Joe Biden’s assertion that President Donald Trump is an “aberration” in the Republican Party is naive at best and revisionist at worst.
Only an intentional misreading of GOP politics could consider Trump anything other than the culmination of xenophobic, identitarian rhetoric that conservative media and elites have stoked for decades. In retrospect, birtherism and Tea Party rhetoric about taking back “our” country were a product rollout, a test marketing of Trump’s politics of white identity and grievance. Vox’s Jane Coaston described him as “Sarah Palin but better at it”—a much more accurate narrative than Trump exceptionalism.
Trump, for all his ignorance, saw this pathway to power. His leading role in promoting birtherism taught him how to win the adulation of the angry and resentful—though even he was surprised by how well it worked in 2016.
As Biden and other centrist candidates share their fantasies of bipartisanship, the Democratic Party seems unable to recognize the seriousness of the moment. It is only luck that the right has not yet found a skilled autocrat. Palin was clueless, and Trump is his own worst enemy. He is a historically weak president who lacks even a passing understanding of how to use the power of the office effectively.
It is chilling to look at the damage Trump has done and envision how much more extensive it could be. Imagine a Donald Trump who doesn’t spend all his time golfing, watching TV, beefing on Twitter, and refusing to learn anything. Imagine a Donald Trump who is disciplined, focused, articulate, and impossible to laugh off as a buffoon. Imagine a Donald Trump who appointed shrewd Cabinet officials instead of people he recognizes from TV. Imagine a Donald Trump who doesn’t give every important task in his White House to one of his vapid family members.
Imagine what that person could accomplish with the support of a pliant Republican Senate and conservative-packed federal judiciary. Democrats may get one more chance to govern before a competent authoritarian emerges from the right; that opportunity cannot be frittered away on four years of West Wing cosplay under the delusion that the GOP will have an epiphany and cooperate.
The past few years of democratic backsliding leave the country at a fork in the road, and the Democratic Party has an opportunity to influence what happens next. It will not do so with empty promises to unite Americans. Biden is far from the only candidate basing his campaign on such appeals. Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, John Hickenlooper, Cory Booker, and others are framing their messages around the kind of reach-across-the-aisle idealism that wasted the first half of Barack Obama’s presidency.
But no one who has been alive for the last 15 years could fail to understand that Mitch McConnell is not going to join hands with a Democrat—any Democrat—to get anything done. So it is unlikely that candidates like Biden even believe this rhetoric when they speak it. Instead, they are choosing to believe an entrenched class of consultants who tell them that this is the right messaging to finally win over white men in diners in central Pennsylvania.
Any Democrat elected to the White House in 2020 will likely face a GOP-held and McConnell-led Senate. That limits what is possible to achieve through legislation. What a Democratic president can do is offer a compelling vision to compete with the nihilism of right. Currently the alternative is a void that many Democrats are attempting to fill with nostalgia for the Obama era and technocratic fixes (tax credits for everyone!).
The fight against voter suppression is a worthy effort against Republican attempts to shrink the electorate, but suppression alone does not account for low turnout among potential voters on whom Democratic success depends: the young, people of color, the economically vulnerable, and more. The wealthy and the comfortably middle class can tolerate four years of someone like Biden spinning his wheels with futile calls for bipartisanship. But appeals to patience will not mobilize voters whose lives will become worse the longer that dithering continues.
When the charismatic authoritarian emerges on the right, we already have evidence that our institutions and treasured norms will not save us; the courts and Congress have demonstrated they will stand behind even a cartoonishly corrupt, relatively unpopular authoritarian. That they will fall in line to enable someone more polished goes without saying.
There is no more time to waste on the comforting fantasy that the entire population, regardless of political ideology, will join hands and live happily ever after. It is imperative that the eventual Democratic nominee articulate a worldview based on the belief that public policy, not markets, can address social and economic problems, with specific proposals to that end. If ever there was a time to be bold rather than to play it safe, this is it. Without a compelling alternative, ideologues like Trump will succeed by filling the vacuum with a simple—and vile—worldview.
If the Democratic Party and its leadership do not seize the next opportunity to lead, the United States is likely to be a very different—and much darker—place before they get another chance.