US Elections 2020

Trump vs. Biden: What’s really at stake in the 2020 US election?

Voter Rhonda Marquardt watches the final presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden on October 22, 2020 in San Antonio, Texas.
Voter Rhonda Marquardt watches the final presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden on October 22, 2020 in San Antonio, Texas. AFP - SERGIO FLORES

US President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger Joe Biden are battling for the presidency of a deeply divided country, with both leaders offering starkly different visions of America.


In just over a weeks time, Americans will go to the polls to choose between a man offering to ‘keep America great’ and another who says he’s fighting for the ‘nation’s soul.’

The 2020 election is taking place during an unprecedented pandemic, which has already changed how people vote, with more voters opting for postal ballots amid claims by President Trump that this could lead to fraud.

The Covid-19 coronavirus has killed more than 222,000 people in the US—the highest total in the world--and left millions unemployed, and has thrust healthcare to the top of the agenda among voters.

Yet the entrenched partisan political climate has meant that the electorate remains sharply divided on the government response to Covid-19, including when it comes to their own personal safety.

Divided nation

"America is a damaged country," says Scott Lucas, a professor of American studies at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

"I don't say that to be mean or pejorative. But you’ve got this polarisation, which means that when you need to approach serious issues like a pandemic, the economic downturn or the social and racial issues around Black Lives Matter, you don't get an engagement, which is based on dialogue," he told RFI.

Sixty-five percent of Americans believe the nation’s divisions could worsen if the Republican president were reelected, according to a poll released mid-October by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Election uncertainty

The uncertainty concerns election day itself. Trump has urged supporters to "go into the polls and watch very carefully", raising fears of voter intimidation.

During the first presidential debate in September, Trump declined to denounce white supremacists, calling on the Proud Boys, a group with a history of violence, to "stand back and stand by".

The president’s reluctance to disavow white supremacists has led some voters to consider the election as a battle to protect the nation’s democracy, which they fear a second Trump term would erode beyond repair. 

That fear drove Biden to insist on his campaign website that he was in a "battle for the soul of America".

Nonetheless, "Trump could still win this thing," explains Lucas, even if for now the president is trailing Biden in the polls. Polls have been wrong before.

Personality politics

"What happened in 2016 was that rather than engagement on the issues, what we saw was really a triumph spectacle. Trump can make it about him, and by playing on anger and frustration and a culture of fear he can succeed. And in terms of the Electoral College, if not the popular vote, he did," Lucas said.

As a real-estate mogul turned reality-TV star, Trump has relied on eccentric behavior to become a type of celebrity. Charismatic, he is able to draw in crowds, even during Covid restrictions.

However, the veneer of triumph is starting to wear off in key battleground states like Pennsylvania. One plumber, who was not authorised to speak on record, told RFI that many workers who were seduced by Trump’s tough talk of ‘making America great again’ have failed to see the results four years on.

Recent revelations about Trump’s tax returns—showing he paid little or no tax in the past ten years— tell a story fundamentally different from the one he has sold to the American public. 

Battle of music

That has not stopped Republicans from painting a dire portrait of a future America and Biden’s leadership, accusing the Democrat of being a puppet for the radical left.

Joe Biden’s camp has called Trump’s socialist claims “all lies”.

Throughout the campaign, the former vice president under Barack Obama has sought to portray himself as a competent administrator who believes in institutions.

In their final presidential debate, while Trump attacked his rival with remarks such as: "If he gets in, you will have a depression the likes of which you've never seen. Your 401(k)s [thousands]will go to hell, and it'll be a very very sad day for this country," Biden, meanwhile, struck a more conciliatory tone.

"I'm an American president. I represent all of you. Whether you voted for me or against me, I'm going to make sure you're represented. I'm going to give you hope," Biden said.

For social commentators, the difference between Trump and Biden boils down to music. If Trump’s chaotic style can be characterised as heavy metal, Biden’s is more mellow and akin to easy listening. After a raucuous two-year campaign, it remains to be seen whether a majority of Americans will want to stay with Trump's strident riffs, or change channel.

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