Joe Biden is not the man to rejuvenate liberalism. He is its last gasp.
No president gets re-elected when there’s a recession, or worse, in the year leading up to the vote. That’s been the case since the Great Depression, at any rate, and if Donald Trump is in fact sworn in for a second term come January, his populism will have beaten the greatest of political odds. But if Joe Biden is sworn in instead, Trumpism wins another way—by leaving liberalism to be smashed to pieces by the circumstances of its own Pyrrhic victory.
First there’s the pendulum—the swing of political fortunes away from the president’s party in midterm elections. The pendulum cost Republicans control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms, just as it cost the Democrats control of the Senate in the 2014 midterms and control of the House in the 2010 midterms. There are rare exceptions when the president’s party gains seats—2002, barely a year after the 9/11 attacks, and 1998 are examples—but come 2022, Democrats will lack the single greatest source that motivated their gains in 2018: opposition to Donald Trump. And if President Obama’s personal popularity was not enough to bring Democrats to the polls in 2010 or 2018, what are the chances that a President Biden would be able to generate sufficient enthusiasm two years from now? The Democrats’ depressing performance (for them) in this year’s congressional elections, when their voters did turn out in force—only to be met with equal or greater counter-force by highly motivated Republicans—are only a taste of what’s in store. Defending an administration in power is always harder than mounting criticisms from opposition: with great power comes great responsibility, and, therefore, all the blame.
There are many things for which a Biden administration might be blamed in the next two years, and President Trump’s experience in 2018 shows that an administration doesn’t automatically get credit from midterm voters for a booming economy. Even a dramatic post- COVID recovery won’t guarantee the Democrats an easy time in two years. By then, concerns about rising levels of violent crime may be uppermost on voters’ minds. Or new waves of terrorism, if the attacks lately suffered by France prove to be a prelude to attacks here. Biden was once the sponsor of a crime bill, but the Biden of today is not the Biden of 25 years ago, and the Democratic Party of today is deeply riven over crime, with a progressive faction preferring to defund the police. Without Trump to serve as a focus of Democrats’ hatred, the differences between the social democratic and neoliberal economic factions within the party will also be a source of frustration and distrust. Since Obama left office, the Democratic Party has simply been the Anti-Trump Party. Now it will be neither the Obama Party nor the Anti-Trump Party, but the Biden Party—and that’s not a thing to inspire anybody.
But the real rocks against which Biden will be broken are not those of his party but those of the conditions that gave rise to Trump and the populist insurgency in the first place. COVID has only exacerbated the country’s inequalities and concentrated economic power (and social control, in the case of tech companies) in fewer hands. Neither neoliberalism nor multiculturalism proposes a remedy for this: the Democrats beloved by Wall Street may think they can mollify voters with handouts and new welfare programs, but they offer Americans no dignity, no self-sufficiency. The identitarian left, meanwhile, sees poor whites as just more oppressors—the ones who are likeliest to have un-woke attitudes, as it happens, and also the ones who are easiest to marginalize. The Democratic Party is the party of the irreligious and the aggressively anti-Christian. Even when these hatreds do not provoke revulsion from voters, they twist liberalism into a quasi-sectarian movement rather than an effectively political (and economic) one. Economic nationalism and American patriotism are a natural fit within Trumpism; anti-Americanism and either cultural or economic globalism (or both) are the formula of 21st-century liberalism. The 1619 Project is not only not an answer to Communist China’s economic depredations, but to the extent anyone buys into the narrative of an unredeemable racist America, the emotional corollary is to celebrate the eclipse of American industry—globalization is good not only because it’s efficient, as the neoliberals insist, but also because it is global rather than American, and whatever diminishes American identity is, for the multicultural left, naturally good.
Even without the long-term effects of the COVID recession, the American economy was on an unsustainable path toward dividing the country into a megarich elite; a shockingly vulnerable, parlous professional class; and masses of low-skill service workers and completely abandoned populations without educational credentials or proximity to “job creators” in the cities. With the economic effects of COVID, establishment liberalism is headed quickly for a crisis—if not in two years, almost certainly in four. Biden would be a one-term president because of his age, if nothing else. But Biden will in fact have to contend with everything else. Four years from now, the Democrats will be looking for another nominee. And if Kamala Harris was lackluster in the 2020 primaries, she won’t be any stronger when she’s tied to a failed administration in 2024.
In fact, the greatest danger that Trumpism faces is that liberalism’s collapse will be so swift that a fraudulent populist—some establishment Republican simply emoting—will be able to take advantage of it. But during this time in opposition, if Biden becomes president, Trump Republicans will be able to hone their program as well as their pitch. Many of the best people in the Trump administration had little previous experience in government. Only now do they know what is required to implement a Trump-like agenda over the objections of the permanent bureaucracy and disloyal Republican hacks. They have the time to direct their studies to address the obstacles they encountered while in power—the better to remove those obstacles expeditiously next time.
The 2020 election showed that even in the midst of a recession and a pandemic, even after four years of relentless Russian collusion hype, four years of demonizing the president and his supporters as racists, even after impeachment and with the liabilities as well as the strengths of the president’s personality, the Trump message was capable of mobilizing a record number of voters for the GOP and making gains among blacks, Latinos, and Asians. Under the worst possible conditions, Trump and Trumpism performed well—much better than the pollsters and the pundits predicted. Think of what would have happened if not for COVID and the recession. Donald Trump would not be troubled by protracted vote counts; he would have been re-elected in a landslide. If Republicans learn from this and follow the path Trump has shown them, without stumbling over the historically unprecedented roadblocks that were in his way, they will go into 2022 and 2024 facing a divided, depleted Democratic Party. Joe Biden—who will start on his ninth decade under the sky before the next presidential election—is not the man to rejuvenate liberalism. He is rather its last gasp.
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