Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, knew the power of an uplifting moment. In 1984 he let the American people know, despite a recession, all was going to be OK.
"It's morning again in America," his re-election ad said. "Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country's history ... and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?" Reagan crushed another very able and well-respected former Democratic vice-president and senator, Walter Mondale, carrying 49 states with 525 electoral votes.
But this was not Donald Trump's message to the packed crowd at the White House: "This is the most important election in the history of our country. This election will decide whether we save the American Dream or whether we allow a socialist agenda to demolish our cherished destiny … whether we protect law-abiding Americans or whether we give free rein to violent anarchists, agitators and criminals who threaten our citizens ... whether we will defend the American way of life or whether we allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it."
A stark contrast with Joe Biden's hopeful tones to a troubled and divided nation: "America is at an inflection point. A time of real peril, but of extraordinary possibilities. We can choose the path of becoming angrier, less hopeful, and more divided ... Or we can choose a different path, and together, take this chance to heal, to be reborn, to unite ... With passion and purpose, let us begin – you and I together, one nation, under God – united in our love for America and united in our love for each other."
But the most telling speech was from former president Barack Obama, with his terrifying warning that American democracy itself faced an existential threat: "I am also asking you ... to embrace your own responsibility as citizens – to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure. Because that's what is at stake right now: our democracy ... Any chance of success depends entirely on the outcome of this election. This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that's what it takes to win."
So we now understand, from both Trump and Obama, that it is midnight in America.
The Labor Day weekend just ahead is a moment of re-set for the campaigns, when voters, coming off their pandemic summer from hell, take stock of the candidates and the parties after the conventions. The first polls in coming days will show the true state of play – whether Biden's consistent lead in the polls was just a summer's reverie and the pundits' view that Trump is cooked are all wrong; or whether Trump's law-and-order message has cemented the base that won in 2016.
Indeed, Trump is more popular now than were the last two one-term presidents: George H. W. Bush in 1992 and Jimmy Carter in 1980. Democrats remember that their nominee Michael Dukakis led Bush by 17 points in the summer of 1988 – and lost badly.
There are several potential triggers for a Biden collapse: a chronic lacklustre presence, with stunted voter enthusiasm for him; flat black turnout, despite Kamala Harris as prospective vice-president; "senior moments" that raise nagging doubts about his vitality and ability; a judgment by millions of out-of-work voters that the Democrats in Congress are to blame for blocking their unemployment benefits and chances of keeping eviction notices at bay; a weak Hispanic vote, especially in Florida, Texas and Arizona, that keeps Biden from winning one of those states, and perhaps the presidency; the strong jobs and GDP rebound, underscoring Trump's management of the economy; and with the ugly rioting and shootings in Portland and Wisconsin, a judgment by many moderate Republicans in suburbs across America that Trump is right – anarchy and violence threaten the country and cannot be rewarded in November.
Trump can stumble as well. The economy can falter further, with millions out of work and no health insurance. The pandemic death toll will be more than 200,000 by election day, and the virus can spike again in the autumn. He can make costly own goals such as his call to boycott Goodyear because the company does not permit Trump campaign gear on the shop floor. There are 60,000 Goodyear workers in Ohio, a must-win state for him. Democrats are surging against vulnerable Republicans seeking re-election to the Senate, weakening Trump's showing in states like Arizona, North Carolina, Maine and Georgia.
When the basketball players declined to take the courts after the Kenosha shooting, Trump turned to the metric he loves to use for ridicule.
"I don't know much about the NBA protests," Trump said. "I know their ratings are very bad because I think people are a little tired of the NBA, frankly."
Well, the American people may be tired of the Trump show. The ratings are in. While Trump's speech drew the biggest audience of his week, it was still down by 12 million viewers from his convention triumph four years ago, and trailed Biden's big speech by more than 3.5 million viewers. Four nights of screaming at voters – from Kimberly Guilfoyle to Rudy Giuliani to Trump – may not have paid off. Hope and terror, fully intertwine, as the clock in America strikes midnight.