A national holiday in the middle of a pandemic two months before a presidential election that the sitting president has said will be a total fraud and absolutely invalid, unless he wins, was bound to be strange, but that was this year’s Labor Day. There were no parades. There were no crowds. The only picnics were small family picnics. Much of the nation was still shut down. No one was going anywhere. It was a day to watch baseball – on television. The Yankees and Dodgers and all the rest played in their now empty and silent famous ballparks. There were cardboard cutouts of imaginary fans filling some of the seats. That helped a bit. Each home team pumped in prerecorded crowd noise, which was actually quite convincing. And the play-by-play announcers got all excited at the appropriate time. But nothing was quite right.
Nothing could be quite right this year. This sitting president has said that if he loses this time he might not concede that. He might just say that this election, as far as he could tell, was totally invalid, so until there’s a new election, run differently and a whole lot better, in a few years or maybe more, he’s still the president. Or he might not do that. He hasn’t decided. Donald Trump likes to keep people guessing.
But the show must go on. This is a presidential election year and Labor Day is when the serious and often nasty and sometime inspiring real campaigning begins. But real campaigning in a year where everything must be done at a distance, masked, has to be a bit surreal. Neither side is filling their stands with cardboard cutouts of imaginary supporters, or pumping in prerecorded cheers from four years ago. They’re making this up as they go.
And it’s pretty strange. Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns start their reporting in La Crosse:
For a few hours, the unofficial Labor Day start to the fall presidential campaign centered around Wisconsin, as Vice President Mike Pence tried to poach Democrats in this Mississippi River town and Senator Kamala Harris sought to rally the Democratic base in Milwaukee.
But their dueling events at opposite ends of this increasingly pivotal state – as well as Joseph R. Biden’s visit to another battleground, Pennsylvania – were soon overwhelmed by a force as strong as any current: President Trump’s thirst for attention.
Trump needs Wisconsin to win reelection. That’s where the action was. But he couldn’t help himself:
The only member of the two tickets not to be on the campaign trail Monday, Mr. Trump abruptly called a White House news conference and then used it to air a range of personal and political grievances. He called his opponents names – Mr. Biden was a “stupid person” and Ms. Harris was “not a competent person.” Yet more notable than his usual partisan insults was his extraordinary attack on the country’s senior military officials.
Defending himself for a fifth straight day following a report in The Atlantic that he ridiculed America’s war dead, Mr. Trump suggested the accusations came from Pentagon leaders, whom he described as war profiteers.
“They want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs, that make the planes, that make everything else, stay happy,” Mr. Trump said of the officers he commands, making no mention of his own choice for defense secretary, Mark T. Esper, who was an executive at the defense contractor Raytheon.
Don’t worry about the logic. He was angry. He had just figured this out. All these top generals he had fired and had called dopes and babies and fools had been out to get him all along. He wanted out of wars – let Russia have Syria and all the Middle East. Why should we care? Let’s get out of NATO right now – let Putin take back all of what were the Iron Curtain countries. He can have France this time too. Why should we care? But now he suddenly understood. All these top generals want endless war, in order to get personally extremely rich off their connections to the big defense contractors, who want to get even more astonishingly rich too. This had nothing to do with Trump sneering about the suckers and losers who serve in the military and often die. These generals don’t care about that. This was always about the money. They’re just using his sneers to get rid of him, the one guy who messes up their business deals.
That’s the theory. His epiphany was met with silence. It was just another odd and pointless Trump distraction:
Monday, after all, was poised to showcase a showdown between Mr. Pence and Ms. Harris, who were appearing together for the first time in the same state on the same day.
The vice president, joined by Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, was hoping to appeal to the white working-class voters along the state’s western border who supported Democrats for a generation before helping tip the state to Mr. Trump by less than a percentage point in 2016.
Standing before a group of employees at a regional utility company, Mr. Pence trumpeted the administration’s work on behalf of dairy farmers, claimed credit for the state’s booming economy before the coronavirus crisis and repeatedly attacked Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris by name.
Noting that Ms. Harris was one of only 10 senators to oppose the renegotiated North American free trade pact, because it did not do enough to address climate change, the vice president argued that she had put a “radical environmental agenda ahead of Wisconsin dairy and ahead of Wisconsin power.”
That was met with polite silence, but they were silent too:
Though the company they spoke at employs some union members, neither Mr. Pence nor Mr. Scalia alluded to organized labor in their remarks.
That union thing was just too tricky. Republicans have always hated unions. All those greedy low-life bastards asking for more and more had ruined many a company, and might yet ruin America. But some of them love Trump. At least police unions love Trump. If one of their own slits the throats of a hundred Black or Hispanic children he will defend that officer without question. He’s got their back, and he has their votes. But greedy unions will surely ruin America one day. There’s no satisfying these people. But they’re good people.
It must have seemed best not to talk about any of that. There were other matters:
Mr. Pence used the start of his speech to claim that Mr. Biden would perpetuate “policies that have literally led to violence in our major American cities,” reprising the Republican attack line that Democrats would preside over a dangerous, lawless nation.
Mr. Pence also scorned Mr. Biden for not criticizing Democratic mayors or mentioning the far-left group Antifa by name in his condemnations of violence.
While he acknowledged that the use of force by law enforcement should be “thoroughly investigated,” Mr. Pence did not refer to the police shooting of Jacob Blake, instead focusing on the violent aftermath of the shooting in Kenosha, Wis., much as Mr. Trump did in his visit there last week.
In his own trip there last week, Mr. Biden met with the Blake family, as Ms. Harris did Monday upon arriving in Milwaukee.
So, Harris and Biden will stand with and stand up for the unarmed or disarmed Black men and Black women and Black children that the police shoot every single day. Pence and Trump will stand with and stand up for those who shoot them.
That’s clear enough, but then there’s the manic-depressive (but mostly manic) husband of Kim Kardashian. She pleads for understanding. He meets with Jarod Kushner several times a week. He gets Republican money. He’s running for president too. Kushner seems to have told his father-in-law that Biden will not get one single Black vote. Blacks vote for their own kind. Biden is toast, or this is nonsense:
Desperate to keep Wisconsin in their column, local Republicans this summer sought to put the rapper Kanye West on the state’s ballot in hopes he could drain votes from Mr. Biden and make it easier for the president to win with less than a majority, as Mr. Trump did four years ago. But they were late filing paperwork for Mr. West and are now in court appealing the decision to keep him off the ballot.
Kim Kardashian just wants to keep him out of the hospital. This is a lost cause. Fight the other battle:
More recently, as Mr. Pence demonstrated Monday, Republicans have tried to elevate law-and-order issues to make up ground against Mr. Biden in Wisconsin.
The former vice president has responded by airing a commercial, here and in other swing states, that features footage from a speech he delivered last week in Pittsburgh, in which he pointedly denounced violent protests.
There’s no evidence yet that the effort to portray Mr. Biden as soft on crime is cutting into his advantage: He has enjoyed a steady lead in Wisconsin polls for months, including those taken in the aftermath of the Kenosha unrest.
This other battle was over long ago. Everyone chose sides long ago. Now everything is fought at the fringes:
If the president were to hold every other state he captured in 2016, he’d need to win at least one of three crucial swing states to claim re-election: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. With his campaign increasingly concerned about Michigan, where it has cut its advertising, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania loom even larger.
Not coincidentally, Pennsylvania is where Mr. Biden was on Labor Day.
His day reflected the traditional spirit of the holiday in Democratic politics, minus the parade routes and union-hall gatherings where Mr. Biden has been a fixture for decades. They were canceled this year because of the pandemic.
At a stop in Lancaster, Pa., Mr. Biden promised that he would be “the best friend labor has ever had in the White House” and criticized Mr. Trump for treating the stock market as representative of the whole economy.
Not everyone is rich. Biden will stand by those who aren’t rich. But of course those who are deeply ashamed that they’re not filthy rich, like normal people, will hate Biden for reminding them of their humiliating shame. But that doesn’t matter:
Later in the day, at a virtual event with Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO president, in Harrisburg, Mr. Biden attacked the president for presiding over the huge job losses during the pandemic and promised that his administration would “put people to work right away” with a large-scale infrastructure program. Union members, he said, “deserve a president who fights like the devil for you.”
That may win Biden a few votes, as may this:
Mr. Biden, too, returned to the subject of Mr. Trump’s respect for the military – “none of the veterans you know are losers,” he said – and accused the president of failing to appreciate not only soldiers but also a larger community of workers who believe in self-sacrifice.
“He’ll never understand you,” Mr. Biden told the online audience of union members, adding, “He’ll never understand our cops, our firefighters.”
Turning more personal, he used an interview with a Pennsylvania television station to rebut Mr. Trump’s claims that was on the decline. “Watch how I run up ramps and how he stumbles down ramps, okay?” Mr. Biden said.
Biden may have been onto something. He’s not the one in decline:
Instead of focusing on Friday’s jobs report, which showed unemployment falling, Mr. Trump vented about other topics.
He complained about mail-in ballots in the upcoming presidential election, lamented that there was “no retribution” by local authorities against acts of rioting, and litigated his past comments about American troops after assailing Pentagon leaders.
Repeating his past denials of The Atlantic’s report, Mr. Trump said only “an animal” would make the comments attributed to him. But he also reiterated his low opinion of John McCain, former prisoner of war and Republican senator who died in 2018.
“I was never a fan of John McCain,” the president said, accusing him of supporting “endless wars” and circulating “the fake dirty dossier” about Mr. Trump.
“Am I supposed to say, what a wonderful guy?” the president asked.
No, you were supposed to shrug it off and do your job. But don’t expect that. The Guardian’s David Smith saw this:
After turning the south lawn into a convention stage last month, Donald Trump held a surprise press conference-cum-campaign event on Monday at the White House’s front door – where Jackie Kennedy wore black on the day of JFK’s funeral, and where the Obamas greeted their successors on inauguration day.
On a glorious late summer’s day, Trump’s vantage point behind a presidential lectern at the north portico afforded him a view of former president Andrew Jackson’s statue in Lafayette Square and, beyond that, the newly minted Black Lives Matter Plaza. Give him a second term in November, and perhaps he’ll install a golden escalator like the one he descended in at Trump Tower to launch his first campaign.
But don’t count on it:
Despite the lofty surroundings, the president dropped all pretense of rising above the political hurly-burly. Over 46 minutes, he branded his Democratic presidential election rival, Joe Biden, “stupid”, falsely accused Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris of peddling anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, and unleashed a torrent of half-truths and non-truths.
But unlike the loyalists on the south lawn for the convention speech, or the devotees who gather at Trump’s increasingly frequent airport-hangar rallies, there was a stony silence from mask-wearing reporters sitting under columns, ornate carvings and a giant lamp on the White House driveway.
Smith is not a fan:
Trump wanted to use Labor Day to boast about economic recovery. The numbers are “terrific”, he said. “We are in the midst of the fastest economic recovery in US history,” he claimed. Some 10.6 million jobs had been added since May, he said, though he did not acknowledge nearly half the jobs lost in the pandemic had still not returned.
Of the recovery, he said: “We have V-shape. It’s probably a super-V.” No mention of the more than 100,000 small businesses that shut down or the unemployment benefits that had expired for millions of Americans. As for his claim about the pandemic – “We are an absolute leader, in every way” – well, no one can dispute that America has the highest caseload (more than 6.2 million) or the highest death toll (more than 189,000) in the world.
And there was this:
Biden and Harris “should immediately apologize for the reckless anti-vaccine rhetoric that they are talking right now, talking about ‘endangering lives'”, Trump charged, after Harris said she would rely on the decisions of public health officials and medical experts for news on a Covid-19 vaccine rather than the president.
“It undermines science, and what happens is all of a sudden you’ll have this incredible vaccine and because of that fake rhetoric, it’s a political rhetoric, that’s all that is, just for politics,” Trump said.
He added later: “The numbers are looking unbelievably strong, unbelievably good. So now they’re saying, ‘Wow, Trump’s pulled this off, okay, let’s disparage the vaccine.’ That’s so bad for this country. That’s so bad for the world to even say that, and that’s what they’re saying.”
Yes, the man who said the coronavirus would “just disappear”, suggested injecting bleach as a cure and dismissed the climate crisis as a hoax accused his opponents of undermining science.
Yes, someone here was in decline:
Biden and the “radical socialist Democrats would immediately collapse the economy”, Trump warned darkly. “You’ll have a crash the likes of which you’ve never seen before.”
Biden wants to demolish the energy industry, he went on ever more fancifully, and will cause more electricity blackouts in California. “He wants to have things lit up with wind.”
Don’t ask. Trump might have been talking about windmills. But he might have been drifting away:
There was also a long diatribe about trade. China, he said, “took advantage of stupid people. Stupid people. And Biden’s a stupid person. You know that, you’re not gonna write it, but you know that… If Biden wins, China will own this country.”
After more than 20 minutes of darkness, doom and fearmongering, the president said, rather unconvincingly, “Happy Labor Day, everybody!” and then took questions, trying and failing to get the first reporter to remove his mask (“If you don’t take it off, you’re very muffled”).
Trump was shouting “take off the mask” over and over. The reporter did no such thing. Trump learned a lesson in presidential power, or he didn’t:
When asked if he would support an investigation into allegations against Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, the president added: “Yeah, if something can be proven that he did something wrong, always. They’ve been looking at me for four years, they found nothing.”
“Four years, think of it. For four years. From the day I came down the escalator, I’ve been under investigation by sleaze. And they found nothing. They found nothing. A friend of mine said you have to be the most innocent, honorable man to ever hold the office of president.”
That’s the lesson?
There are other lessons. Katrin Bennhold, the New York Times’s Berlin bureau chief, reports this news:
Just before hundreds of far-right activists recently tried to storm the German Parliament, one of their leaders revved up the crowd by conjuring President Trump.
“Trump is in Berlin!” the woman shouted from a small stage, as if to dedicate the imminent charge to him.
She was so convincing that several groups of far-right activists later showed up at the American Embassy and demanded an audience with Mr. Trump. “We know he’s in there!” they insisted.
Mr. Trump was neither in the embassy nor in Germany that day and yet there he was. His face was emblazoned on banners, T-shirts and even on Germany’s pre-1918 imperial flag, popular with neo-Nazis in the crowd of 50,000 who had come to protest Germany’s pandemic restrictions. His name was invoked by many with messianic zeal.
It was only the latest evidence that Mr. Trump is emerging as a kind of cult figure in Germany’s increasingly varied far-right scene.
And there you have it:
Germany – a nation generally supportive of a government that has handled the pandemic better than most – may seem an unlikely place for Mr. Trump to gain such a status. Few Western nations have had a more contentious relationship with Mr. Trump than Germany, whose leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, a pastor’s daughter and scientist, is his opposite in terms of values and temperament. Opinion polls show that Mr. Trump is deeply unpopular among a broad majority of Germans.
But his message of disruption – his unvarnished nationalism and tolerance of white supremacists coupled with his skepticism of the pandemic’s dangers – is spilling well beyond American shores…
That is what we export now:
Over the past 15 months, far-right terrorists killed a regional politician on his front porch near the central city of Kassel, attacked a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle and shot dead nine people of immigrant descent in the western city of Hanau. Mr. Trump featured in the manifesto of the Hanau killer, who praised his “America First” policy.
In Germany, as in the United States, Mr. Trump has become an inspiration to these fringe groups. Among them are not only long-established hard-right and neo-Nazi movements, but also now followers of QAnon, the internet conspiracy theory popular among some of Mr. Trump’s supporters in the United States that hails him as a hero and liberator.
Germany’s QAnon community, barely existent when the pandemic first hit in March, may now be the biggest outside the United States…
And they have their odd theories too:
One of them is the “great replacement,” which claims that Ms. Merkel and other governments have been deliberately bringing in immigrants to subvert Germany’s ethnic and cultural identity. Another is a purported national crisis called “Day X,” when Germany’s current order will supposedly collapse and neo-Nazis take over.
A third theory is the belief that Germany is not a sovereign country but an incorporated company and occupied territory controlled by globalists.
This belief is held among a faction known as “Reichsbürger,” or citizens of the Reich, who orchestrated the brief storming on Parliament on Aug. 29. They do not recognize Germany’s post-World War II Federal Republic and are counting on Mr. Trump and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to sign a “peace treaty” to liberate Germans from their own government.
That may catch on here too – only Putin and Trump can save us – if it hasn’t caught on already. This was the strangest election year Labor Day ever. Too many things lit up with wind.