In the world of the Hollywood blockbuster there is something known as a MacGuffin. It doesn’t really exist, it doesn’t really matter what it is and it is the most important thing in the world.
A MacGuffin is what propels the characters into action – be it the Maltese Falcon, the Holy Grail or a missing Lebowski. The only property it requires is for someone to want it. Or, to be more precise, for someone to want what they believe it can do for them.
The real world too is often propelled by MacGuffins. For the religious it may be the promise of life after death, for the political it may be the promise of a perfect socialist state. Neither has ever been achieved on this planet yet consider all the wars waged and lives lost in their pursuit.
This brings us, as all things do, to the US election. Some say is the most important election in American history, a statement that is about as good an identifier of the criminally stupid as any forensic psychologist.
Is it more important than the election of George Washington, who created a nation and pondered whether he would be its president or king? Is it more important than the election of Abraham Lincoln, whose conflicted moral courage led to the republic’s bloodiest war but put an end to the scourge of slavery? Is it more important than the election of Franklin Roosevelt, whose decision to enter the Second World War put an end to what is probably the greatest evil humankind has ever produced?
Perhaps if you ever meet a celebrity activist you could ask them these three questions, but you probably won’t because they don’t exactly move among us.
Still, it is pretty safe to say it is definitely the strangest US election in American history and this is why: It is a MacGuffin election.
It was only after the excruciatingly compelling first debate between Trump and Biden that it became clear. And in becoming clear it explains why everything else in the campaign is so muddy.
It is self-evident to any intelligent and reasonable person that neither Trump nor Biden is particularly well-equipped to lead the world’s most powerful nation. Both clearly have extremely tenuous grips on reality – Trump wilfully, Biden aimlessly.
The consolation is that the past four years have shown that the American political and economic machine is more than capable of functioning regardless of who is technically in charge.
There are enough checks and balances in Congress and the Supreme Court to limit the President’s worst excesses, there is a vast bureaucracy to ameliorate his impulsive demands and the V12 engine of US capitalism never paid much attention to government anyway, as the GFC amply demonstrated.
In short, the system works. Even under the most chaotic and unconventional president the US has seen, the great republic did not fall. For better or worse, America is America and not even the president can change that.
And so what are we seeing amid the lockdowns and the riots and the furious screaming on all sides when it comes to this contest between two old gravel-voiced men who are, when you strip the hysteria away, the most stereotypical products of the US political system on one hand and US capitalism on the other?
Frankly, not much. Both are one stroke or one corona test away from the great hereafter. Biden fumbles in his folksy way without really saying much at all and Trump, for all his bold declarations and bluster, hasn’t really reshaped America. His greatest achievements have been presiding over a solid pre-COVID economy and making a lot of Millennials cry.
In other words, the energy and anger that is driving this election campaign has almost no correlation with the two men actually contesting it. Or at least not with anything they’ve actually done.
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Black Lives Matter? They sure do. But the President doesn’t control local police forces. Coronavirus deaths? Astronomical at more than 200,000. But, as in Australia, it is state governors who carry the overwhelming responsibility for public health protection measures.
Instead, Trump is a MacGuffin for all this rage. Somebody must be punished, something must be caught and destroyed, and he is a giant fluorescent orange target.
And Biden himself is a MacGuffin. The hard left and so-called “progressive wing” of the Democratic Party have no love for him – they pine for Sanders or Warren or AOC. But they will vote for Biden and chant his name through gritted teeth because he is their only vessel for defeating their comic book villain — and then they’ll quietly hope he has a heart attack so Kamala can tickle their boxes. Sorry, tick all their boxes.
Trump is also a MacGuffin to his own people. There are certainly many of the Tea Party set who hold him as a quasi-godlike possessor of almost supernatural powers but for most on the mainstream right – and, I suspect, secretly many in the centre — Trump is merely a crude weapon they want to see deployed on the sanctimonious left.
Indeed, some high profile commentators even openly say it — they don’t particularly like Trump, nor even approve of his policies, but they feel he is a human shield against hardcore left-wing ideologues whom they hate and fear much more.
This explains why the election so difficult to divine and why assaults on Trump’s character have failed to dent his core base. Most of his supporters don’t deny he is crass or crude, any more than they would deny the dimensions of a piece of two-by-four timber. They don’t want to admire him, they just want to use him.
It also explains why attacks on Biden’s mental capacity have hardly hurt his standing, despite several genuinely concerning brain fades. He is way ahead of where the more lucid but unlikeable Hillary was four years ago and even more so after his mumbly debate performance. It simply doesn’t matter. Anti-Trumpists would vote for a can of Spam if they thought it had a chance of beating him.
And so, like all politics, it comes down to simple arithmetic. Who will vote more for whom?
Clearly it is impossible to look at any set of polling numbers and not see Biden winning in a landslide. Even in the swing states he is clearly ahead by more than enough in more than he needs to win. For Trump to chart his improbable path to victory he would need absolutely everything to fall his way, plus a couple of miracle upsets.
However there remains a great shadow in what is essentially a shadow war, this shuffling boxing match between ancient unwitting proxies of the new left and new right.
And it is this: Biden has almost universal endorsement from the mainstream media, political establishment and anything that might be considered the cultured classes. In this two-horse race he is the only publicly acceptable face of America, which again raises the question of how many quiet Trump voters are silently biding their time.
Perhaps they are lying to pollsters about voting for Biden, perhaps they are lying to themselves. Perhaps they are also a MacGuffin, an entirely fictitious entity invented to give Trump’s campaign hope when every tangible piece of evidence suggests it is utterly hopeless.
Maybe these so-called “shy voters” will come out for Trump. Maybe they will stay home and not vote at all. Maybe they don’t even exist.
It is embarrassing for a political pundit to be so equivocal but 21st century politics has made a habit of embarrassing pundits. This week a CNN poll had Biden leading by 16 points and I’d still be too scared to put a nickel on it.
The only thing we can be sure of in today’s America is that the US presidency itself is merely a MacGuffin – a vessel for hope or a lightning rod for discontent that is capable of mobilising millions but almost always seems to lead to a limp anticlimax.
Joe Hildebrand is the co-host of the US politics podcast I’m Usually More Professional and Nights with John Stanley on 2GB Thursdays at 8pm.