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What Story Do Americans Want to Hear?

Rogers M. Smith

Political figures on all sides decry “fake news” today. But politics has always been driven more by stories than facts. As different as they are in all other regards, both of America’s last two presidents won wildly improbable electoral successes while telling compelling stories about their country and themselves. Barack Obama made his own hopeful story a symbol of the American quest for greater unity through embracing diversity—e pluribus unum, out of many, one. Donald Trump told a dark story of how selfish liberal elites had betrayed the American people, while presenting himself as the prototypical successful white Christian American entrepreneur who could make America great again. (Hillary Clinton’s story stressed how she would be the nation’s first woman president, signaled by the slogan, “I’m with her,” which Trump crushed by telling voters, “I’m with you”).

Facts can, however, discredit stories. Obama’s tale of himself as the nation’s great unifier shattered against the Tea Party uprising and obstinate GOP obstructionism. Trump, who promised to end “American carnage,” insisting “I alone can fix it,” entered the summer of 2020 beset by a public health crisis, an economic crisis, and a crisis of national outrage against racist police abuses, all of historic proportions. His initial response—“I don’t take responsibility at all”—is not playing well. What stories of America can he and his rival Joe Biden hope to tell that Americans want to hear in 2020? What stories might bring one of them not only electoral success, but success once in office?

Good stories right now must speak to the nation’s current triple-crises and envision paths to overcoming them all. Trump’s best hope, which matches his instincts, is to update his “Make America Great Again” saga by insisting that he was succeeding in doing just that, until America’s malignant Chinese competitors infected the world with COVID-19, until cowardly and partisan Democratic state and local officials locked down their citizens in violation of personal and economic liberties, until those same officials failed to stand strong against violent, radical, anti-American protestors who falsely accuse decent Americans, including the nation’s police, of racism. Re-electing Trump, this story goes, will bring a V-shaped economic recovery, and victory on all other fronts, as the virus fades and the protestors are dominated.

Trump’s challenge, however, is whether finger-pointing and celebration of pre-March 2020 America will really enable him to pass the buck that Harry Truman said stopped at the President’s desk. The video of the killing of George Floyd, on top of so much evidence of many other police killings of African Americans, has produced greater white acceptance of the reality of racist misconduct, even among Republicans. Few outside Trump’s base appear to buy his assertions that racism can be overcome “very quickly and very easily.” Few are applauding his championing of bases named for Confederates, and the U.S. military is resisting his efforts to deploy them to intimidate all opponents. Steven Miller, the anti-immigrant zealot with white nationalist roots who seems now to be Trump’s most trusted aide apart from his family members, is said to be preparing a major speech on race. Its substance may determine whether Trump wishes to tell a story of America that is more than a paean to himself and America’s white Christian past, and whether many Americans will still see him as their protector, not their persecutor.

Given Republican advantages in the Electoral College, however, Joe Biden must build a broad coalition to defeat Trump. Given the breadth and depth of today’s crises, he cannot do so by calling on Americans to dismiss Trump as an aberration and to return to normalcy, or to the Obama era. He must become a credible champion not only for old-line white Democrats like himself but also for younger progressives and militant people of color seeking big changes. He must do so by telling a story of America that portrays bold initiatives as fitting with what is best in America’s past and present, and one in which he can place his own story.

Biden’s age, his record on criminal justice policies, Anita Hill, his gaffe-prone nature, and more burden him with heavy baggage. Yet he made a good start in his June 2nd Philadelphia speech on the protests. He said that American history “isn’t a fairytale with a guaranteed happy ending,” but rather a battle, never finally won, to “become the nation where all men and women are not only created equal—but treated equally.” He sought to unite Americans around that sense of unfulfilled common purpose by addressing “systemic racism,” “real police reform,” “growing economic inequality,” and the “racial inequities” and other failures in American health care. He promised not a return to a mythic American past but instead an ambitious agenda to build an America “better than it was,” seeking to “make this imperfect Union as perfect as we can.” 

Biden’s story of America as a great historic project that must now be carried forward in ways that benefit all Americans has prospects to unite many white working-class Americans, many people of color, and many progressives, given Biden’s existing credibility with the first two groups and his potential advocacy of programs that may attract the third. Whether he can build the broad coalition he needs will be determined by the positions he elaborates as the campaign proceeds, and by his success in telling a progressive story of America and Americans in which most can see him and themselves.

If Trump, Biden, and their speechwriters realize what they need to do, the summer and fall of 2020 will display a contest between two of the most sharply clashing stories of America in the nation’s often contentious history. Through their votes, Americans may well decide on a major turning point in their never-ending debates over who they are and who they want to be. It will be a time to listen closely and critically to the stories of America that its leaders tell.

Rogers M. Smith is the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He served as president of the American Political Science Association in 2018–2019.

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