“If Trump wasn’t running,” said Joe Biden last week, “I’m not sure I’d be running.” That’s a curiously uninspiring remark for an American leader seeking to win an election to make. Yet ever since 2019, Biden’s pitch for the presidency has been essentially negative: if you don’t support me, you’ll get him.
The trouble for Joe is that, as we approach the start of another election year, it’s beginning to look as if he can’t stop Trump. Brace yourselves, then, for the Great Election Freak-Out of 2024.
For Democrats, the numbers are alarming. Biden’s job-approval rating has just dipped below 40 percent again; in December 2019, at the same stage in his presidency, Trump was on 43 percent.
Voters care less about the ninety-one felony counts facing Trump than they do about the immigration crisis
The seventy-seven-year-old Donald may still be widely loathed and feared, but the eight-one-year-old Joe has not brought the “normalcy” he promised. Under Trump, there was no war in Ukraine or Israel. Biden’s most significant foreign-policy action, by contrast, has been the shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
At home, Americans have experienced runaway inflation. Voters care less about the ninety-one felony counts facing Trump than they do about the immigration crisis on the southern border. In fact, the blatantly politicized “lawfare” against the Donald appears only to have increased his rebel appeal.
The primary process hasn’t even begun, and everything could change after the Iowa caucuses on January 15, but for now Trump appears to have the Republican nomination wrapped up. The latest polls suggest that he would go on to beat Biden in November. Bookmakers now have Trump as the favorite to be the next president — and the latest media meltdown about the return of Dictator Donald is already under way.
“A Trump dictatorship is increasingly inevitable,” says Robert Kagan, the right-wing intellectual, in a long essay for the Washington Post. “Let’s stop the wishful thinking and face the stark reality.” America is “sleepwalking into dictatorship,” says the former Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney. The Atlantic magazine has just produced an emergency “If Trump wins” issue, full of terrifying prophecies. And the New York Times is pumping out nerve-racking reports about “Project 25,” the conservative Heritage Foundation’s radical agenda for the next Trump administration.
Trump, it is alleged, will pull out of NATO, use the Justice Department to exact revenge on his legal persecutors and shut down or replace the federal agencies — aka “the deep state” — that have undermined him in the past.
Trump enjoys the attention, naturally. At a recent Town Hall, Fox News’s Sean Hannity asked him to promise that as president he would “never abuse power as retribution against anybody.” “Except for day one,” Trump shot back, raising his finger and smiling: “I love this guy, he says: ‘No you’re not gonna be a dictator are ya?’ I said ‘No no no other than day one. We’re closing the border and we’re drilling drilling drilling. After that I’m not a dictator.’”
Trump was making light of all the dark dictatorship talk in order to emphasize the policies he most wants to sign off in his first hours in the White House. Yet the Biden administration seized that quote as proof of his depravity: he’s vowed to be a dictator “on day one” — the horror!
If all this sounds familiar, that’s because you’ve heard it before. Ever since Trump emerged as a serious presidential contender in late 2015, Democrats and anti-Donald Republicans have insisted he is a would-be Mussolini and interpreted his silly remarks as sinister threats to the Constitution.
Trump’s election in 2016 produced a catalogue of emergency-on-planet-freedom books: Trumpocracy, Trumpocalypse, How Democracy Ends, How Democracies Die, Surviving Autocracy, On Tyranny and many more. Never Trumpism has never shut up. Its disciples believe evil Trump has launched an unprecedented assault on democracy and the western world order. In their mythology of the recent past, the system only just survived because of its precious checks and balances — and the heroic anti-Trump resistance. In 2020, the people saw sense and rejected Trump at the ballot. He proved his dictatorial nature by refusing to accept the result. His loyalists then attempted the January 6 “coup.” Liberty survived, bruised yet unbowed. Now, however, the forces of Trumpism are regrouping for a final end-times assault on American exceptionalism. “We cannot let him win,” says Biden. That will again be his rallying cry.
But Trump’s supporters have their own counter-myth: Biden is the wrinkled face of a new left-wing tyranny and Trump represents the last stand for freedom. In their version, Trump overcame extraordinary odds to wrench the presidency from an increasingly authoritarian neoliberal regime in 2016. The regime sought to destroy him. They accused him of being a traitor to Russia. They impeached him twice. They winked at the radical left as it carried out street riots under the banner of Black Lives Matter and used the Covid pandemic to rig the 2020 election. Then they falsely accused him of “orchestrating” the January 6 riot and went after him on every conceivable legal front. But Trump survived and now 2024 will be the final battle for a free republic.
Both Trump myths mix grains of truth with the chaff of conspiracy theories. Both speak to an even deeper sense that something must be very wrong with American democracy if Trump and Biden are on the ballot again.
Just as Kagan writes forcefully about the coming Trump tyranny, the pro-Trump historian Victor Davis Hanson argues with equal vigor that under Biden we are living in “Weimar America,” where antisemitism is re-emerging on campuses, intolerance festers under the protection of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion industry, and social cohesion is threatened through immigration from “anti-Enlightenment societies.”
The tone of this discourse becomes only more shrill as the public grows bored of arguing. But apathy can be a precursor to, rather than the antithesis of, political violence. It is not too alarmist to think that, in a nation full of guns, civil war in 2024 is a serious risk. On the eve of the last presidential election, after months of BLM rioting, many city authorities boarded up their streets, fearing a Trump victory would lead toa massive left-wing revolt. Four years later, things have only got worse.