The Rationalist Papers (5): Big hat, no cattle

Who is Donald Trump? Who is Joe Biden? What are their accomplishments, and how can we view their character? We may have more information about these two candidates than we’ve ever had in any other presidential election — especially with the recent information that the New York Times revealed about President Trump’s tax filings.

Just a reminder: these Rationalist Papers posts are for the group I call the deciders: conservatives, moderates, undecided, and third-party voters considering their choices in the 2020 US Presidential election.

Every presidency consists of two parts: image and substance. Image — the marketing of the president and his agenda — is essential to generating support and influence in the electorate, and in Congress. Substance matters, too, because otherwise, as they said in the old West, it’s “big hat, no cattle” — that is outsized image, few accomplishments.

With all the information we now have, let’s take a look at the two candidates.

Biden’s image is weak, but you’ll know what you’re getting

Who really is Joe Biden? If you say you don’t really know, your perceptions reflect his weak branding efforts. Since beginning to run for president in 2020, he doesn’t stand out in the ways that Bernie Sanders (“cancel college debt, Medicare for all”), Elizabeth Warren (“break up Facebook”), or even Andrew Young (“universal basic income”) did. As a result of this weak branding, Republicans including Trump have attempted to project their own versions of his image, which include being a tool of leftist socialists and low energy (“Sleepy Joe Biden“).

But we can judge Biden on his extensive record. Naturally, the most relevant part of this record is his eight years as vice president under Barack Obama, a period that began with a financial crisis and ended with a universal health care plan, unprecedented job growth and low unemployment.

Biden’s camp has published extensive plans on what actions he would take on climate change, the economy, and the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s also said that he would raise corporate taxes and invest in education. His agenda is, not surprisingly, a centrist Democratic agenda. While the more progressive elements of the Democratic Party would doubtless like more, many parts of Biden’s agenda actually have a chance of passing, especially if Democrats take over control of the Senate.

Remember also that Joe Biden was a Senator from 1973 until he became Vice President, and has a history of working with Congress to get things done.

Donald Trump is strong on brand, weak on accomplishments — and recent revelations call his brand into question

Since Trump was a businessman before becoming president, he has no government record to fall back on — except for his last four years as president. What did he get done?

Trump’s presidential resume now includes confirming 200+ federal judges, more than any other President, and two (likely to become three) Supreme Court Justices. Given that these are lifetime appointments, his impact on the Federal Judiciary is likely to last for decades.

He cut taxes on corporations and individuals with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. His team negotiated and got approved an updated trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. His military killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And he’s build miles of wall along the border with Mexico, although not nearly as much as he claims to have built.

He repealed the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act, but failed to repeal it altogether.

He’s also presided over the most partisan division of America in history, providing cover for white supremacists. His policies have separated over 2000 children from their families at the Mexican border. He’s wielded tariffs as a weapon in a trade war, benefitting some American industries but harming others. He’s put federal law enforcement officers with no identifying markings into cities, where they have taken action against protestors with no accountability.

Under Trump, our respect and standing with traditional allies like Germany and Canada has deteriorated, while we’ve gotten closer with repressive dictators like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

Trump’s leadership in the COVID-19 pandemic has been all over the place, with many assurances that things would be fine — the families of the 200,000 dead and the millions hospitalized would doubtless disagree. His policies have lead to the worst health results of any industrialized nation.

If the list of accomplishments is spotty, the branding is not. Trump’s rallies and his Twitter feed have continued to hammer away on the Make America Great Again theme, as he insults his opponents and makes questionable claims about his accomplishments. You may or may not like Trump, but you know who he is and what he purports to stand for. He’s rude and forceful.

All of this branding rests on the image Trump brought to his candidacy in 2016 — the image of a successful businessman that many got to know through his reality TV show “The Apprentice” and books like The Art of the Deal.

But how much of that image is true?

The New York Times analysis of the president’s tax returns shows a very different picture of Trump’s business. He paid no federal income tax in 11 of 18 years. He reduced his tax bill with a $72.9 million writeoff that the IRS disputes. His hotels and golf courses are losing hundreds of millions of dollars. He uses an estate in New York as a family compound but classifies it as a business operation (it generates little income). And he appears to have paid his daughter Ivanka Trump massive consulting fees (the numbers match exactly with the numbers in her financial disclosures) to avoid gift taxes.

Most importantly, he has personally guaranteed $421 million in loans, most of which is coming due in the next four years.

The image that Trump projects is fake. He is not a successful businessman, he is deeply in debt. The holders of that debt will have enormous leverage over the president should he be reelected — which is a national security risk. On balance, the most successful parts of his business are those associated with his image. If you follow the profit, he basically a Kardashian, famous for being famous.

Do we need any more drama?

When Obama was in office, he was known privately as “No drama Obama.” The focus was mostly on attempting to get things done. Biden’s approach is also unlikely to generate much drama.

You could classify Trump as “maximum drama,” as his actions are typically planned to generate the greatest possible amount of conflict. Without enemies to rail against, Trump would have very little to say. He cannot fall back on his accomplishments or his record, especially in managing the worst health crisis our country has ever known, so he attacks.

What will Trump do in the next four years? He has no platform. He has a track record — one that has left many Americans dead, unemployed, or seething with hate. He’s not who he says he is — he privately told Bob Woodward the virus was deadly, even as he told America it was no big deal. He’s not a rich and successful businessman or a respected world leader. He’s just a bully with the biggest bully pulpit you’ve ever seen, banging on it as loud as he can.

I started by saying we know more about these candidates than in any other presidential election in history. As for what we’re going to get when one of them is elected: one has a platform and track record, and the other has no platform and has plunged the country into chaos.

Choose wisely.

Feel free to post comments. However, I will delete comments that insult or demean me, other commenters, or groups, or state supposed facts without evidence. Vacuous cheerleading and catcalling is also prohibited; this is not a sporting event. No one persuades anyone by creating a hostile environment.

For the origin of the Rationalist Papers, see this. All Rationalist Papers posts available here.

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  1. Your comment about “if he doesn’t have enemies to rail against he has very little to say” sums it up pretty well. The GOP has joined him (or maybe he has just amplified them) in the chorus of ‘against’ (against the people, against government, against ‘them’, against science, against protest, against free speech, against the environment, etc.) Pretty depressing, really.