Trump and Biden, Biden and Trump. Will we ever move forward? It’s as if the country is stuck in an endless catastrophic loop from 2020: an outbreak covid pandemic, an economic contraction and an ongoing democratic crisis, which the unrepentant and so far unpunished former president unleashed by refusing to accept his electoral defeat. These are the headlines of this week in Washington and, it seems, every week.
On Tuesday, Donald Trump returned to the capital for the first time since reluctantly walking away on January 20, 2021, when he became the first president in 152 years to refuse to attend the swearing in of his successor. He arrived, to the cheers of a crowd of his former advisers and hangers, at the America First Policy Institute, founded by a collection of appointees from his administration to fly the Trump banner. Unsurprisingly, he peddled lies and slander as frequently as ever. In his speech‚ – a reprise of his dystopian “American carnage” inaugural address – he claimed the country had become a “sink of crime”, prone to “blood, death and suffering on a scale once unthinkable”. because of Joe Biden. and Democrats, and he promised “an all-out effort to defeat violent crime in America” if he returns to office. Whether violent crime was higher in 2020, after Trump’s four years in the White House, than in 2016 has not been recorded. It also didn’t matter that Trump’s speech consisted of the same tired law-and-order rhetoric he campaigned on against Biden, in 2020. This election won’t be over until Trump says so, which of course he never will.
Biden, meanwhile, has had another agonizing top-down news cycle, the kind that abounded during his presidency. There have been tantalizing glimmers of progress, such as Wednesday’s surprise deal with Sen. Joe Manchin to continue some of the administration’s social spending and climate initiatives, and Thursday’s passage of the bipartisan FRIES Act, which provides billions of dollars to bolster domestic semiconductor manufacturing. There were also stark reminders of the country’s grim reality, underscored by the announcement on Thursday that the US economy, already battered by the highest inflation rates in four decades, has contracted for the second consecutive quarter. The usual term for this is a recession, and it is virtually impossible for presidents, no matter how malevolent or dangerous their adversary, to escape the political backlash of just one.
Regardless, Biden insisted, during a dialogue with CEOs on Thursday afternoon, one of many appearances intended to mask the day’s bad news: “We are also seeing signs of economic progress.” Earlier today, he unveiled the right indicators, for those who might not have seen them: record unemployment, rising foreign investment, that deal with Manchin – which, if the legislation is passed, will everything from cutting deficits and curbing inflation to tackling climate change and lowering drug prices. “This doesn’t look like a recession to me,” the president happily concluded. Optimism in the face of long odds has always been one of Biden’s strengths as a politician.
So is this week a preview of what we are going to be destined for the next two years – an endless series of dueling speeches and dueling realities of our forty-fifth and forty-sixth presidents? The contrast is as familiar as it is painful. Think of Biden on Wednesday wearing his aviator sunglasses against the Rose Garden glare, announcing he was fully recovered from his recent fight with covid and fervently lobbying the public to get their vaccines, boosters and home tests. How different from Trump in 2020, who, after being rushed to hospital with the virus, returned triumphantly days later to the White House, where he theatrically ripped off his face mask, in defiance of lockdown measures. public health, and proclaims himself a sort of superman.
In Trump’s speech this week, the former president looked no different than when he was the incumbent, running through his greatest hits, including pledges to build the wall and confront both evil gangs like MS-13 and “crazy” Socialist Democrats. It was what passed for political speech in Trumpworld, but it was really about raw emotions: fear, disgust and, of course, feeding his own huge ego. “I did very well,” he said, explaining how he heroically disagreed with his scientific advisers, like Anthony Fauci, at the start of the pandemic. “It’s pretty amazing. Some of the things we’ve done are pretty amazing.
Biden, for his part, usually sticks to politics in his political speeches. It is a technocratic party, whose voters care about the nuances of government action and for whom bullshit is an asset. He speaks more in bullet points than in Trumpian exclamation marks. “It’s a godsend,” Biden said of the deal Manchin surprised the capital by accepting, after a year-long negotiation with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. The president went on to explain, “That’s often how the bills are made, by compromises.”
The country, however, is crying out for something different: we’re on the wrong track, the numbers are off the charts. Both Biden and Trump have abysmal approval ratings and astronomical disapproval ratings in the polls. Young people, the future, are particularly unhappy. And yet Biden and Trump, both in their eighties, remain the titular leaders of their respective parties. Both are threatening to run again in 2024. Trump, plagued by his own destructive lies about the last election, wants the Republican Party to remain his personal revenge game. Biden seems convinced he is the only one who can beat Trump. The result is that, in a time of unquestionable crisis, the hold of gerontocracy remains strong in both American political parties.
Solid, yes, but maybe not unbreakable. Polls in recent weeks have actually shown signs of waning support for Trump within his own party — perhaps a consequence of House Select Committee hearings exposing his role in inflaming the crowd that stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Trump remains an overwhelming favorite for the Republican presidential nod, should he choose to seek it out – and educated speculation is that he will – but hope is eternal among his critics both inside and outside the GOP
In a few recent focus groups I listened to among Trump voters in Washington state and Wyoming, moderated by anti-Trump Republican Sarah Longwell, only one out of fourteen 2020 Trump supporters wanted him to present again. This is in stark contrast to dozens of focus groups over the previous seventeen months in which, as Longwell wrote in Atlantic, at least half of those polled hoped Trump would go ahead. “I think it’s time to move on,” said one participant from Arizona in another group. One in Ohio said, “I don’t want four more years of ‘evil orange man’ and everyone screams every time he tweets. . . . I don’t want four more years like this.
Despite all the emerging signs of Trump fatigue among Republicans — a big factor, I think, in his 2020 defeat — it’s also clear that Democrats aren’t thrilled with Biden as their 2024 flag bearer. The current president’s crater of approval ratings, after all, is because Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents have become disillusioned with him.
And that’s perhaps the most bipartisan thing about this disheartening year. A recent Time The focus group found Trump voters and Biden voters spitting at each other — and strongly in agreement that neither Trump nor Biden should run for president again. So take that, catastrophic loop: America is done with 2020, even if Donald Trump and Joe Biden aren’t. ♦