David Bell – The Election in Split Screen

10 May 2024

For the past couple of weeks, the presidential election has been stuck in a strange sort of split screen, as both candidates find themselves unwilling participants in dramas whose outcome is, in both cases, largely beyond their control. For Donald Trump, it is his criminal trial in New York City. For Joe Biden, it is the war in Gaza and the campus unrest it has led to in the United States.


In the first case, the drama is contained and the players are clear. For two weeks now, Trump has had to sit uncomfortably before the bench listening day after day as prosecutors lay out a case against him for criminally falsifying business records and as witnesses recount the sordid details of his affair with the porn actress Stormy Daniels. Every day he has posted angry, self-pitying screeds about the trial to social media. He has also played an odd game with Judge Juan Merchan, repeatedly violating gag orders, accruing fines, and challenging the veteran jurist to jail him for contempt of court. The 78 year old former president, never exactly a paragon of physical courage (remember the “bone spurs” that spared him from the Vietnam War), clearly has no desire to spend any time in a jail cell. But photos of him in custody would fire up a base which has already lost interest in the trial (to judge by the sparse handful of supporters gathering outside the court every day), so he is clearly tempted. This week the prosecution is calling its principal witness, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, and the case still has several weeks to go. It also looks increasingly certain that this is the only criminal case against Trump that will conclude—or even get started—before the election.


If Trump’s drama has its comic side (with revelations about his satin pajamas and penchant for spanking), Biden’s is deadly serious. The Gaza War, with its tens of thousands of Palestinian dead, has now led to the most consequential student protests in the United States since the 1960’s. The protestors themselves have been accused of anti-Semitism, bitterly dividing campuses and placing unprecedented pressure on administrations to apply strict disciplinary measures. At school after school, with Columbia University the most visible example, police have intervened to break up protest “encampments,” evict students from occupied buildings, and make arrests. These actions, in turn, have sparked intense student anger. And much of it has spilled over into the election, as students condemn “Genocide Joe” for his aid to Israel, and for taking the side of the university administrators in the name of fighting a “ferocious surge of anti-Semitism” on campus. But will this anger have an effect on the election?


It is entirely possible. Yes, polls continue to show that most college students do not count the war among their top preoccupations. But the Democratic party needs politically active students—not only to vote for Biden, but to campaign for him, and to help mobilize the vote in November. At this point, it does not look likely that Biden will generate much enthusiasm on campuses, to say the least.


We have been here before, of course. In 2000, Ralph Nader’s independent progressive campaign, which attracted many student activists, cost Al Gore the presidency and led to the eight disastrous years of the Bush Junior administration. Sixteen years later, Jill Stein’s even more quixotic campaign probably made the difference in several key states, helping to bring Donald Trump to power. Four years of President Trump shocked the progressive left into supporting Biden in 2020, but memories are short, and the current campus strife very bitter.


On the left, a new political vision is hardening into place which casts liberals like Biden not as regrettably cautious and pusillanimous allies in the fight for social justice, but as full-fledged “neoliberal” adversaries. A recent article in Jacobin, for instance, mocks them for seeing in Trumpism a resurgence of fascism. “For liberals,” the authors write, “it is easier to blame ‘fascism’ (or ‘white rural rage’ or ‘deplorables’ or ‘Christian nationalists’) for causing our country’s problems than the deregulatory, financialized, and militarist neoliberalism of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.” An essay in The London Review of Books goes further, asking whether there is really a difference between “supposedly progressive, liberal government” and Trump. And the author continues: “There is a refusal by liberals to accept accountability for the world they have created, through their support for wars in the Middle East, their acceptance of growing inequality and poverty, cuts to public services, glacial action on climate change and failure to create secure and meaningful jobs.” The influential historian Samuel Moyn has provided an intellectual foundation for this vision with a series of works—most recently Liberalism Against Itself—that castigates liberals for abandoning an earlier, more capacious progressive faith and accepting both spiraling inequality and American empire.


It can be argued that this vision is skewed and misleading (for my own critique of Moyn, see here). Most American liberals opposed the Iraq War and have fought hard on issues like public services and climate change. Barack Obama extricated the US from Iraq and gave health insurance to millions. Joe Biden took us out of Afghanistan and passed major infrastructure and climate change legislation. But the progressive left writes off these very real achievements, accomplished in the teeth of ferocious Republican resistance in a massively polarized country, as inconsequential half measures or even as effective complicity with the sinister forces of neoliberalism and empire. And they also see these measures as overshadowed by Biden’s support for Israel’s actions and his apparent approval of the deployment of “militarized” police on university campuses. The vision resonates with furious protestors, who find it all too easy to cast a supposedly out-of-touch Biden as the hapless tool of billionaire university megadonors, arms manufacturers, and Binyamin Netanyahu: the node where neoliberalism and American empire meet. A history professor at the University of Chicago spoke for many when he tweeted: “I do not relish another Trump presidency, but I have to admit my contempt for Biden is now deeper than for Trump, who’s merely a braindead instinctual fascist—in contrast to Biden, who’s deliberately deciding to align American liberalism with the global far right.” People who think this way may not vote for Trump, but they are not going to do a great deal to stop him, either.


It is entirely possible that by November, the protests will weigh less heavily on the election than now seems to be the case. If Israel and Hamas agree on a ceasefire, if the Democratic convention in Chicago takes place without major disruptions, and if the reality of what a second Trump administration might mean starts to come into focus, students could well forget their chants of “genocide Joe” and again work for a Democratic victory. If Donald Trump goes into the election as a convicted felon, out on bail while awaiting sentencing, while his rants turn (if possible) even more delirious and paranoid, then the election could still swing back towards Biden. But at this point, anything is possible. The most recent polls show the contest as a tossup.


The only other notable election development of the past few weeks brings us back to low comedy, namely the continued desperate maneuvering by Republicans to become Trump’s vice-presidential candidate. Kristi Noem, the fire-breathing Governor of South Dakota, seemed to be in pole position, despite stories of her adulterous affair with former Trump aide Corey Lewandowski. But in a self-own for the ages, she has probably sunk her chances with the publication of her memoir boasting of shooting a difficult-to-train 14-month-old pet dog in a gravel pit. Senator Tim Scott, who seems to have outgroveled even his South Carolina colleague Lindsay Graham in the contest for “most obsequious Trump supporter,” now essentially says the election won’t be legitimate unless Trump wins. But the smart money, for the moment, has turned to Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, a former moderate (and Harvard alumna) turned Grand Inquisitor of the Ivy League. If the 78-year-old, cheeseburger-gobbling Trump does win in November, she could well become the first woman president of the United States.

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *