I was a weird kid who watched the nightly news every evening, read the newspaper, and read the news magazines in the library. From too young an age I began to understand media on a meta level, and absorbed the critique that election coverage did not do enough to focus on "the issues."
While the claim was repeated to the point that I wished the critics in question would just talk about the damn issues instead of the media, it was essentially right. Part of Ross Perot's appeal in 1992 came from his focus on the minutae of economic policy. The 1984 election had been a referendum on Reagan and the 1988 election was reduced to pure symbolism. It was all Willie Horton's mugshot, Dukakis in a tank, and Bush saying "read my lips."
The political media loves the personalities and horse race stuff still today, in large part because these reporters do not have the knowledge or intellectual firepower to actually discuss policy in a meaningful way. It also draws in a lot more eyeballs.
However, this year discussion of "the issues" has slid below even where it was in 1988, and this time it's not just a media framing. Issues discourse is so thin because Trump himself has become the issue. This election is really a referendum: are we going to have a democracy, or not?
Trump and the Republican Party have made it clear that they are willing to maintain minority rule through suppression, gerrymandering, the electoral college, Senate, and the courts. They have not made any attempt to reach the majority of Americans, what has to be a first in my lifetime. Trump himself is the issue. It's why his party did not even bother to write a new platform. Their only platform is Trump.
And what is Trump? He is the avatar of white nationalism. Plenty of people voting for him would admit that he's an incompetent doofus, but that doesn't matter. In fact, it helps his case. Having an ignorant, maladroit white man occupying the position recently vacated by a competent, intelligent Black man sends the message that badges of whiteness will allow white Americans to have an elevated place in American society no matter how undeserving they are.
Despite being a foul-mouthed adulterer and tax cheat, he is also the avatar of white Christian supremacy. By banning Muslims and treating American Jews like Israelis in disguise he sends the message over and over again that this is a white Christian nation. (There's a good reason that Allan Lichtman's history of conservatism is called A White Protestant Nation.) Putting someone like Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court -a doctrinal Catholic (except on social justice) who practices religion like a Pentecostal Protestant- is the capstone of this message.
Most who vote for Trump don't really care that much about his tax plan or even his immigration policy. They want the assurance that they are the only people that matter in this nation. (Hence why the "black lives matter" slogan triggers them so much.) They want to go to the bar without their mask on and tell "politically incorrect" jokes because the biggest of wage of whiteness for white people in America is to never, ever be told what to do, especially when their behavior hurts others. "Free, white, and 21" indeed.
Are we going to have a multi-racial democracy or not? That's been the issue since Reconstruction in America. This year it's the only issue on the ballot.