Trump vs. Biden: Can we overcome our disbelief?

A combination photo of US President Joe Biden and Donald Trump. (AP)
A combination photo of US President Joe Biden and Donald Trump. (AP)

Summary

We’re asked to accept that the incumbent is sharp as a tack and the challenger has the character to lead.

Like a good movie, a successful presidential campaign requires the willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewing public. On the screen, we know that improbable plot twists, physically impossible stunt acts, and the ubiquity of dreamily beautiful characters bear little resemblance to the reality of our own human drama. But we waive our incredulity because we feel that somewhere beyond the preposterous embellishments is a core truth that speaks credibly to our hopes and fears.

Presidential campaigns are similar. Almost none of us believe all the implausible promises we are told. No candidate is the model of national leadership they all purport to be. To commit one’s vote to an inevitably flawed person and endow him with powers that include the still more or less unique capacity to blow the world to pieces requires a leap of faith in someone most of us can’t ever really know.

It is a vital decision, nonetheless, testifying to our values and framing our future, so we suspend our doubts, swallow hard and make our imperfect choice.

But has there ever been a campaign in American history in which so many were required to suspend so much disbelief in such daunting circumstances as the 2024 election? Have we ever faced a campaign in which we have been more obliged to smother the small, hard kernel of fear at the heart of our choice with ever thinner gossamer layers of hope?

What makes this contest especially unusual is that this must be the first contest in which those close to the two main protagonists know only too well more reasons to doubt the fitness of their man for office than do the voters at large.

On President Biden’s side, the louder the protestations we hear from his aides that his age isn’t a problem, the more we can be certain that it is. “Behind closed doors, Biden shows signs of slipping," as a Journal article put it recently. The energy Democrats exert rebutting the story is all you needed to know about its accuracy.

No one needs to go behind closed doors to see the slippage. The inner-sanctum fiction we have been sold for the past few years is that Mr. Biden isn’t the fumbling, mumbling, stumbling geriatric on display every day on our screens. Behind closed doors, he as sharp as a tack, smart as a whip, fresh as a daisy. The effort to persuade us to suspend our growing disbelief in his capabilities that we derive from the evidence of our own eyes isn’t only risible. It is an act of disreputable and irresponsible dishonesty from those who know best.

I would wager that if you fed the president’s senior associates a truth serum and then asked them if they were confident he could do the job for another four years, the honesty you would hear would scare the living daylights out of you.

But the fictions we are being asked to believe about Donald Trump are equally far-fetched. Though he too is showing indications of age-related decline, it’s not his competence that’s primarily at issue but his character. The public has had a good chance to see the measure of the man by now and most continue to think it unsuited to the presidency. As it is with Mr. Biden’s closest associates, you can rest assured that those who have worked closely with the man are swallowing doubts so large they have lumps the size of basketballs in their throats.

Ask any number of the many people who served in his first administration and have sworn, public or privately, that they will never work for him again. I still have whiplash from the exercise of listening to Republicans say lacerating things about him in private and then spinning around to hear them extol his peerless virtues in public.

In their defense, the reason they, and many ordinary voters on both sides of the aisle, will argue for their candidate despite their mountain of doubts is a simple one. Their disbelief in the desirability of their own candidate’s presidency is outweighed only by their disbelief in the plausibility of the other’s. We are in an alarming condition: My fear of the other guy is slightly larger than my fear of my own guy.

I don’t mean to sound naive. I’ve been around enough politicians and their supporters to know how “Picture of Dorian Gray" wide the gap can be between the portrait they paint of their candidate and the reality locked away somewhere in an attic.

But in politics, as in the movies, the suspension of disbelief can go only so far. Movies fail when the fictions we are being asked to credit become simply too large and improbable for even the most credulous eye.

When that happens, when a film bombs, only the producers suffer. But this is a plot line in which an entire country’s future is at stake. Our disbelief in the story no longer suspended, the reality we must deal with will have to be seen to be believed.

 

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