America's murky political future became infinitesimally clearer this week, with former Vice President Joe Biden essentially locking in the Democratic presidential nomination following Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders's announcement that he had ended his primary campaign.
This would, under ordinary circumstances, would be something of a boon to President Trump's re-election campaign. The president and his allies have spent months hammering away at Biden, to the point of impeachment, in a not-entirely unsuccessful effort to hamstring the man Trump reportedly sees as his number one political threat — if not factually, then at least by reputation. But these are hardly ordinary times.
Faced with the virtual certainty of defending the presidency from a Biden takeover, Trump and his allies are scrambling to capitalize on Sanders's exit — and the Democratic base's diminished enthusiasm for Biden overall. And so, on Wednesday, the president and his team released a barrage of messages framing Biden as Sanders's progressive equivalent, while paradoxically urging Sanders's followers to vote Republican, regardless.
To wit, here is Trump's 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale, framing Biden as the same sort of burn-it-down radical that conservatives (and a fair number of centrist Democrats) would have had you believe Sanders is:
Yet here is Trump himself, hammering Democrats for not nominating Sanders, and urging the senator's supporters to "come to the Republican Party."
Thanks to the transitive property we all learned in 5th grade, we now come to the paradox at the core of the president's smear: If, as Trump supposes, there is considerable overlap between Sanders fans and Trump Republicans, and if, as his team asserts, Sanders and Biden are essentially indistinguishable when it comes to progressive politics, then ... Well, you see the problem. Both can't be true.
One could reasonably assume this is an example of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing — it would hardly be the first time that the president has screwed up his own team's messaging with a rambling, bizarrely capitalized tweet. But I think there's more happening here than can be explained with typical Trump buffoonery. Instead, I think the president and his allies are well aware of their contradictory messaging — and they simply don't care.
Ultimately, the overarching goal here is less about convincing voters to vote Republican, and more about simply sowing as much division among Democrats as possible. The president's re-election campaign is fundamentally a war of attrition — one in which the more they can confuse, confound, and ultimately depress the Democrats, the less they have to worry about answering for Trump's many, many, many, many controversies.
As the president himself said Wednesday, just hours before Sanders dropped out and amidst ongoing criticism of the GOP's handling of Wisconsin's primary election: Expanding voting rights "doesn’t work out well for Republicans." This muddled Sanders-Biden messaging is a manifestation of this same political philosophy — one in which conservative ideas and ideals are secondary to gaming the electoral system in order to win.
It's a calculation that has helped Republicans win elections for decades. It might be what wins them the next one, too.