It has become a major fault line in Democratic politics: Is President Trump himself the chief cause of all that ails us?
Or does Trump’s ascendancy reflect much broader pathologies afflicting the Republican Party — its increasing comfort with ethnonationalism, authoritarianism, and procedural and policy extremism, all of which predate, helped create and will outlast Trump?
And if it’s the latter, shouldn’t all the Democratic candidates be explaining how they’d deal with all those things as president?
This debate will again be thrust to the forefront when Joe Biden campaigns in Iowa on Tuesday. He is set to hammer Trump as an “existential threat” to the country, which he will try to illustrate by training his firepower largely on the president.
Biden took a beating Monday night for offering a stark version of this rhetorical move, while explaining how he’d work with Republicans as president.
“With Trump gone you’re going to begin to see things change,” Biden said at a fundraiser. “Because these folks know better. They know this isn’t what they’re supposed to be doing."
As many pointed out, this prediction is profoundly absurd. Biden should know this, having lived through scorched-earth GOP opposition as Barack Obama’s vice president.
What’s more, as others noted, the notion that many Republicans feel secretly apprehensive about Trump’s many degradations is belied by the George W. Bush years. We saw authoritarianism and lawlessness (torture, secret prisons), politicized law enforcement (the political firing of U.S. attorneys), procedural radicalism and hostility to science (violating the law by refusing to regulate greenhouse gases) and disinformation (the Iraq War).
Given all this, does Biden really believe what he’s saying about Republicans?
It’s certainly possible that Biden holds some qualified view along these lines, that sometimes a handful of Republican lawmakers can be induced to show more moderate, bipartisan instincts. This would be in keeping with his temperamental inclinations and obvious sense of himself as a highly persuasive fellow.
But, whatever Biden’s personal views, it’s far more likely he’s saying these things primarily for political reasons — that at the core of this rhetoric is a gamble about how voters will understand this moment, both in the primaries and in the general election.
The Biden gamble
Biden likes to tout himself as well positioned to win back Rust Belt working-class whites. As Ron Brownstein notes, Biden more than any rival stands for the proposition that this is how to rebuild the Democratic majority.
Of course, as 2018 demonstrated, the key to rebuilding that national majority also turns on capturing college-educated and suburban whites, particularly women, who might be GOP-leaning but are also badly alienated by Trump.
It’s obvious that Biden’s rhetoric about Republicans is partly aimed at both those demographics.
In this analysis, working-class whites might be gettable if they conclude that Trump sold out on his economic populism or if Biden skillfully plays “blue-collar identity politics,” as Jamelle Bouie puts it, or through some combination of those.
If there’s any broader indictment of the GOP that these voters might be open to, it would be targeted toward the orthodox GOP plutocracy that Trump embraced, and not toward the Trump/GOP overlap on pointy-headed elite concerns about norms, ethnonationalism or authoritarianism.
Meanwhile, in this analysis, a direct attack on Trump would also be the way to win alienated college-educated and suburban whites.
In his Iowa speech, Biden will go hard at the damage being done by Trump’s trade wars; at his dangerous ignorance and disdain for empiricism and science; his racism and white nationalism; and his cruel treatment of migrant children.
“Everywhere we turn, it's clear that Trump is shredding what we believe in most,” Biden will say, adding that for these reasons, Trump poses an “existential threat” to the “character of this nation.”
Thus, getting affluent whites to vote against Trump will turn on speaking to their deep discomfort with Trump himself — his racism, cruelty, temperamental unfitness, and serial disruptions. Since they might be GOP-leaning, Biden is casting himself as a stabilizing figure who won’t reprise the divisiveness and rage of the Trump years.
Biden is wrong about the GOP
None of this is to suggest that partisan peace and stability are realistic promises as to what might happen under a President Biden.
Indeed, even if Biden is making this case for purely political reasons, he should be pressed to explain how he’d govern alongside the GOP —what he’d advocate procedurally, or how he’d win Republicans over on, say, immigration when they appear all in with Trump’s nativism.
A lot of Democratic voters want to hear the answer to these questions. But Biden is making a bet about the Democratic primary electorate, too.
Biden aides believe rank-and-file Democratic voters want to hear that their nominee will successfully work with Republicans. They cite polling that shows large majorities of Democrats see this as very important.
And so, in striking this posture, Biden likely hopes to play on his association with Obama, who still holds on to this optimism in spite of all that has happened. Obama famously said in 2012 that if he won reelection, the GOP “fever” would “break.” This proved wrong, but as late as last year, Obama reiterated that “common ground exists. I have seen it. I have lived it.”
The Biden camp plainly believes that Democratic voters view this as an admirable and attractive posture.
Of course, recent history tells us Biden’s emphasis on Trump as the problem is empirically wrong.
As I argued in my book, Trump represents both a unique threat and an exacerbation of deeper trends in Republican politics and structural deteriorations in our democracy. I believe Elizabeth Warren is the Democrat who is most comprehensively addressing all these facets of the Trump-era threat.
But there’s an inescapable political dimension to this argument as well. Biden believes that this is the way to win the general election. That’s Biden’s gamble, and it, too, should be the subject of Democratic primary debate.