Trump vs Biden: Can the fear strategy work this time?

Watching US President Donald Trump’s speech on the final night of the Republicans National Convention Thursday night, I was struck by much of what he said. It was a scary speech. It was long and fluent, but scary.

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It was more of a general’s call to war than a speech outlining an election campaign platform of an incumbent president running for election. In his speech, the president cast this election as a war for America between god-fearing patriots and the radical left which wants to hijack the country and ‘cancel’ its Bible-guided culture. Trump must have uttered the word Bible a dozen times.

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As he wrapped his speech with a call to ‘take back America’, I couldn’t help but think that I have heard this before. And indeed, I have — 28 years ago.

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In 1992, US President George Bush Sr. was running for re-election. His Democratic rival was 46-year-old Governor of Arkansas named Bill Clinton. Bush, an establishment man who served as Ronald Reagan vice-president for eight years, head of the CIA, an ambassador and member of Congress before that.

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Feeling the heat from the young and energetic liberal candidate, the Republican party turned the campaign into a fight over the ‘soul of America’. Speaker after speaker at the convention appealed to Americans to shun those godless liberals, to reflect the god-fearing Bush and preserve family values. Chief among those who spoke tirelessly on the importance of religious and family values were Senator Phil Graham and conservative commentator Pat Buchanan.

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‘The religious war in America’

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Buchanan’s ‘Cultural War’ speech on August 17, 1992, at the Republican convention has become not only a historical anecdote of party conventions but also, I believe, as a defining moment that changed the Republican Party forever.

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To the deafening roars of the hundreds that filled the convention room, Buchanan declared: “There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. For this war is for the soul of America.”

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Playing on the fears of white conservative America, he listed the anti-god agenda of Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary: “abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat units. That’s change, all right. But that’s not the kind of change America needs. It’s not the kind of change America wants. And it’s not the kind of change we can abide in a nation we still call ‘God’s country.’”

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In conclusion, he called on Americans to “take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.” He was referring to the Los Angeles riots that took place three months before the convention after a TV station broadcast footage of white policeman beating a black motorist. The violent riots continued for more than a week and paralysed the city.

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America, of course, shunned his dark vision of the country and Bush lost the election that year to Clinton, as we know.

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Twenty years later, on Thursday night, President Trump delivered what could be his most important speech ever. In the 70-minutes speech, before a packed White House lawn, he tried to emphasise his achievements as president in the past four years while attacking the vision of his rival, Joe Biden.

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Trump trims Biden’s poll lead

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Trump may have recently succeeded in energising what was perceived as a crumbling re-election campaign. The polls have yet to show the voters’ reaction now that the Republican convention is over. But recent polls have been showing that Trump has managed to recover dramatically and narrowed the once-double digits Biden lead. The latest numbers show that Biden leads the president by 4-6 points nationally. The election is 9 weeks away.

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Trump was widely criticised for his poor initial response to the coronavirus outbreak and then came the George Floyd killing, which ate into whatever support he has had in America’s minorities. But as the economy seems to be recovering from the devastating impact of the pandemic faster than expected (the US markets are at a record high having erased all the pandemic losses and fewer people are filing for unemployment insurance), Americans may have a serious rethink.

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With the jobless still in the millions, it is natural that families are worried about a setback to the economy if Trump loses the White House — a point that the Trump campaign has successfully made it central to the election. “Over the past three months, we have gained over 9 million jobs, a new record,” Trump told America on Thursday.

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These jobs will be in danger, of course, if the pandemic persists or worse if the number of new cases and fatalities go higher, as the case in Europe and Asia, which may rattle the already nervous markets. Trump used his speech to assure everyone that a COVID-19 vaccine will be ready sooner than expected — perhaps before the year-end. “We will defeat the virus, end the pandemic, and emerge stronger than ever before,” he declared.

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He continued to hit on the jobs theme and to play on the nation’s fear of more job losses alleging that Biden, will “abolish” the production of American oil, coal, shale, and natural gas. “Millions of jobs will be lost, and energy prices will soar,” Trump claimed.

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‘A culture in danger’

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But in the more significant parts of the speech, he seemed to deviate from that central theme to invoke another type of fear. In a Buchanan-style, he warned Americans that the safety of their families is at stake; their god-fearing culture is in danger. Biden and his radical-left allies will empower ‘anarchists and criminals’ who have ‘taken over our cities’, the president warned.

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Modern American history tells us that candidates who invoked fear in their campaigns usually lost to those who spread the message of hope. Those who dwelt on the past were defeated by those who asked their citizens to embrace the future.

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But Trump’s strategy of seizing on the nation’s fear — of the economy, the pandemic and safety, may prove a successful strategy at this juncture. Such strategy is usually avoided by presidential candidates but in the case of the 2020 election, and under the current circumstance, who knows it may work.

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The Morning and Evening Brief

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