The four days of the Democratic National Convention could be summed up in one five-letter word: Trump.

With 74 days to go until election day, a country rocked by a pandemic, protests and unemployment is launching into a presidential campaign that will be fought not over policy but over the character of the man now occupying the White House.

Will enough voters be moved by the Democrats’ warnings of Donald Trump as a rogue president intent on destroying American democracy? Or will Mr. Trump succeed in selling his vision of Democrats as radical leftists bent on fundamentally remaking the country?

In a convention that played out virtually through live and prerecorded speeches, Democrats repeatedly made the case for the dangers of a second Trump term. They cast Joe Biden less as a candidate promising big ideas than as someone who can restore a sense of decency to a country that has become angry and divided by four years of chaotic leadership.

“The current President has cloaked America in darkness for much too long,” Mr. Biden said at the start of his Thursday night speech accepting the Democratic nomination. “I will be an ally of the light, not of the darkness.”

Throughout the convention, Democratic establishment figures such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton joined with Republican dissenters such as former Ohio governor John Kasich and progressive icons such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to frame Mr. Trump as an incompetent president whose inability to focus on anything other than his own interests has led to soaring deaths from COVID-19 and an economy teetering on the brink of collapse.

“Nero fiddled while Rome burned,” Mr. Sanders said. “Trump golfs.”

In contrast, the convention sought to cast Mr. Biden as a paragon of decency and empathy. His life story – losing his first wife and daughter in a car crash and later his eldest son to cancer – was repeated throughout the convention, drawing a direct line between the presidential nominee and thousands of families who have lost loved ones to the pandemic.

Mr. Biden, we learned, is a man who spends time talking with elevator operators, attending funerals for people who once gave $18 to his Senate campaign, offering tips to his primary challengers during a predebate steak fry and constantly checking in with his grandchildren.

Democrats also used the convention to preach party unity – a U-turn from last year’s fractious primary and from the 2016 convention, where supporters of Mr. Sanders actively tried to oppose Ms. Clinton’s nomination. Absent the risks of crowding delegates for Mr. Sanders and Mr. Biden together in a live event, the Democrats largely succeeded in presenting a united front.

Mr. Sanders told his supporters they had shifted the party leftward, highlighting the Biden campaign’s embrace of policies such as raising the minimum wage, funding universal prekindergarten and investing in clean energy infrastructure, even as he acknowledged that he and Mr. Biden still disagree on health care. “But, let us be clear, if Donald Trump is re-elected, all the progress we have made will be in jeopardy,” he said.

The convention featured a concerted effort to urge Black voters to turn out in higher numbers than they did for Ms. Clinton in 2016. It offered nods to Latinos in the Southwest, military families, Midwestern farmers and Northeastern factory workers. And it sought to appeal to young voters with promises to expand affordable health care coverage, introduce new gun control laws and enact an economic plan built on unionized clean-energy jobs designed to appeal to proponents of the Green New Deal.

But the convention largely dispensed with big policy ideas in favour of emotional appeals to empathy over cynicism, enthusiasm over complacency, light over darkness.

The lack of focus on policy partly reflects public opinion polls that show voters are less focused on issues than they are on who wins the presidency. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that 83 per cent of voters say that who wins the White House “really matters” to them – the highest percentage in two decades.

While Mr. Biden continues to enjoy a double-digit lead in national polls, he still suffers from an enthusiasm gap, with higher shares of Republicans deeply motivated to support Mr. Trump than Democrats are to support Mr. Biden.

Days ahead of accepting the Republican presidential nomination at the White House Monday, Mr. Trump offered his own preview of the campaign in a series of public events ostensibly designed to highlight his administration’s successes but instead painting a dramatic picture of a country engulfed in a culture war.

“We have people coming into this country, some great people, some really bad people too, and I mean murderers and I mean rapists,” he told supporters in a visit to the Mexico-U.S. border in Yuma, Ariz., echoing remarks from his 2016 presidential campaign.

In a Thursday appearance in Mr. Biden’s hometown of Scranton, Penn., Mr. Trump offered this vision of a Biden presidency: “Imagine the smouldering ruins of Minneapolis, the violent anarchy of Portland and the bloodstained sidewalks of Chicago – and imagine the mayhem coming to your town and every single town in America.”

Earlier in the week, he praised adherents of QAnon, an internet-based conspiracy group, and offered to support their cause, which includes a belief that the President is secretly saving the world from a satanic cult of pedophiles, cannibals and deep state bureaucrats. “If I can help save the world from problems, I am willing to do it,” Mr. Trump said. ”I’m willing to put myself out there.”

Mr. Obama’s campaign against John McCain framed him as the candidate who could offer hope instead of fear. Ms. Clinton pitched herself as an experienced alternative to a candidate many Democrats dismissed as a novelty. In Biden versus Trump, both appear to be casting themselves as saviours of two competing visions of America. It may be the starkest choice U.S. voters have ever had to face.

The Globe and Mail, August 21, 2020