If you’ve been paying careful attention, you’ll know that this year’s presidential election is — factually speaking — between two septuagenarian straight white men, Joe Biden and Donald Trump. But one of those guys is working diligently to figure out how he can instead run against a Black woman.
On Monday, Trump sent a tweet claiming that Biden’s “handlers” and the “Fake News Media” were doing “everything possible” to get Biden, whom Trump has long tried to portray as physically and mentally infirm, “through the election. Then he will resign, or whatever, and we are stuck with a super liberal wack job NOBODY wanted.”
In other words, Trump wants to suggest to his base, Biden’s running mate, California senator Kamala Harris, is the real presidential candidate.
Those implications got even clearer on Tuesday, as Republicans circulated a clip of Harris — who spent ten months on the 2020 presidential campaign trail — making an accidental reference to a “Harris administration” during a weekend roundtable in which she was talking about $100 billion in loans to minority business owners. Harris had caught herself quickly, and, at the same event, made multiple references to a future “Biden-Harris administration.” But the fire was lit, and on Tuesday morning, the president’s son Eric tweeted the four-second clip along with a comment: “Kamala Harris lets the truth slip.” White House spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany soon had the video up, spliced with a Biden clip in which he had accidentally said “Harris-Biden administration” and McEnany’s own thoughtful analysis: “Kamala Harris and Puppet @JoeBiden ADMIT that Kamala would be the real President & Joe would be a puppet!! The HARRIS administration! SCARY.”
It is surely a moment of sweet relief and possibility for a beleaguered Trump — once again in competition for a job he was surprised to win four years ago, this time in the midst of massive health and economic crises that he has made immeasurably worse. He has, for some time, been grasping for creative ways to effectively deploy racism, misogyny, and fearmongering about left-wing politics against Biden, an entirely average older white man who peddles bipartisan comity and just-left-of-center politics.
As Adam Serwer wrote earlier this summer, “After 12 years of feasting on white identity politics with a black man and a woman as its preeminent villains, the Republican Party is struggling to run its Obama-era culture-wars playbook against an old, moderate white guy.”
It’s not that Trump hasn’t put some effort in, working all summer to raise a panic about a white suburban culture under attack by radical leftists, denouncing the removal of monuments to the Confederacy, and otherwise attempting to run a racist “law and order” playbook that has so far been oddly ineffective against the author of the disastrous 1994 crime bill and his running mate, a former prosecutor. Perhaps Trump’s most desperate gambit has been trying to make “Obiden” — a name that is supposed to indelibly link Biden to the nation’s first Black president, whom he served under as vice-president — happen. Trouble is, being linked to Obama is Biden’s whole schtick, part of what is supposed to make him a balm; also, the name Obiden just makes Biden sound like an affable shebeen proprietor from an SNL skit.
But now it appears that Trump is working to construct a narrative in which he is actually running against Harris, who he is positioning as the real presidential candidate.
It’s a risk, because so far, Harris (to whom Trump and his daughter Ivanka donated thousands of collars as recently as 2011 and 2013, when she was California’s attorney general) has proven to be a tough target for him.
Self-assured and much smarter than he, willing to call him callous and incompetent and to joke about his smallness — Harris is precisely the kind of woman who gives Trump the willies. Upon her selection, Trump immediately kicked into racist, sexist disparagement mode, calling her “the meanest,” “most horrible,” “disrespectful,” and “extraordinarily nasty,” one of his standby descriptors for women he finds unpalatable or threatening. But Trump was always going to have a hard time selling Harris — an energetic talker and joke teller who steadily thrums with laughter (sometimes at her own jokes) and wears Converse sneakers and rainbow sparkle jackets for Pride — as nasty and horrible, especially after she was selected by Biden, one of the candidates she’d hit hardest during the primaries but had now taken her on as running mate.
Trump quickly sharpened his portrayal of Harris — who is Black and of Indian descent — by presenting her as a classically caricatured Angry Black Woman, pointing to her 2018 questioning of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault, during his confirmation hearings. He told Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo, “You have, sort of, a mad woman, I call her, because she was so angry and … such hatred with Justice Kavanaugh,” Trump said. “She was the angriest of the group, and they were all angry … These are seriously ill people.”
Again, none of this was a layup for Trump, who cannot seem to remember that a majority of Americans felt, even at the time, that Kavanaugh should not have been confirmed. Enough women (and men) were angry — like Trump’s depiction of Harris — that a historic number actually won election to House and state legislative seats two months later.
So in substance, Trump hasn’t found his footing in his attacks on Harris or Biden. But last week, while making a point at his North Carolina rally of repeatedly mispronouncing Harris’s name three times in a row — an attempt to convey her foreignness, a callback to the birtherism on which he launched his political career — he hit on the (real!) possibility of a woman with such a name possibly becoming the first female president one day.
“She could never be the first woman president,” Trump told his crowd. “She could never be. That would be an insult to our country.”
He was just working his basic racism and misogyny, but in edging toward a future in which Harris herself was the candidate for president, he found something to work with — an area in which he will find much comfort and ease. Like slipping into a warm bath.
It’s a script that Trump’s colleagues in the Republican Party have been foregrounding, and pushing, for a while. In a July op-ed for the Hill, Republican Judd Gregg, former governor and senator from New Hampshire, wrote about the coming “Biden Coup,” in which he predicted Biden’s position at the top of the ticket was temporary. Gregg even included a tie-in to Trump’s white-supremacist fearmongering about the removal of Confederate statuary by casting Biden as one of those old monuments himself: “Within a few months of assuming the presidency, Biden may find himself being the next statue toppled as the socialist/progressive movement moves closer to power. Replacing him with his vice president” — whom at that point Gregg already knew would be a woman — “could be deemed necessary to the cause.”
The replacement of a moderate white man who is himself not inherently repellent to a conservative base with a woman who, regardless of her actual politics, can be depicted as maniacal in her pursuit of left-wing power is a longtime Republican strategy. It’s part of how the right first villainized Hillary Clinton in the 1990s, casting her as a radical feminist with a left-wing agenda, the real power behind her centrist white Southerner husband. More recently, in the summer of 2017, Jon Ossoff — now the Democratic Senate candidate against David Perdue in Georgia — was running for Georgia’s Sixth District House seat. Republicans fought against Ossoff, a young white man who looked to have come straight from the Old-Timey Candidate Factory, by sending out mailers that showed Ossoff as a puppet, controlled by a cackling Nancy Pelosi, and another in which he ripped off the Inoffensive White Guy mask to reveal Pelosi underneath.
It’s been hard to cast Biden as secretly controlled by Harris — or Pelosi or Elizabeth Warren or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or any of the other scary women and progressive candidates out there — given that he beat a field full of women and left-leaning candidates this spring.
As ancillary to Biden, Harris is by definition secondary to him; as a Black Woman, she may be historically unprecedented on a major party ticket, but she was granted power by a white man, and her name will be below his on a ticket. Everyone understands the implicit limitations there, including the Democratic Party, which during the convention showed a cringey video clip of a little girl asking her mother if one day she might become vice-president.
Trump can’t hit Biden for being ambitious (though he is) because Biden is a white man whose campaign consists almost entirely of stories about what a genuinely nice guy he is. He can’t effectively make fun of his name or call him crazy because he is the quintessential American norm: straight, white, male.
This is, of course, a huge part of why Biden is the nominee: People were so scared that Trump would again mine the deep vein of brutish misogyny and racism on his way to winning back the White House that Biden was directly advertised, including by his own account, as a way to allay those fears. “I think there’s a lot of sexism in the way they went after Hillary,” Biden said last year. “I think it was unfair. An awful lot of it. Well, that’s not gonna happen with me.”
But Trump is working on a way that it can happen to him by playing on some realities: Harris is a proudly ambitious politician who obviously — as a former candidate — would like to be the president someday. If she is elected vice-president, she will be second in line for the White House and as well set up as any woman before her to run for president in the future.
Given that, Trump is looking for a twofer: a way to position himself again as a bulwark against a threateningly competent and assertive woman — which is what he did in 2016, running against Clinton — and, along the way, to emasculate the white man who is his actual competitor, and who, as Monica Hesse recently argued in the Washington Post, has been running a testosterone-fueled campaign, full of raised fists, vrooming cars, and assertions that he could totally beat up Trump.
With the suggestion that Harris is actually there to take over for his job, Trump directs his own worst fears toward Biden: that he’ll be outstripped by a woman, a Black woman no less. It gives Trump what he’s most comfortable and confident fighting against — a Black woman he can portray as plotting her dastardly course toward the White House — and thereby returns to him the weapon he’s missed most dearly since Biden got the nomination: the ability to persuade voters that their white capitalist patriarchy is under direct attack.
The tactic, whether it works or not, is a terrible reminder of how the worst thing you can say about a woman in a political context is that she wants to be president of the United States. From one angle, it bolsters the arguments made by those, including Biden, who felt that Biden’s white masculinity was his greatest weapon. Then again, I think ruefully, if Trump was going to just act like he was running against a woman anyway, we might as well have nominated one.