The Ultimate American Story
The USA is built on both personal and national stories, and Trump and Biden have both used these stories about what America was, is, and should be in their campaigns. They both sell themselves as American archetypes: Trump is the ultimate capitalist, a strong deal-making businessman. Biden is a family man, a community builder, a lover of U.S.-made cars, and U.S.-made sunglasses.
Biden’s story (his story of himself and his story for what he wants for America) are the classic modern-American story. They’re rooted in the American dream, the idea not only that anyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps but that being American, living in America, will help them do that. The heart of this story is the idea that it’s uniquely American.
Biden’s personal tale hinges on his working-class parents, his father searching for work, and a now long dead and much mourned American job market that allowed the children of blue-collar workers from Pennsylvania to grow up and become…. Well… Joe Biden.
Trump tells a different story, but he’s trying to hook many of the same voters as Biden. He isn’t leaning on rags to riches — Trump has always been rich and that’s a part of his mythos.
Trump’s story is the story of an outlaw. He relishes defying all the rules, and he finds his own solutions to problems. This makes his story difficult to poke holes in — when the public hears that he never paid contractors who worked on his hotels, his fans think that’s just smart business (for a renegade). When he stops the negotiations on a second Covid aid package with a tweet, plenty of people are willing to see it as a political play.
Trump seems to have no narrative sometimes. But the chaos is a story in itself. Trump’s character is its own story and his erratic opposition of pretty much every norm, including the classic American dream, is intended to pierce that dream nationally.
For many Americans, the dream that was born in the 1950s when post-war America was inventing suburbia is over. Most Americans either know they will never have it, or already made it and think that’s enough. So they want something else. They want a new dream, their own dream. And Trump offers that, bringing together both ends of the political spectrum through a specific kind of narrative pandemonium and a specific kind of individualism that is appealing when the world seems hard to thrive in.
What is Biden Offering Instead?
Joe Biden’s story is the opposite of Trump’s. Like Obama before him, Biden carefully articulates his story and the story of his family and then connects that to the reality of voters’ lives. Biden’s personal story is the starting point but actually, he tells the story of his voters.
Joe Biden’s story is not one of race in America, but it’s one of class and of loss. Biden’s storytelling power comes from his honesty. His personal story is sad and yet relatable, not only his upbringing in a blue-collar Pennsylvania household but also the loss of his daughter and wife in a car crash when his children were small, and the loss of his grown son from cancer in 2015. But his story is also incredibly human. Biden’s determination to carry on, his clear love of his family, and the classic shape of his political career show those family-man, bootstrap attitudes that are the backbone of the American dream.
Biden, if he wins this election, is the classic protagonist of a quest. He has searched for years, lost things, and then, finally, come out on top. He has been saved and therefore is in a position to lead. But Biden has also learned hard lessons from years in politics and two failed attempts at being nominated for president. He’s modernizing his message and bringing his vulnerability and love for his family and country, increasingly, to the forefront of his story.
Storytelling in Politics
Although Trump and Biden could hardly be more different in their politics, their election campaigns, and their communication styles, they both rely on storytelling. In a way, they are both laying out a test for U.S. voters — what kind of story does America need in the future?
The British psychologist Julia Samuel once said: “The most personal is the most universal”, what is most personal is what concerns us all. And that’s exactly what it’s all about: We want to see ourselves in a story, find ourselves again, recognize ourselves. Trump and Biden are both betting on who it is the American people want to see. That will, of course, be revealed after the election on November 3rd.