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Joe Biden and the spectre of Donald Trump

Suffering electoral defeats and a polling slump, the US president cannot shake his predecessor’s hold on American politics.

By Emily Tamkin

Fallen from power and stripped of his Twitter account – the bullhorn he once used to declare victories and mock rivals – Donald Trump still haunts American politics. So too do the dark forces he unleashed on the US political scene between 2016 and 2021: nihilism, fear, conspiracy theory, white supremacy.

There are reminders of Trump’s spectre at our door. The most recent came on 2 November when the Republican Glenn Youngkin was elected governor of Virginia. A 54-year-old former businessman, Youngkin appears to be straight from GOP central casting: though he recognised Joe Biden’s presidential victory as “certifiably fair”, he has raised some concerns about election integrity; he refuses to acknowledge human activity as a cause of climate change; and he has been accused of anti-Semitism for highlighting what he sees as the malign influence of the billionaire philanthropist George Soros in American education. He has said that mask mandates for children in schools are a step towards full economic shutdown and, like his fellow Republicans, decries critical race theory (CRT) – a legal concept that says America’s political and juridical systems uphold white supremacy. Youngkin has promised to ban the teaching of CRT in Virginia’s classrooms.

Trump, who endorsed Youngkin but avoided visiting Virginia during the race, claimed credit for the victory against the Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe, thanking his “base” for coming out to vote. McAuliffe’s campaign focused heavily on linking his opponent with Trump, who, strategists thought, would be a toxic figure for most voters. The message did not have its intended effect.

The presence of Trump is similarly felt in the debates over pandemic politics that were stirred under him. Support for vaccine scepticism and mask mandates largely splits along party lines. The GOP is attempting to pass legislation through federal state houses that would prevent the return of certain pandemic restrictions in some states.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has become the neuralgic point where political and ideological disagreement between America’s left and right is most intense. Six of the nine justices (who serve lifetime appointments) were nominated by a Republican president. Sixty-two per cent of voters believe the court is now a political tool. Amy Coney Barrett, the conservative judge appointed by Trump in 2020, has insisted the court “is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks”. She said this while appearing at an event with arch-Republican and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.

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Great again: Glenn Youngkin greets supporters after winning the Virginia governor race. Photo by Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Most worryingly, at the start of this year almost two-thirds of Republican voters refused to accept that Trump lost the 2020 election. Half of Republicans believe their votes will not be accurately counted the next time they go to the polls. Insisting that electoral fraud robbed him of victory, Trump has helped engender state-level laws that make it more difficult to vote. There are now extra requirements to submit ballots by mail and in some states, such as Georgia, it is illegal to give water to voters waiting in line at the polls.

He has also established a precedent whereby future presidential candidates may refuse to concede defeat. His attempt to have the 2020 result overturned may have been thwarted after election officials refused to “find” votes in his favour. But that does not mean this system of safeguards, designed more than 200 years ago, can hold forever.

What are Biden and the Democrats to do? With Covid cases falling, the pandemic is subsiding. The economy is showing some signs of recovery: unemployment has fallen to 4.6 per cent and, according to JPMorgan Chase Institute, median household current account balances were up more than 50 per cent at the end of July 2021 on July 2019. But although Americans may be richer, inflation is rising and people believe general economic conditions are poor.

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At the start of this year, Biden seemed to be in constant motion – passing a $1.9trn stimulus, dispensing 100 million Covid-19 vaccine shots in his first 60 days, rejoining the Paris climate agreement, and ending Trump’s travel ban from several Muslim-majority countries. But at 38 per cent approval – the result of a USA Today/Suffolk University poll released on 7 November – his rating is the lowest of any modern president at this point in a term except Trump. A year before the midterm elections, Biden risks stalling. If his polling does not improve, the Democrats could lose their fragile hold over the House of Representatives in 2022.

As well as the defeat in Virginia on 2 November, the Democrats lost local elections throughout New York state and just managed to keep the Democratic governor in office in New Jersey. These defeats are a reminder that the party “might have a limited time to be in a majority”, one Democratic House staffer told me. “If anything, it should put us in high gear to communicate our successes to the American people.”

[see also: Leader: The Democrats face a reckoning]

The question is not just how to communicate political achievements but how to secure them. Biden’s infrastructure legislation, which will pour $1trn into rebuilding roads and bridges and improving transit and internet access, finally passed in the Senate on 5 November. But his more ambitious social spending bill, which amounts to $1.75trn, has not. Some progressive Democrats, including Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – part of the so-called Squad of young, left-wing Congress members – did not support the infrastructure bill, withholding their votes in an effort to get assurances the social spending programmes would also be passed.

Democrats are trying to work out what lesson to take from the Virginia defeat. Some see it as a sign that Biden and the party have strayed too far from the political centre. Senator Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia who has resisted committing to vote on Biden’s social spending bill, said on 4 November that America is a “centre-right” country and legislators should “recognise it”, adding: “We must not go too far to the left.” After the Virginia election, Abigail Spanberger, a moderate Democrat from the state, remarked that nobody elected Biden to be Franklin D Roosevelt, who administered the New Deal between 1933 and 1939. Americans, she said, just want things to be “normal”.

But other Democrats believe Biden should be more economically ambitious and pass a modern New Deal. “It’s not clear to me that running a more economically populist, working-class orientated campaign is going to be enough, but it’s very clear that not doing that will fail,” said Max Berger, a political organiser who worked on Senator Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 presidential campaign. “Is there anything Democrats can do to forestall Republicans retaking the House, and with it hastening the demise of free and fair elections? My gut says no.” Republicans lost the House two years after Trump came into office; the Democrats lost it two years after Barack Obama did. Still, Berger said, “I think we should at least try to go down guns blazing.”

[see also: The US is not a leader in the fight against climate change]

With the infrastructure bill now passed, some on the left will push for Biden’s social spending bill to go through. “Our work doesn’t stop there,” Ro Khanna, a leading progressive in the House of Representatives, told me. “We have to keep fighting for important policies not included in the bills. That means passing comprehensive paid leave, an incredibly popular programme that would offer clearly established benefits to families. It means fighting to raise the minimum wage, [write off] student loans, and continue to push for additional climate action. We have to deliver for working- and middle-class Americans to make their lives better. Democracy is at stake.”

If the threat of Trump’s return is felt in Congress, it is sensed in local election campaigns too – and not only by Democrats. “Watching [Youngkin’s] campaign was like watching him try to walk along a four-inch balance beam without falling off,” said Whit Ayres, a Virginia-based Republican pollster. “Youngkin never criticised or rebuked Trump, but he also never appeared with him. He didn’t show up at the rallies where Trump called in… and Trump never appeared for him in a rally in Virginia.”

In more solidly Republican states, it would be harder to get away with this distancing strategy. In Ohio, for example, JD Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy (2016) and now a GOP Senate candidate, has been targeted by attack ads reportedly costing nearly $1m for his past criticisms of Trump. The groups behind the ads, Club for Growth Action and USA Freedom Fund, support the former Ohio state treasurer Josh Mandel, whose Twitter bio boasts that he was the “first statewide official in Ohio to support President Trump”. He regularly tweets his fierce criticism of so-called Rinos (“Republicans in name only”) – a favourite pejorative term of Trump.

In Democratic strongholds such as New York and California, Republican prospects are unlikely to be affected by the way GOP candidates talk about Trump. But in swing states, and with the right candidate, the “Youngkin model” – a combination of keeping Trump at arm’s length, not too close but still in reach – works. At the same time, the success of Youngkin and Republicans like him depends on the extent to which Trump remains in the background. In the next presidential campaign in 2024, will Trump be content to campaign separately from the candidate, or will he insist on showing up to the rallies? Can Trump resist making another run for the presidency?

If Republicans win back the House and the Senate in 2022, there is a chance they will be able to use Trump without being overshadowed by him.

For the Democrats, the question is how to define their political ambitions, as they decide whether to remake the country or return to the political centre. The concern with the moderate position is, as the US historian Arthur M Schlesinger Jr put it in the late 1990s, the “middle of the road is definitely not the vital centre. It is the dead centre.”

Some in the party understand this. “I think the writing is on the wall,” one Democratic House staffer said. “We kind of know how the [2022] election is going to play out.” Education – and specifically how students learn, or don’t, about race and racism in America – is going to be a significant campaign issue. “Democrats need to step up and have a message to respond to that,” they said.

All the while, Trump is a looming, threatening presence in US political life. Republicans will continue to use him and the base of supporters he brings, and in the process may end up being used by him. But Democrats cannot run a campaign simply on being the not-Trump party. Biden can spend the next year in a defensive crouch. Or, alternatively, he can try to pass legislation that improves people’s lives in tangible ways, and position himself not against a vision of America, but for one.

Trump may cast a shadow over American politics. But Biden and the Democrats can’t be afraid of that shadow, and they certainly can’t afford to be afraid of their own.

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This article appears in the 10 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the Masks