Standing in Philadelphia before an image of the Constitution, former President Barack Obama, known for his even temperament, laid out a dramatic argument: The survival of the democracy founded here depends on the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
“I want to talk as plainly as I can about the stakes in this election,” Obama said Wednesday during the Democratic National Convention, “because what we do these next 76 days will echo through generations to come.”
In his speech at the Museum of the American Revolution, he warned, “That’s what at stake right now: Our democracy.”
A day later, in a very different setting just outside Scranton, President Donald Trump, standing before a line of trucks and Stars-and-Stripes bunting at a warehouse for a kitchen remodeler, told his supporters that their very way of life is under threat.
“At stake in this election is the survival of our nation,” Trump, whose own party convention is next week, said in Old Forge. “It’s true, because we’re dealing with crazy people on the other side. They’ve gone totally, stone-cold crazy.”
He later added, “If you want a vision of your life under a Biden presidency, think of the smoldering ruins in Minneapolis, the violent anarchy of Portland, the bloodstained sidewalks of Chicago, and imagine the mayhem coming to your town and every single town in America.”
In their twin visits to Pennsylvania — a state that could decide who leads America the next four years — the current and former presidents agreed on one idea: The election will bring apocalyptic consequences if their side loses.
Trump, a walking Rorschach test for many Americans, said something else aimed at his supporters, but that might be echoed in both of the country’s political tribes.
“They’re coming to get you. ... and me, we, we’re the wall between the American dream and total insanity, and the destruction of the greatest country in the history of the world,” the president said, distilling his campaign message into a single sentence.
Throngs of supporters lined the streets outside his event, waving American flags and Trump flags.
The dueling messages in the state where the Constitution was written served to frame the election in unusually dire terms. Every four years, candidates claim the election is the “most important of our lifetimes,” but this year, voters seem to agree. In a Pew Research Center poll this month, 83% of registered voters agreed that “it really matters” who wins the presidency, a greater percentage than at any point in the last 20 years.
“This is a life-changing election,” Democratic nominee Joe Biden said in his acceptance speech Thursday in Wilmington.
That intensity has fueled a tension that has been building since the day Trump won election, when part of the country celebrated and another part launched a four-year drive to show that it was a freak event that must be repudiated.
It also follows growing “affective polarization,” in which the parties don’t just sort themselves along ideological lines, but increasingly despise and fear each other, said David Greenberg, a political historian at Rutgers University.
“If you’re a liberal Democrat, it’s not just that you don’t vote with Republicans, but you hate Republicans. You think they’re evil, you think they’re going to bring America to ruin, you think they’re racists and fascists,” Greenberg said, while Republicans view Democrats “as socialists and communists and radicals and so on.
“A generation ago, people would say they didn’t want their child to marry someone of a different race, but it didn’t matter if the child married someone of a different political party,” Greenberg added. “Nowadays, it’s reversed.”
Greenberg said studies have found polarization is more intense and more driven by conservatives, but he said liberals are following a similar course. He noted how many on the left objected to moderate Republicans such as former Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaking at the Democratic convention, even though he supported Biden.
The charges leveled by each party differ in nature — and in their basis in reality. But they each show how many Americans see this election as an existential fight, and raise questions about how the country will move forward once the winner emerges.
Democrats point to undisputed instances in which Trump has run wild over the normal boundaries and checks on a president, used law enforcement as a political tool to hound his enemies while urging leniency for his friends, inflamed racial tensions for political gain, and catered to authoritarians. (In Pennsylvania, he touted his friendly relationship with Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan.) He has tried to shred independent oversight, including nonpartisan government watchdogs, law enforcement, and the news media.
They warn against accepting his daily stream of lies, and point to the president’s erratic handling of a pandemic that has killed more than 170,000 Americans, ravaged the economy, and brought much of life to a halt.
Most recently, Trump has fueled doubts about the legitimacy of the vote itself and suggested he would accept only one outcome, repeating in Old Forge, “The only way they’re going to win is by a rigged election.”
That was just a day after Obama had said, “This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win.”
Much of the four-day Democratic convention centered on simply arguing that Biden is a kind and decent person who cares for other people — a perhaps unremarkable trait that Democrats clearly saw as a stark contrast to the sitting president.
Amid the dire warnings, Biden concluded the event with a call for hope.
“The current president has cloaked America in darkness for much too long. Too much anger, too much fear, too much division,” Biden said, never mentioning Trump by name. “Here and now, I give you my word: If you entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us, not the worst. I’ll be an ally of the light, not the darkness.”
Trump, by contrast, cast himself as a shield for his supporters against dangerous enemies who would take their guns, their jobs, and their right to hold contrary opinions, and bring crime to their towns. Many of his accusations — including on guns and fracking — were exaggerations, distortions, or flat-out untrue. Almost all played on fear or antipathy, and a promise to fight back.
“They want to cancel you,” Trump warned. “Totally cancel you. Take your job, turn your family against you for speaking your mind, while they indoctrinate your children with twisted, twisted, world views that nobody ever thought possible.”
He later added, “Joe Biden is the candidate of these privileged liberal hypocrites who hold you and your values in disdain. But you can send them all a thundering message on Election Day by voting for Trump-Pence.”
Despite speaking for about an hour, there was only passing mention of his plans for a second term, other than a general promise to revive the economy and a fact-free statement that the country is now in the “hopefully closing moments of the pandemic.” Otherwise, he barely mentioned the virus upending American life.
Trump gets his turn in the spotlight Monday with the start of the Republican National Convention. If his Pennsylvania speech is any indicator, there won’t suddenly be a detailed vision for a brighter America.