Current Affairs

An Ineffectual Biden Presidency Is Better For The Left Than An Actively Authoritarian Trump Presidency

The election must be evaluated purely in strategic terms.

Editors’ note: The opinions expressed are the personal views of the editor-in-chief, not of Current Affairs as a whole. 

Joe Biden has treated the political left with such contempt that nearly everyone I know who shares my politics is disgusted with him and actively hates him. Over the course of his appalling political career, which I have documented at length, he has embodied all the worst traits of the contemporary Democratic Party: he is a dutiful servant of corporate interests, was a longtime advocate of racist tough-on-crime policies, helped lead liberal support for the Iraq War, and, to top it off, he frequently lies about this record. Like Donald Trump, he has been credibly accused of sexual assault and harassment by multiple women, including former Senate aide Tara Reade. These are not merely irrelevant footnotes in his past; Biden has shown little growth and interest in change. In this very campaign, he has declined to offer reasonable concessions to the party’s progressive wing. Instead of supporting a single-payer health insurance program, for instance, which would end the ludicrous “employer-based” insurance system that has caused such havoc during the COVID-19 crisis, he chooses to spread insurance industry talking points. Now, in the midst of protests over excessive policing and imprisonment, he has picked Kamala Harris as his vice presidential nominee. Harris oversaw a wave of prosecutorial misconduct and defended it in court, which led to the jailing of innocent people. She proudly threw parents in jail over their children’s truancy, and then misled people about the facts. She mocked protesters who thought money should be invested in education rather than jails, and her office tried to keep inmates locked up so they could be used as firefighters for the state. 

If you are on the left, you look at all this and you think: Why the hell should I lift a finger to get this pair into the White House? They clearly don’t give a crap about the things I believe in, and they’re proud of not giving a crap. They don’t have any principles. Biden, as I say, lies through his teeth. And Harris correctly called out Biden for his history of siding with segregationists, then immediately dropped the criticism when she was being considered as a running mate, suggesting she’d only raised it to score debating points. Now, after the Democratic Party leaders worked together to oust Bernie Sanders, they expect us to dutifully fall in line and “vote blue no matter who.” As my colleague Briahna Joy Gray points out, this phrase means abandoning all principles. It means that politics is simply a matter of loyalty to a team, no matter how bad that team is. We are supposed to be mindless and decline to have any litmus tests for what we will not tolerate.

The reason that Democrats are able to treat the left with this kind of disdain (which they do in ways large and small, such as giving AOC—the most visible representative of a generation of left-leaning young people—a pitiful 60 seconds to speak at the convention) is simple: the existence of Donald Trump and the Republican Party. They know that Donald Trump is horrifying. And so they are counting on us to rally around the party to stop Trump’s reelection, because they know we do not want Trump to be reelected. (They also know that if they lose, they can say it is our fault, because “not voting for Biden is voting for Trump.” See all the hate directed at Nader voters after 2000.)

The most aggravating part of this is that we are, in fact, backed into a corner here. Because everything possible does have to be done to prevent Trump’s reelection, and in the situation as it is now, that means actively trying to bring about a Biden presidency, nauseating as it is to consider the prospect of coming to the aid of someone who has done nothing for us. 

The facts are these: if Donald Trump is reelected, it could well be the end of American democracy as we know it. Yes, yes, we’re leftists, so we’re cynical: “Democracy! You call this democracy? We’ve never had democracy! We have a ruling corporate elite that lets us press a button every four years to legitimize itself!” But it is important to make sure one is only as cynical as the facts require. It’s certainly true that there is an “illusion of choice” in many ways. But it is also true that we have elections, and many people do get to vote in them (unless they have been disenfranchised), and that those elections decide which party has power, and sometimes the results make a difference. 

Republicans are far worse than corporate Democrats. This should not be controversial. Climate change? The Obama administration put new environmental regulations in place. Some had loopholes with bad consequences. But Donald Trump essentially wants to let corporations do exactly what they please. If he has his way, there won’t be any such thing as an environmental regulation. This is one of the most important and consequential issues of our day, and “LET IT BURN” versus “We want sensible but utterly inadequate emissions policies” are hugely different positions to take on the issue.

Look at the COVID-19 crisis. The Obama administration actually saw pandemics as a potential problem, though one can expect they, like several Democratic governors, would have handled this the way they handled nearly every important issue: disappointingly. But there is a huge difference between “doing too little” and actively causing mass death by refusing to believe that the virus is real, promoting quack solutions, trying to punish political enemies by withholding medical supplies from them, and encouraging people to flout public safety guidelines and rise up against state governments that try to enforce them. It is the Republican Party that has been most hostile to extending the basic financial cushion that has been keeping many people at a level of subsistence. The choice on coronavirus is between the inadequacy of the Democrats and the active homicidal insanity of Donald Trump. Surely we are not so cynical as to be indifferent to this difference. 

Barack Obama deported people by the hundreds of thousands. This was indefensible. But Donald Trump’s cruelty to immigrants goes beyond that to the barbaric. Listen to my colleague Brianna Rennix, an immigration lawyer, talk about the changes to immigration policy under Trump. Brianna says that if Trump is reelected, and thereby emboldened, the consequences for immigrants will be horrendous. Asylum for people fleeing violence would essentially be eliminated altogether, thereby sending every single person who comes here seeking refuge back to their home countries to be murdered. 

If that’s not enough, take the parties’ respective positions on “blowing up all of human civilization.” Joe Biden has said that nuclear arms control is important, and the Obama administration did move forward on measures to scale back the proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world. Donald Trump, on the other hand, wants to expand the nuclear arsenal, escalate an arms race, and is presently exacerbating tensions with two nuclear armed powers. 

To re-elect Trump is to embolden him: this is an important thing to understand about this election. Donald Trump did not win the popular vote in 2016. A cloud of illegitimacy hangs over his presidency. He has never had a real “mandate”—he may not appear to especially care about this, but it has somewhat limited the scope of his operations. If Donald Trump is reelected, he will be encouraged to massively escalate his existing policies. You think it’s bad now? Listen: if Trump is reelected, he will own the courts. He’s already stuffed them full of ideological allies. If he gets reelected, he’ll get another hand-picked Supreme Court justice, or perhaps as many as three (replacing RBG, Breyer, Thomas). The courts are the ultimate deciders of the law, and if they are in Trump’s pocket, he can essentially do as he pleases without regard to the law. Of course, he already does that. But if you think it can’t get worse, oh boy, just wait. He wants to suspend this election, and failing that, will take any measure he can to keep people from voting in it—he’s trying to destroy the USPS in order to keep mail-in voting from happening, in the full awareness that because Democrats believe coronavirus is real they are less likely to vote in person. I think Donald Trump knows this is the last chance we have to stop him.

Let us consider the situation of the left. Already, Trump has started sending federal officers to illegally throw protesters in vans and cart them off for detention. Do you not think he will escalate this, if it seems like “the people” have officially given their stamp of approval to it through an election (albeit one with mass voter suppression)? The situation for leftists under an authoritarian right-wing regime is very different from the one under a do-nothing liberal one. Trump is going to continue actively trying to destroy the few protections that workers have on organizing labor unions. Biden will probably just leave the (shitty) status quo alone. Trump will wage a war on immigrants and on voting rights. Biden will probably leave things in their current (unacceptable) condition. Biden has said he regrets the deportations under Obama and promised a moratorium on them under his presidency, not because he’s suddenly become enlightened—he’s already backed off the moratorium promise!—but because immigrant rights groups are successfully pressuring Democrats on this issue. I don’t trust Biden to follow through on any of his many “progressive” promises, but I do believe we can push him in a way we cannot push Trump—pressure from the Sunrise Movement did cause him to adopt a better climate plan—and that under Biden there will be a slightly less aggressive approach to immigration enforcement, which has important consequences for human lives and liberties.

The difference for leftists is immense: under one regime, we will be fighting for our lives against an aspiring dictator who would liquidate us all if he could. Under the other, we will be trying to pressure an exasperating and hypocritical liberal administration that drags its feet on everything. 

The way I look at a Biden presidency is that it’s a bit like having no president at all. Biden is a placeholder. Four years of Biden gives us space to organize. His administration can probably be pressured from the left in a way that Trump’s can’t. They’ll be intransigent, of course, but that’s why we need to keep building progressive political power, so that in 2024 AOC will be giving them 60 seconds rather than the other way round. Obviously there will have to be a progressive primary challenge in 2024 to Biden or Harris, and we will have to win, because the Democratic presidency will probably have been ineffectual and unpopular. This is the real concern about a Biden presidency: it will open up space for one of the truly monstrous Republicans, the smart fascists like Tom Cotton and Dan Crenshaw, to run. That would be a nightmare.

But four years of Biden buys us time. It relieves a bit of the pressure, because we will not have to be fighting a man who will be trying to send Black Lives Matter activists to Guantanamo Bay. Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden are unprincipled, lie frequently, and are accused of sex crimes. But Donald Trump is a psychopath, while Biden is a fuddy duddy. The levels of human harm each will inflict are different. This is a painful choice, one that shows how debased the country has become. But it is not a difficult choice.

The time we buy cannot be wasted. “Pressuring Biden” is only a small part of what we have to do. These years will need be used to actually organize and build the left. We know that a Biden presidency will be next to useless, despite all the insistence from his camp that he has The Most Progressive Platform In History. (I remember how Obama talked on the campaign trail and how he governed. You can’t fool me twice.) The main project is to actually build left institutions: independent sources of political power like the DSA, Black Lives Matter, the Sunrise Movement, democratic labor unions, media organizations, etc. We have to come out of this with a powerful movement that can defeat centrist politics.

Ah, but Biden sucks. He sucks! I know he sucks, I’ve spent the whole election cycle writing about how much he sucks, I’ve spent hours upon hours of my life exhaustively researching the million ways in which he sucks. But I do not view elections as moments to declare my ultimate values. I see voting as something that should take five minutes of thought and is based on an assessment of how it helps or hurts us. We can look at elections as strategic opportunities that need to be measured solely by their consequences. I was fine with voting for Hillary Clinton, even though she sucks too. I do not care about my pride. I do not care about showing the DNC that the left won’t be pushed around. The way to show them this is not to press the “destroy everything” button. It is to organize and throw them out. We must be the Count of Monte Cristo, carefully planning our revenge. I do not care if Biden and Harris go into the White House with smirks on their faces, knowing that they beat us. I am not going to destroy the country over a smirk. Biden and Harris are awful, unprincipled people, and I hate when such people win things, because it seems to prove that there is no justice in the world. But frankly, they do not matter to me. Let them think they have beaten the Left. It’s just a skirmish. We will come back in larger numbers soon.

But we cannot do this if we are fighting just to keep this country from lapsing into dictatorship, which is what we will be doing under a Trump second term. Let me ask you this: if Trump did start throwing activists into Guantanamo, what would you be able to do about it? Do you think the courts would save us? Do you think Congressional Democrats would do much more than put out a statement? Never assume that things cannot get worse. History is full of nightmares that nobody saw coming until they were too late.

This election worries me. It worries me because Biden is such an uninspiring candidate, and his campaign is so poorly run. And Trump is formidable. A lot of people still don’t understand how formidable Trump is, because they think he’s a clown and a moron and that a clown can’t also be a kind of evil genius. But we should be treating this election as if we think Trump is likely to win it, and we must do everything possible to stop him. The failure to treat 2016 that way is what allowed him to squeak into office. Hillary did her “mid-debate shimmy”, remember? “Ah, what a fool, he’s toast.” So much for that.

The GOP is registering voters faster than the Democrats. Trump just beat Biden in July fundraising despite his unpopularity. Trump’s campaign is knocking a million doors a week. Do you know how many Biden’s is knocking? 0. This is for a perfectly sensible reason: knocking on strangers’ doors during a pandemic is nuts. I am not saying Biden’s campaign should do it. I am saying that Democrats’ commitment to safety may well give Trump an organizing advantage. Trump has a lot of money. He has twice as much campaign staff as Biden. He is constantly putting out weird, memorable ads that make people laugh. He is a juggernaut that destroys everything in his path. Back in January, when I read an Intercept article about Bernie’s campaign organizing apparatus, there was one line I couldn’t stop thinking about. Claire Sandberg, who ran Bernie’s operation, said: “The only other campaign that is doing relational organizing on a scale close to what we are doing actually is the Trump campaign.” And I thought “Oh, shit.” 

You may not see Trump’s apparatus, because you don’t live near it. But it is happening. They are ruthless. They are committed to the goal of reelecting the president and they will do whatever it takes to make that happen. Purge voter rolls? Sure. Quietly hobble the USPS by removing its ability to process ballots? Yes. Lie, cheat, and steal? If that’s what’s necessary. Democrats are fighting with an arm tied behind their back, because they do still have one or two scruples that the right does not possess. We cannot operate as if we are trying to win a fair election, we have to assume we are trying to win a rigged one. This requires effort. 

    I know some say “the polls! The economy has destroyed Trump’s popularity! He’ll never get reelected!” Have we learned nothing? It does not matter if 9 out of 10 people in this country loathe Donald Trump. It matters how many people he can get to fill out ballots versus how many people we can get to fill out ballots (and have them counted). Whether someone is statistically a “likely voter” is not what matters, because all kinds of obstacles will be thrown in their way by the Republican Party. 

    I am not Team Joe. I will never be Team Joe. I do not Vote Blue No Matter Who. I vote blue when the consequences of not voting blue are worse than the consequences of voting blue. This election must be thought of as a war to stop an authoritarian government from consolidating power. We must assume we are likely to lose that war until we are certain we have won it. Otherwise, we will look back in a few years and wonder why the hell we let our hatred of Joe Biden lead us to an immediate, outright slide into fascism. I intend to spend the next four years ruthlessly criticizing Joe Biden, exposing every single one of his crimes, and exhorting the left to overthrow the Democratic establishment. A Biden presidency buys us four years before the next right-authoritarian tries to seize power. We have to use that time to organize; we do not get to take a breather. 

I am not a liberal, I do not make excuses for anything Biden has done, and I will not be making them in the future. I believe in working to get Biden elected solely because it creates the most favorable conditions for ultimately eliminating the kind of politics Biden represents. 

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