By Robert Reich
It seems likely that the two major contenders for president next year will be Joe Biden and Donald Trump.
What will be their messages?
Biden has framed that choice as competence or craziness. His new “Bidenomics” blueprint makes clear that America has done well under his quietly competent leadership — featuring significant public investment, taming of inflation, and rebirth of manufacturing.
Trump has framed the choice as strength or weakness.
I’d rather have someone in the White House who’s competent (even if weak) than someone who’s crazy (even if strong).
But I fear voters may choose strength over competence.
Strength is one of the central narratives of America. In the mythic telling, America was borne from grit, guts, and gumption.
You probably learned it in school: We fought for our independence. We “tamed” the frontier. We won the Revolution. We prevailed in World Wars I and II.
The story conveniently leaves out slavery and genocide, as well as the more recent tragedies of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Latin America. But it’s deeply engrained in the American mind — far more so than is competence.
Besides his Big Lie, Trump’s most dangerous con has been that America needs a strongman, and he fits the bill.
For Trump, every issue boils down to strength or weakness. Trump admires strongmen. He seeks dominance. He despises vulnerability.
Although he has never mentioned “social Darwinism” (I doubt he even knows the term), it’s the snake oil Trump sells — survival of the fittest, success to the mightiest, victory to the strongest. Life is a competitive struggle. America will be great only if we reward the strong and punish the weak.
Trump’s base — along with millions of other working Americans — feel bullied by a system that has marginalized and diminished them.
Trump blames liberal Democrats, Marxists, socialists, “coastal elites,” the Deep State, the FBI, the Justice Department, the IRS, and the Mainstream Media, along with non-whites and immigrants.
This angry base includes men who feel they’ve lost ground to women’s growing economic and political power.
Trump’s base wants a strongman who will bully these bullies.
Trump acts the part of a heroic brawler who’s loathed by the establishment but loved by the masses. His vindictiveness toward cultural elites makes his followers feel vindicated. “I am your voice,” he said on July 21, 2016. Many believed him then and still do.
It’s all a show, of course. Trump is a billionaire grifter who as president gave away trillions in tax cuts to billionaires and continues to rake in money from his time in office. But the more indignant Trump makes the cultural establishment, the happier his base, because their indignation makes them feel vindicated.
Finally, you can bet that Trump and the Republicans will magnify every sign of Biden’s frailty — his occasional difficulties pronouncing words, his slow gait, his moments of confusion. And they will do whatever they can to project Trump’s vitality.
So, I fear “competence or craziness” won’t do it.
The best way for Biden and the Democrats to counteract Trump’s “strength or weakness” is by taking aim at the real bullies of America — the C-suite oligarchs, Wall Street plutocrats, billionaire monopolists who have been riding roughshod over the vast majority of Americans.
End their big-monied corruption of our democracy. Stop their monopolizing of the economy. Prevent them from using their economic power to raise prices. Call a halt to their firing workers without notice, shipping jobs abroad, and busting unions.
“Bidenomics” could create hundreds of thousands of good manufacturing jobs. That’s good, but not sufficient.
The most powerful force in American politics today is anti-establishment fury at a rigged economic system.
To counter Trump’s fake battle with cultural elites whom he accuses of undermining America’s moral core, Biden should mount a real battle against economic elites who have shafted America’s middle and working classes.