The television ads — Democratic as well as Republican — that blanket the nation are largely about one man. The midautumn blizzard of card-stock political fliers that jam mail boxes in swing states more often than not feature the face of one man. The political debates that ricochet across the Internet and that dominate discussions on the porches of a virus-wary nation, in outdoor seating at coffee shops and restaurants gamely enforcing social distancing, and, especially, in the lines outside the schools, community centers, and libraries where Americans are clogging the sidewalks in record numbers for early voting — they all are about one man.
Donald John Trump, of course.
Seldom in the history of the world’s oldest democracy — perhaps never in the 57 American national political contests following the two unanimous late 18th-century Electoral College victories of George Washington — has a presidential campaign turned simply on the nation’s verdict on the character, the personality, the style, the behavior, and — important though perhaps not, on election eve, quite so front of mind — the policies of one individual.
Indeed, at this moment of national decision, Trump stands outside the norms of our history, even as he is inexorably central to it.
“More than in any other case in our history, this election is about one man’s brand of leadership,” said Tom Ridge, who will vote against Trump Tuesday despite having occupied a House seat in Washington and the Governor’s Residences in Harrisburg, Pa., as a Republican and having been appointed to a Cabinet post in a Republican administration. “The question for voters is whether he is satisfactory or not. Nothing more.”
Of all the contentious issues that swirl around our contemporary politics — whether Amy Coney Barrett should be sitting on the Supreme Court, whether the 2017 tax cuts helped the middle class as much as they boosted the rich, whether the wealth gap and racial tensions have grown in the past four years, whether climate change was produced by human factors, even whether to wear a face mask as a deadly pandemic storms across the country — perhaps the only matter on which there is broad agreement is the paramount role Trump plays in the American conversation.
“Trump is the dominant factor in this election, even in my contest this fall,” said Senator Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat. “He’s at the center of everything, even at the state level, putting justice — racial, economic, environment, and health care — on the ballot.”
The Trump Factor, moreover, is what gives Democrats an unusual sense of unity despite having a presidential candidate with the air of a retread in his third presidential campaign — the same number contested by William Jennings Bryan, a spent force by the time he faced William Howard Taft in 1908. It is also what binds and supercharges the Trump base in rural America and among blue-collar voters fearful of their economic prospects and resentful of the hauteur of the coastal elites. It is what propels some traditional Republicans wary of budget deficits and worshipful of time-honored political folkways into a reluctant embrace of former vice president Joseph R. Biden Jr. It is what has supercharged some devout conservatives into an anti-Trump counter-insurgency.
And it is probably what historians will remember when they examine this fevered election, held amid high unemployment and high virus death tolls, years and decades from now.
“This is singular in our politics,” said the Harvard social and political historian Lisa McGirr. “Other campaigns in American history had very significant national issues that divided the parties. But this is very different. The focus on Trump is a departure from everything we have experienced, and his challenge to the customs and expectations of our politics has made him an outsized figure.”
All about him
Character, style, and personality, to be sure, have always been part of the nation’s political calculus. They are what transformed such disparate presidents as Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan into popular symbols that remain evocative in the American memory. They are what made William Henry Harrison and his log-cabin-and-hard-cider image an irresistible candidate in 1840, what made Ulysses S. Grant the natural choice for president after the Civil War, what accounted for the easy ascendancy of Dwight D. Eisenhower to the White House after World War II. The latter two were alike victorious generals, to be sure, but in politics their draw also grew out of something simpler, something indelibly American in their makeup.
Nor did character and personality govern the outcome of the 1932 election, almost universally considered by historians as a turning point in our politics. The electorate didn’t pivot away from Herbert Hoover because of the the warmth and vision customarily associated with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but rather on FDR’s campaign promise of a “New Deal” to battle the Great Depression — a promise, according to the Williams College FDR biographer Susan Dunn, built, at that point, on programs “so unspecific that they were almost meaningless.”
Donald Trump is a very different sort of president and candidate, whose way of doing things is almost always as important as what he does. He has been determined from the start to make the national conversation all about him. What is astonishing is how thoroughly he succeeded in that singular goal.
“This election is not a contest of the left against the right,” said Tad Devine, a top Democratic political strategist. “It’s just him all the time, and I can’t remember a campaign so candidate-centric, one where one candidate’s whims — a campaign where whatever one candidate feels like saying — drives the politics. For a campaign opposing ‘Trump world,’ the challenge is not to respond, not to burn out your candidate, not to feel frustration about not fully engaging the issues — and simply letting Trump hurt himself.”
Not a ‘referendum’ election
Those in the Trump inner circle know that their candidate is the singular factor in Tuesday’s election, and they aren’t entirely content in that. They have tried to make the campaign about the frailty and foibles, the policies and priorities, of their rival, a 77-year-old lifetime politician with nearly four dozen years in Washington and hundreds of votes on Capitol Hill. Despite their best efforts and millions of dollars of ads, those have remained minor subthemes of the 2020 contest.
These are not the circumstances the Trump political people want. They are the circumstances they cannot alter.
“We are trying to make this a ‘choice’ election rather than a ‘referendum’ election,” said John Brabender, a top GOP media strategist working with the Trump campaign. “It hasn’t been easy. We have a candidate who controls the news cycle, sometimes to our detriment, and of course that draws audiences and people pay attention. We cannot argue Trump isn’t a ‘made-for-breaking-news’ candidate. Sometimes that’s an advantage, sometimes not.”
For the past four years, Trump has dominated the media spotlight in a way no president ever has contemplated or achieved. A study produced by the Media Cloud project at MIT found that one in every four news stories produced since he became president has mentioned him by name, a striking contrast with the Obama years, when the 44th president appeared in only one in 10 stories.
“We’ve never before had a situation where one person sucks the oxygen out of our nation’s collective newsroom the way Donald Trump does,” said David Boardman, dean of Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication. “Nearly every issue is presented through the prism of Trump, whether he’s for it or against it . . . The result is the loss of nuanced understanding and the neglect of important topics that don’t revolve around him.”
Some in the Trump camp believe the news media has been an unindicted coconspirator in that relentless pattern. “Trump understands that he is the best thing that’s happened to The New York Times and CNN,” said Brabender, the Trump adviser. “His style is a way for the left to sell newspapers and get viewers.”
It also is a way for outlets on the right, including Fox News, to do the same. “The conservative outlets have really profited,” said Susan King, the former ABC White House correspondent who now is dean of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. “Trump’s election elevated Fox to a level and stature it never had before.”
Also always in view, is the coronavirus pandemic, the more than 232,000 deaths it has caused — and the president’s response.
“The pandemic is a once-in-a-generation event, a turning point of the first order,” said Jason Opal, a McGill University historian writing a history of epidemic diseases in the United States with his father, Steven Opal, a clinical professor of medicine at Brown. “It’s one of the rare events that can ‘move the needle,’ that can change the minds of independent voters or, just as importantly, of indifferent voters.”
Even by doing too little on the virus — at least in the view of his detractors — Trump still occupies the center of the debate. “Though Trump blusters, he’s militant about his passivity and has divested all his responsibility on COVID,” said Max Skidmore, a political scientist at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and author of a book on presidential leadership during health crises. “This is an unusual situation: a national crisis without national leadership.”
‘Feeling of connection’
American presidents — Kennedy and Reagan for their glamour, even Eisenhower for his down-home Swanson TV dinners of Salisbury steak, whipped potatoes, and peas on tray tables — often have become cultural touchstones, but none with the force of Trump, who emerged as a reality-television personality and transferred those attributes to the White House.
“Trump wants everything to be about him,” said GOP political strategist Stuart Stevens, a prominent figure in the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, “and the voters agree.”
Even Richard Nixon, who cultivated a bumper harvest of resentment spanning four separate decades, did not prompt a national obsession remotely as strong as that of the 45th president.
“Trump’s personality — his grandiosity, his narcissism — has obsessed both his supporters and critics,” said Noel C. Gardner, a psychiatrist on the faculty of the University of Utah. “He’s constantly in our minds, the ultimate celebrity in a celebrity-obsessed society, and people — even his opponents — have a constant feeling of connection to him. No president has ever had this level of direct contact or personal relationship with individual Americans.”
That feeling is particularly strong among some women, perhaps the critical voting group in Tuesday’s election. “Some women feel they will follow him to the end of the earth,” said Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Pittsburgh’s Chatham University, “and some women will do anything they can to get this man out of office.”
The irony is that so divisive a political figure can be so many things at once.
“For the left he’s a benchmark autocrat, joining his peers Bolsonaro of Brazil and Duterte of the Philippines and predecessors like Mussolini,” said Martin Kaplan, a University of Southern California expert on popular culture. “And for his supporters he stands for ‘owning the libs,’ meaning that he harnessed the rage and despair of the people who (believe that liberals) look down on the people of faith and the hard workers.”
As a result, Tuesday’s election is not so much about where Trump stands on the issues. It is instead about how profoundly and immovably he stands alone.