Do you remember the president who gave Vladimir Putin everything he wanted in Europe? The president who consistently ignored the advice of military experts, hoarded Covid vaccines, peddled nativist rhetoric about American manufacturing, turned Washington, DC into an 80s sci-fi dystopia during his inauguration, expressed his astonishment at the number of interracial couples on television, and planned a mass deportation of Haitian refugees fleeing an earthquake, a hurricane, and a coup?
Readers of The Spectator are clever enough to know that I am talking not about Donald Trump but Joe Biden. For months now I feel like I’ve been screaming into the void: Biden is everything Trump wanted to be. The main difference between the two is their respective bases of support. Trumpism is essentially a lower-middle-class lifestyle brand whose spokesman just happens to be a Manhattan billionaire, while Bidenism is the same thing repackaged for suburban wine moms and renewable energy plant dads by the son of a used car dealer in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Only in America, right?
Why is no one interested in pointing out the obvious areas of continuity between the two administrations? I like to think of it as the ‘Pepsi Challenge’ problem. Back in 1975, when Biden was still glad-handing with segregationist colleagues in the Senate, the soda brand decided to offer blind taste tests, ostensibly for the purpose of showing those who preferred Coca-Cola that if they set aside their prejudices they would discover that Pepsi was just as good, if not better.
The problem with the Pepsi Challenge was that people didn’t actually want to trust their taste buds; they were content with their pre-existing view that one drink or the other was superior. On issue after issue (with the notable exception of abortion) Biden has followed the course charted by his predecessor. You would think this would be horrifying to his supporters, who criticised Trump for everything from wanting to leave Afghanistan to taxing Chinese imports.
Why then is Biden having more success at being Trump than the man himself? The difference between the coalitions that brought both into office tells most of the story. Because Biden was the candidate of the professional classes, supported by everyone who was not an obese, super-spreading, opioid-addicted racist, everything he now does almost by definition is correct and in keeping with the advice of vaguely defined experts.
The other difference is that everything Biden proposes has a good chance of actually being carried out. Trump spent all four years of his presidency trying to make a single common-sense change to the way the United States provides medical care to veterans of the armed forces. Instead of forcing them to go to poorly run facilities administered by the Veterans Administration, he very reasonably suggested that the free health care to which they were entitled by virtue of their service could be sought at any hospital and that the feds should simply pick up the bill.
Nearly half a decade later, this seemingly simple process has proven almost impossible to implement. Why? Because the sclerotic bureaucracy doesn’t like it. Trump was regarded almost from the beginning as a kind of usurper whose decrees should be resisted to the furthest extent possible, regardless of how sensible they might have appeared to a disinterested observer.
Meanwhile, when the Biden administration carries out deportations, we don’t get stories about ‘kids in cages’. Instead, his policies are carried out silently by a compliant executive branch, with very little fanfare from the people who only a few years ago were throwing around phrases like ‘concentration camp’. When Biden says it’s time to leave Afghanistan, even in the absence of an actual plan, the military gets it done.
Biden’s success reminds us that the actual American constitution does not remotely look like the one that exists on paper. In the real world it is not the tally of votes from the Electoral College that determines who is the legitimate president but the consensus of the media. Long before Trump was inaugurated journalists decided that he simply was not the duly elected president. Two years of McCarthyite nonsense about Russian ‘collusion’, two ludicrous impeachments, the attempts to revive dead letters like the Logan Act or the Emoluments Clause: these were all conclusions in search of a justification.
In the meantime those of us who thought that Trump’s instincts were at least occasionally sound should derive some comfort from what his successor has been able to achieve. Biden is aggressively shoring up American domestic heavy industry and pulling us out of disastrous wars that the Pentagon simply refused to abandon under Trump.
The joke is on Biden’s middle-of-the-road liberal supporters. To rephrase Blake’s crack about Milton, they are of the Donald’s party without knowing it.