If someone gave you two minutes, as well as an experienced crew of advertising professionals, and asked you to produce a video explaining how and why Donald Trump bears personal responsibility for the severity of America’s coronavirus epidemic, there are countless ways you might approach that assignment.
The simplest method might look like an extended version of this ad from Priorities USA, which juxtaposes the dismissive statements President Trump made about Covid-19 before it began ravaging places like Chicago, Detroit, and New York with the rapidly skyrocketing American death toll.
It’s a simple story. Wiser people knew this could happen, and warned us, and the president did nothing. Preparations were not made, and, indeed, the preparations prior administrations had made were undone.
The timeline is easy to follow; we all watched it happen in real time. Trump has provided more grist for attack ads during this ongoing crisis than almost any other politician in history. He downplayed the threat of the virus seemingly based entirely on magical thinking as the federal government did effectively nothing to prepare the country for an epidemic and the Centers for Disease Control botched the rollout of the testing regime that would have been our best hope of stopping the spread of a virus that had already reached our country.
By the start of March, it was already apparent that Trump’s claim that the number of cases would be “close to zero” was among the most ridiculously untrue things any president has ever said. In the middle of March came the president’s nationally broadcast promise that widespread testing would be available in big box store parking lots. This, again, has turned out to be not just untrue but entirely unfounded; there is no evidence the administration or its supposed private sector partners ever even tried to make it true. It follows a pattern—a pattern that is helpfully recorded on TV daily—of the administration making announcements and promises that never become reality. Two minutes is plenty of time to show Trump making this widely seen promise and then show the reality. If social distancing measures preclude sending Democratic politicians to empty parking lots to hold press conferences asking where the tests are, the magic of cinema allows an image to tell the story. The liberal dark-money group Protect Our Care has made what I think is the first Democratic-aligned campaign video demanding to know where the tests Trump promised are, though it’s unclear if it will actually air anywhere besides its YouTube channel.
While the testing fiasco is the administration’s most egregious failure so far, there is really no shortage of fertile material for political messaging. You could point out that other countries have had more effective responses without blowing up their economies, and ask why our own government was incapable of following their lead. You could point out—or enlist the people experiencing the worst of this crisis firsthand to point out—that the federal government has been accused of stealing essential supplies from the hardest-hit states and no one can seem to explain why.
But instead of telling a simple story of how Trump’s incompetence (combined with his administration’s rapaciousness and corruption) completely sabotaged the nation’s response to the virus, the Joe Biden campaign—seemingly determined to play the election on Hard Mode—has decided to run with a much more complicated explanation. Ah, but it is not only more complicated; it also lacks any sort of connection to the negative traits the unpopular president is already associated with in the minds of most voters. Biden has chosen to level an accusation that doesn’t track at all with anyone’s understanding of Trump’s character and motivations.
That’s right: It’s time to get serious about China. The Biden campaign, after telegraphing a plan to accuse Donald Trump of having “rolled over for the Chinese,” released an ad this week accusing Trump of doing just that, mainly by tweeting complimentary things about the Chinese government (which had no material effect whatsoever on our own country’s handling of the coronavirus).
The ad, in other words, mostly attacks Trump for not going after China hard enough or consistently enough. It completely ignores the fact that Trump could’ve prevented some of the tens of thousands of deaths we have seen so far. The closest the ad gets to pointing out how Trump failed to contain the virus is when it accuses him of allowing too many Chinese people into the United States after he announced a travel ban. Considering that the nation’s worst outbreak likely came via travel from Europe, not China, the claim amounts to pure xenophobia.
Or, rather, it’s what it looks like when a campaign tries to appeal to people it assumes are rabid xenophobes. This is part of a broader Biden campaign strategy. His campaign released a web video with similar themes last Friday, and a campaign memo reviewed by Axios explains the entire approach.
It is frankly incoherent—the product of an attempt to fit the square peg of preexisting messaging on trade policy into the round hole of “an ongoing catastrophic global pandemic.” As one bullet point goes, “Trump entered this election year in need of a deal to stop the bleeding his trade policies had caused, but at the very same time China was misleading the world on the severity of the virus. He was so desperate for a deal that he knowingly let China’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed tens of thousands of Americans and wrecked our economy, go completely unchallenged.”
The memo makes no convincing effort to connect the dots between Trump’s tariff negotiations and the administration’s coronavirus response, because it is not meant to be an actually coherent argument or narrative; it is meant to be a collection of phrases that resemble arguments but are, in fact, only made up of words voters in focus groups claimed to care about.
The Priorities USA and Protect Our Care ads show that our professional Democratic campaign operatives, for all their various sins, are capable of clear, effective negative messaging. The only explanation I can come up with for why Biden’s campaign is doing this instead is that they have decided their decisive primary victories were a vindication of every triangulating Democratic messaging strategy devised between the years 1992 and 2006. In their China ad, they are attempting to appeal not just to the swing-voting blue-collar working-class man who believes China has stolen our jobs but also to the National Security Mom voter, who simply wishes that the president would be more effectively and consistently belligerent about China.
At The Atlantic, Peter Beinart refers to the strategy behind the ad as “ideological jujitsu,” part of a long-term trend of Democrats trying to beat Republicans at their own game. Trying to out-hawk the party most associated with hawkishness and geopolitical belligerence makes sense for a campaign trying to win over (for example) all the Jennifer Rubins out there. But, as Beinart (a reformed ex-hawk himself) says, whatever short-term advantage that strategy gives the Biden campaign will be canceled out by the long-term damage it does to the very identity of the Democratic Party.
That is, if this ad can even be said to have any short-term advantage. The electorate may not even contain enough Jennifer Rubins to make them worth courting. The electorate does, I think, contain many more people for whom the Chinese government’s supposed culpability for the virus is entirely abstract compared to the question of whether they and their families are at risk of catching the disease or losing their jobs because of the actions taken to halt its spread.
Voters can be made to understand that isolation and social distancing were necessary in part because this administration failed to monitor and contain the virus when it was still possible to limit its spread, and that its corruption and ineptitude will only make the fallout of this economic crisis worse.
But rather than making either of those cases, Biden chose to blame China for the epidemic, which essentially absolves the president of any responsibility for the crisis. There’s a reason Republicans were already blaming China, brandishing polling that shows that many Americans do in fact hold the country responsible. For a Democratic presidential campaign to respond to that polling by reinforcing Republican messaging—perhaps imagining it’s cleverly turning the tables on the GOP—is an example of thinking nearly as magical as imagining in February that the virus would simply go away on its own.
Even if the existence of Covid-19 was clearly and definitively the fault of the Chinese government—even if it was a bioweapon created by China and deliberately inflicted on the U.S.—our own government’s inept response would still be most of the reason why so many Americans are dead and dying. Trump didn’t “roll over” for China; he is planning to blame them for his own, ongoing, metastasizing ineptitude. His opponent might consider pointing out the consequences of that ineptitude instead of co-signing the bullshit excuse.