumbent president’s poor debate performance has sparked a flurry of calls for him to resign. Americans overwhelmingly believe that he does not have the necessary cognitive capacity to be president; only 27 percent of registered voters believe he does. Watching the debate on Thursday night, I wondered whether Biden’s performance, in addition to raising questions about his own capacity, might raise another set of questions for American voters. How existential could the threat be, really? After all, are they really expected to believe that Biden is the candidate you must vote for to save American democracy? 

And on the other hand, Trump—who was impeached twice while in office; convicted of a felony 34 times over; found liable for sexual abuse; and who refused to say whether he will accept the 2024 election results—is forcefully making a different existential argument to voters: that the existence they can see with their own eyes, that what they can hear with their own ears, isn’t real, and that, in fact, he’s not a compulsive liar and criminal.

Trump’s future, politically and personally—whether he manages to live out the rest of his days without facing accountability for, among other things, allegedly trying to pressure elected officials into overturning the 2020 election results—depends on which man can convince the country of these two wildly different versions of 2024 America.

All of this leaves voters caught between not just two candidates, but two competing realities. In one, we are told that Trump is a threat not only to many Americans, but to American democracy itself. He is an aspiring autocrat who doesn’t even believe in accepting election results and will be emboldened by the Supreme Court, which, on Monday, decided a president is immune for “official” acts committed while in office. In the other reality, not only has Trump not done anything wrong, but he is incapable of doing anything wrong. In fact, he is the only candidate who can set the nation right. 

There are some Americans who believe that Trump is the threat Biden says he is. There are even some who believe Biden is the best person for the job (54 per cent of Democrats, per a post-debate CBS/YouGov poll). And there are some Trump acolytes, too. Six in 10 Republicans believe Trump was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election. They live in the existence he’s painted for them.

At time of writing, Trump is narrowly up in most major polls. Independents would prefer different candidates in both parties, but Trump is certainly not dropping out, and the Biden campaign, with the backing of such Democratic luminaries as former president Barack Obama, is insisting that Biden is staying the course, confident they can outlast the calls for him to drop out, or perhaps that these will die down as this Democrat summer’s convention approaches. Yes, ours is an existential election, and we’re meeting it with a sigh and a shrug.