The grudge match that matters most
The greater the prospect of Donald Trump's political humiliation, the more likely he is to resort to the style of politics which worked for him four years ago: vulgar, rabble-rousing, insular populism.
Tuesday, 3rd November 2020. Remember that date! A lot hinges on what happens then - for all of us.
No, it's not the finale of a top sporting event - though its deeply partisan nature, the 'Reds' versus the 'Blues', does have a cup final feel to it. It's not a boxing match: the two contenders in this contest, both well into their seventies, are long past clambering into the ring, never mind swinging a punch.
Yes, that's the date of Trump vs Biden, the political grudge match to end all grudge matches. The US President, to continue the sporting analogy, likes to play the opponent, not the ball. 'Crooked Hillary' has been replaced in his tweets and diatribes by 'Sleepy Joe'. The most powerful man in the world still paints himself as the anti-establishment outsider rallying his true believers for a crusade to restore the nation to greatness.
As the world emerges nervous and blinking from Lockdown, keenly aware that this virus is far from vanquished, so electoral politics resumes in the United States. The US has had more confirmed COVID deaths - many more - than any other country; it's also been torn apart by crude and shocking police violence which has sparked a resurgence - globally, not just nationally - of the Black Lives Matter movement. But a nation which needs a healing touch is likely to be consumed by a 'fire and brimstone' style campaign.
On Saturday, Donald Trump stages his first campaign rally since before the pandemic struck. The venue in Tulsa, Oklahoma, holds just short of 20,000. It's expected to be crammed full. Those attending will not be able to observe social distancing and will not be required to wear masks - even though the top public health officials of President Trump's own administration continue to emphasise the importance of both measures in limiting the spread of the virus.
Hand sanitiser will be available, however - so that's okay! And those who are willing to wear a mask - which certainly won't include the key speaker - will be given one in campaign colours.
Trump's popularity has tanked with his divisive and inept handling of both the pandemic and the aftermath of George Floyd's brutal killing. His latest approval ratings are -18 (57% of respondents told the Gallup polling agency that they disapproved of the way Trump was handling his job as president while just 39% approved). The Democrat challenger Joe Biden - who has spent much of the last three months stuck in his basement in Delaware shielding himself from the virus - has a consistent lead in the opinion polls. He has got a political dividend from doing, and saying, next-to-nothing.
Whatever Joe Biden's qualities - and critics would say there aren't all that many stand-out positives - he is generally regarded as a consensus politician who seeks to bring people together. He has particularly strong support amongst African Americans, largely a legacy of being Barack Obama's vice-president and the clear bond that developed between the two men. He has pledged to have a woman vice-presidential candidate, and there's been a lot of talks that this could be a woman of colour. And as Biden will be 78 when he takes office - if he wins that is - the choice of who takes over should he fall is of greater than usual significance.
Don't take this as a slam dunk (it's a basketball expression) for Biden. That's not how American politics works. American democracy isn't all that democratic. In the last Presidential election, just 55% of America's voting-age population actually voted. The US has a long and dishonourable history of voter suppression - measures which in some places make it more difficult or inconvenient for certain groups (often minorities and the young) to register and then to vote.
And of course, the winner isn't necessarily the guy with the most votes. In two of the last five elections, the candidate who came second in the popular vote has been declared the winner. Four years ago, Donald Trump lagged behind Hillary Clinton by almost three million votes but won the electoral college vote by a substantial margin. A strange way to run a democracy!
The Economist - one of the soberest and authoritative of news brands - has launched a sophisticated model to forecast the outcome of November's election. It factors in not just who people support but who will vote, what's happening in the likely 'tipping' states and the advantage that the electoral college system hands to Republicans. It estimates that there's just a 4% chance of Trump getting more votes than Biden - but a 15% chance that he will win the electoral college and so gain a second term in the White House.
That still points strongly towards Trump being a one-term president - the first incumbent to be defeated since George Bush Senior lost to Bill Clinton almost thirty years ago.
But the greater the prospect of Donald Trump's political humiliation, the more likely he is to resort to the style of politics which worked for him four years ago: vulgar, rabble-rousing, insular populism. His speech in Tulsa in a few days will indicate just how low he's willing to go.