No, America isn’t great. And, yes, many Biden voters know it

Republished from Kentucky Lantern

Briefly, ever so briefly, one man had me thinking that Donald Trump could win back the presidency.

He wasn’t a political scientist crunching data to unveil a Republican path to victory. It’s too early for election forecasts to be reliable.

Nor was he some Trump zealot spouting right-wing talking points while wearing a crimson Make America Great Again cap. Those yahoos are doing Trump more harm than good.

The guy who got me to wondering whether Trump might pull it off was a bus driver standing at the front of his vehicle, briefing passengers ahead of a cross-country trip.

Our driver was one part man of “quality” — crisp uniform, tight gloves, tidy mustache— and one part South Central Los Angeles swagger. Think a Samuel L. Jackson character without the swear words. And he was laying down the law on, as he called it, “my bus.”

The briefing our driver delivered would not have gone over well in the delicate confines of a faculty lounge. It would’ve gone over better at a Trump rally.

He started with a joke at the expense of non-English speakers. That wasn’t his last dig at immigrants, either (a perspective likely influenced by frustrations he and his colleagues had experienced trying to load passengers onto the bus efficiently).

He warned that the bus would be locked at one lengthy stop to prevent vagrants and the homeless from climbing on.

He described with relish the many horrors past passengers had performed in the lavatory, which he expected the source to clean up, and he described with disgust various sorts of misbehavior that had led him to jettison “knuckleheads” in the past.

By itself, this strongman speech might have said little about politics. But consider the context.

The bus didn’t actually belong to our driver. Like so many properties in the United States, it belonged to a foreign multinational that had purchased the carcass of a failed American business.

When that bus pulled from the station, we passed what I’ve seen in every American city I’ve visited: broken-down storefronts and filthy sidewalks strewn with derelicts in sleeping bags.

Most important, when the driver delivered that monologue, it was to a mixed-race audience of working class and working poor. These are the citizens supposedly so polarized — people of color anchoring President Joe Biden’s constituency and whites overwhelmingly in Trump’s camp — but they all appeared to be digging his politically incorrect stand-up routine, laughing and signaling their affirmation. “Speak it, brother!”

Those passengers might have disagreed sharply about when, if ever, America managed to be “great.”  Yet no one on that bus seemed to operate under the illusion things are great in Biden’s America now.

Not that this was any new discovery. I’ve been on the road a lot lately, and any time I wasn’t embedded in the comfortable world of affluent professionals — things are pretty sweet for them — I’ve witnessed that same pessimism.

Americans do see their nation in decline. And yes, they’d rather go back to being a better nation again.

Joe Biden owns the status quo. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

What puts Democrats in a panic is that Biden, as incumbent, owns the status quo — while Trump currently has a corner on the MAGA market, and early pre-election polls suggest customers are willing to buy. Trump has been leading nationally, and he’s performing well in battleground states likely to decide the presidential contest.

To believe those polls, however, you’d have to believe Trump has made historic inroads among Hispanic and even African-American voters — the sorts of people scattered around me on that bus — because when analysts drill down to cross tabulations showing where Biden is underperforming compared to four years ago, minority respondents are the main reason Trump’s been killing it.

I still don’t trust those numbers, however much my bus driver and his audience gave me pause. Such crosstabs likely are failing to capture the true sentiments of young minorities, because they rely on relatively few people and the young adults who cooperate with pollsters probably aren’t representative of their generation.

Even if the polls are providing a reasonably accurate snapshot of the electorate, implications for Trump aren’t as hopeful as they might seem. Traditionally, partisans toy with casting protest votes or switching sides, but campaigning is an educational process that reminds them why they vote the way they usually vote, and these voters typically “return to the fold” as Election Day approaches. Trump’s effort should collapse unless he makes up the difference somewhere else.

Still, knowing that the incumbent president is in a decent electoral position doesn’t mean the broad-based unhappiness with Biden’s America ought to be dismissed as politically meaningless. Combine it with the fury against “Genocide Joe” seen among pro-Palestinian activists, and serious cracks are showing in the Democratic coalition.

Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Iowa in January. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

What’s happening to the United States, in terms of immigration, prices, Big Business and Big Government … Those are not liabilities only among MAGA Republicans. America’s decline — the failure to protect the border, the laws that stack the deck in favor of big and bureaucratic institutions, the uncontrolled borrowing and spending and regulating that make it expensive to accomplish almost anything — are shaping daily life in a way that dismays a broad, multiethnic slice of the electorate.

Trump may not be able to get lightning to strike twice. He was a self-absorbed president who made both his office and the country smaller, weaker, pathetic. Voters have been there, done that.

But Democrats would be foolhardy to think that Biden’s reelection can buy them the time they need to consolidate political control.

White progressives act as though the future’s theirs, because Trump’s support base is dying off, while they’ve captured the hearts and minds of the young and the affluent. They’re ignoring the hardships, as well as the discontent, rising among voters who are not old, not all white, and not currently Republican.

I don’t see Americans tolerating national decline for long.

Soon, some political entrepreneur is going to craft the next vision to Make America Great (with or without the “Again” tacked on), because the hunger for it crosses political and racial lines. If the power brokers propping up President Biden are not going to be the ones to offer it, someone else will.

Kentucky Lantern is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kentucky Lantern maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jamie Lucke for questions: Follow Kentucky Lantern on Facebook and Twitter. Kentucky Lantern stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

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