interesting times

Why Joe Biden Might Be the Best Bet to Beat Trump

Biden seems to flummox Trump. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

If you’ve been reading the liberal media and Left Twitter the past couple of months, you’d be certain of one thing: Joe Biden is hopelessly out of touch — too old, too white, too male, too handsy, too racist, too misogynist, too unwoke, and far too compromised by his past positions to be the Democratic nominee in 2020. Josh Marshall, while liking Biden, regarded him as “unsuited to the moment in almost every way imaginable.” Jamelle Bouie saw him as a repugnant variant of Trumpism: “For decades Biden gave liberal cover to white backlash.” My colleague Rebecca Traister recently called him “a comforter of patriarchal impulses toward controlling women’s bodies.” Ben Smith declared: “His campaign is stumbling toward launch with all the hallmarks of a Jeb!-level catastrophe — a path that leads straight down … Joe Biden isn’t going to emerge from the 2020 campaign as the nominee. You already knew that.” Michael Tomasky summarized the elite consensus: “Nearly everyone thinks [Biden] can’t win the nomination.”

“Nearly everyone” — i.e., all my friends and acquaintances in the journalistic and political elite — also thought Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in to win the general election. But Biden has had an extremely good start to his third campaign for president. His announcement video was aimed at those on the left who see Trump as the tip of the spear of white nationalism, and to those swingier voters who simply want to return to normalcy, constitutional order, and, well, decency. That’s a message that rallies the base but also appeals to those who may be exhausted by the trauma of Trump. As an opener, perfect. Even, at times, moving.

The polling is just as impressive. In three separate polls released this week, Biden’s support is somewhere in the upper 30s, and his nearest competitor is in the mid-teens (or, in one case, low 20s). In a field of 20 candidates, that’s a big share, and in Nate Silver’s analysis, “Well-known candidates polling in the mid-30s in the early going are about even money to win the nomination, historically.” Yes, he’s riding an announcement bump right now and his numbers may and almost certainly will fade over time. His name recognition is sky-high compared with some others, who could catch up as the campaign progresses. And he might once again gaffe his way into oblivion. But he has a big enough lead to be able to afford a certain amount of erosion.

And his strength is drawn from two contrasting bases: older, moderate whites, and African-Americans. Although his share is in the 30s overall, he has a whopping 50 percent share among nonwhite Democrats, according to the latest CNN poll. A Morning Consult poll found him with 43 percent of the black vote, including 47 percent support among African-American women. Biden’s deep association with Obama gives him a lift in the black vote no other white candidate can achieve. And so it turns out that the base of the Democrats has not been swept into the identity cult of the elite, wealthy, white left. As a brand-new CBS poll finds, Democrats may prefer a hypothetical female nominee over a male (59–41 percent), a black nominee over a white one (60–40 percent), and someone in their 40s to someone in their 70s. But that’s in the abstract. In reality, Biden seems to scramble these preferences.

He’s also been able to reach non-college-educated white men in ways few other candidates could. That’s a big fucking deal in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin — and if Biden can carry those states, he’ll be the next president. He’s a union man, and always has been. In what was a brilliant ad-lib, Biden began a speech to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers by making a joke about the excesses of #MeToo — “I had permission to hug Lonnie,” the union leader, he quipped. Later, as he brought some kids onstage, he joked again, as he put his hands on the shoulders of a boy: “He gave me permission to touch him.” The crowd’s reaction both times was bellows of laughter.

Yes, this might be seen as insensitive, or tone-deaf. It is certainly politically incorrect. But what Biden’s joke did is tell the white working class that he has not defected to the woke, white urban elites. This matters. In a recent poll, 80 percent of Americans say “that political correctness is a problem in this country.” Hostility to new speech codes from elites was one factor that drove support for Trump in 2016. Americans do not want to abolish all differences between men and women, do not support reparations, and view college campuses as strange, alien pockets of madness. Any Democrat in 2020 has to reach that “exhausted majority” who are sick of all that. Biden has already done it.

Would upping the white working-class vote for the Dems alienate minorities, women, and high-income whites? Maybe. Charles Blow recently argued that these voters are fickle, getting smaller and smaller as a segment of the electorate, and are “hostile to the interests of women and minorities.” That is, they’re deplorables, unworthy of attention. Clinton tried that strategy. And she lost the presidency because of her thinly veiled contempt for the white working classes in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio. The idea that the white working class is incompatible with a multicultural coalition is what two Obama campaigns disproved.

Biden’s positive message is a defense of the worker from the excesses of decadent late-capitalism. He can effortlessly channel that and compete with Trump in the Rust Belt. Sanders can do this as well — but Bernie, for all his sincerity and authenticity, does not have the heft of a two-term vice-president who has long been at the center of his party. For those who simply want to defeat Trump at all costs, Biden, for now, seems the safest bet. He can run on a platform deeply informed by the left’s critique of the market, without the baggage of left wokeness or those eager to play into the GOP’s hands and explicitly avow “socialism.”

That’s exactly what the Trump campaign fears. And in the critical head-to-head dynamic against Trump, Biden already seems to have gotten into the president’s head. Despite what we have been told is strong internal advice from his mute dauphin-in-law not to engage Biden, Trump couldn’t help himself. When Biden got an endorsement from the firefighters union, Trump unleashed a torrent of 58 retweets before 6:30 a.m., all citing firefighters’ support for Trump. The president insists that every firefighter, cop, and service member supports him. All of them. And so the president went on to attack the union itself: “I’ve done more for Firefighters than this dues sucking union will ever do, and I get paid ZERO!” After this sad temper tantrum, Biden was ready for a response: “”I’m sick of this President badmouthing unions. Labor built the middle class in this country. Minimum wage, overtime pay, the 40-hour week: they exist for all of us because unions fought for those rights. We need a President who honors them and their work.” Biden 1, Tump 0.

In subsequent remarks, Trump revealed his current strategy for reelection: He’ll tout a strong economy, fight mass immigration, and run against the threat of “socialism.” But he’s obviously terrified that Biden won’t fit easily into this AOC–Ilhan Omar rubric. He’s hoping that the left of the party will kneecap him: “I think Biden would be easier from the standpoint that you will have so much dissension in the party, because it’ll make four years ago look like baby stuff … They want the radical left — they want the left movement — and he probably isn’t there. And I think you’re going to have tremendous dissension [sic] just like Hillary did.” So the president just told the country that his most potent opponent is no leftist. A “Trump adviser” told Politico: “We don’t think Biden can make it out of the woke Democrat primary.” Boy, are they hoping he doesn’t.

The reason Trump is so rattled is that Biden is seven points ahead of him in head-to-head polls right now, and, after four years of Trump’s assault on this country’s constitutional order, Democrats are likely to turn out in high numbers, and back whoever gets nominated. As it becomes clearer that this president regards himself as above the law, and has an attorney general who shares this view and will also target Trump’s opponents if told to, opposition could intensify. New data from 2018 shows how big Democratic turnout was: 36 percent of young people voted, compared with 20 percent in 2014. Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians all saw their turnout rates soar — up 11, 13, and 13 points, respectively, compared with 2014. When these voters have a chance to get rid of Trump, whoever the nominee is, I have no doubt they’ll show up. If Biden could make some inroads with non-college-educated whites and seniors, it could be another big fucking deal. Adding Kamala Harris as his veep could unify the Democratic base behind the ticket.

Two other points: Biden is a Catholic. Anyone who has ever been saturated in American Catholicism can swiftly recognize the figure: old-school but open, a believer in the innate dignity of every human soul, regularly at Mass, deeply comfortable in the world of white ethnic America, surprisingly liberal. Catholics — shockingly, given the depravity of the Republicans — split their vote last time. Move them a few points, as Obama did in 2008, and you have a real shift in our politics. And then there’s the fact that Trump’s uncanny ability to define someone with a brutal but telling nickname seems to have failed him with Biden. “Sleepy Joe”? I can detect nothing sleepy about this septuagenarian embarking on a third run for president. Biden seems to genuinely flummox Trump. Which is very good news.

There is also, dare I say it, a deeper contrast between the two men. One is decent, kind, generous, funny. The other is indecent, cruel, miserly, and has the callous humor of a bully. There would be a moral gulf between any current Democrat and Trump, of course. But with Biden, we’re reminded of the America we thought we knew. Yes, this is partly nostalgia, but no one should underestimate nostalgia in a country as turbulent, afraid, and resentful as America right now. Biden’s moment, in my mind, was 2016, but he was prevented from competing by Clinton and Obama. But history takes strange turns. This already feels to me like a two-man race. That may change. It’s extremely early, but the odds are with Biden. And the tailwinds behind him are intense.

The Deeper Risk of Radical Multiculturalism

There is something deeply clarifying about recent events at Williams College, because they reveal the logical endpoint, to my mind, of critical race, gender, and queer theory. The push for social justice there has now led to demands for racially segregated housing. (I was alerted to this by Jerry Coyne, who’s been on the case for a while.) Here’s the rationale as expressed by the student newspaper:

We at the Record wholeheartedly support establishing affinity housing at the College. As a community, we must recognize that the College is a predominantly white institution in which students of color often feel tokenized, both in their residences and more broadly on campus … Some say affinity housing reinforces division, arguing that having minoritized students cluster in one space would be harmful to the broader campus community. We believe, however, that allowing for a space where students can express their identities without fear of tokenization or marginalization will encourage students to exist more freely in the broader campus community, rather than recede from it.

Segregation as the pathway to integration seems to be the argument, a point with some uncomfortable precedents dating back to before Brown v. Board of Education. The student group demanding this recently announced on its Instagram page that “the administration expressed general support for affinity housing and together we came up with a pilot program for affinity housing that was feasible given the avenues of change at the college.” If you want to see how this kind of transformation happens, check out this video of a student council meeting on April 9 discussing whether there should be funding for racially segregated events at “Previews,” when prospective students visit the campus to check it out. At around the 45-minute mark, two students enter the room, ranting and swearing as they insist that their demands for the programs be met. They were, of course.

Reading about this, I was reminded by a recent study on the effects of social-justice “multicultural” ideology compared with the “color-blind” liberal alternative. The study, which was published in the Journal of Social Psychology and Personality Science, found that exposure to multiculturalism can paradoxically deepen race essentialism, by which the authors mean the idea that “racial group differences are valid, biologically based, and immutable.” Money quote:

Study 1 (N = 165) shows that participants exposed to multiculturalism expressed greater race essentialist beliefs compared to those exposed to color blindness. Study 2 (N = 150) replicates this effect and also finds that exposure to multiculturalism, compared to color blindness, decreased participants’ belief that racial equality is a problem. These findings raise the ironic possibility that well-intentioned efforts to portray the value of differences may reinforce the belief that fixed, biological characteristics underpin them.

The study is not dispositive. (Another recent review of the literature on how women and minorities are affected by multiculturalism, found that it helped minority students but not women, where gender-blindness worked better.) But the mechanism the first study describes among students is a fascinating one. It’s simply that the more focus you put on race, the more conscious people are of it as a valid and meaningful distinction between people, and the more likely they are to reify it. At today’s diversity-driven campus or corporation, often your first instinct when seeing someone is to quickly assess their identity — black, white, gay, Latino, male, trans, etc. You are required to do this all the time because you constantly need to check your privilege. And so college students — and those who hire and fire in business — are trained to judge a person instantly by where they fit into a racial and gender hierarchy, before they even engage them. Of course they’re going to end up judging people instantly by the color of their skin. Social justice has a strict hierarchy of identity, with white straight males at the bottom. It is, in fact, a mirror image of the far right’s racial hierarchy, which puts white straight men at the top.

Another study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found:

[I]n three experiments, White American college students received a message advocating either a color-blind or a multicultural ideological approach to improving interethnic relations and then made judgments about various ethnic groups and individuals. Relative to a color-blind perspective, the multicultural perspective led to stronger stereotypes, greater accuracy in these stereotypes, and greater use of category information in judgments of individuals … [P]rimed with multiculturalism, participants liked racial minorities who displayed stereotypical preferences (i.e., liking basketball and hip-hop) more than racial minorities who displayed non-stereotypical preferences (i.e., surfing and country dancing).

In other words, teaching people to see other races as completely different from one’s own may encourage us to define others by stereotypes.

When the deep tribal forces in the human psyche are constantly on alert for racial difference, we run the risk of exacerbating racism. So we face the prospect that anti-racism could facilitate what it is attempting to destroy. It wouldn’t be the first time that a well-intentioned experiment has backfired.

Corbyn and Anti-Semitism, Continued

Jeremy Corbyn, the far-left leader of Britain’s Labour Party, has been making more news lately. Danny Finkelstein discovered that Corbyn had written a foreword to a new 2011 edition of British radical J.A. Hobson’s book, Imperialism: A Study, first published in 1902. Corbyn gave the book a rave review: “a great tome” and “brilliant.” Johnny Freedland notes that the part of the book that Corbyn praised in the foreword as “correct and prescient” included (beginning with a quote from Corbyn):

‘Hobson’s railing against the commercial interests that fuel the role of the popular press,’ which appears squarely in the section where Hobson’s target is ‘this little group of financial kings’, these ‘cosmopolitan’ men who he had already identified as Jews. (The chapter, incidentally, is called ‘Economic Parasites of Imperialism,’ with ‘parasites’ an image recurrent in anti-Jewish propaganda.) This is not a mere aside by Hobson that might accidentally be overlooked in a skim-read by a busy politician. There are pages and pages of it.

Many leftist books of that era — and more rightist books — had anti-Semitic passages. Corbyn could have noted that, condemned it, placed it in historical context, but said that the broader arguments were still worth taking seriously. But he didn’t. Did he miss this sentence: “Men of a single and peculiar race, who have behind them many centuries of financial experience … are in a unique position to control the policy of nations”? Anthony Julius, who wrote the definitive book on British anti-Semitism, described Hobson as the “most substantial” anti-Semitic polemicist of his time.

Dave Rich, author of a fascinating book on left-wing anti-Semitism, notes:

Hobson’s views were derived largely from his belief that the Boer War was being fought on behalf of Jewish financiers, a view that was widespread on the British left at that time. In 1900 the Trades Union Congress passed a resolution claiming the war was being fought “to secure the gold fields of South Africa for cosmopolitan Jews, most of whom had no patriotism and no country.” Even the great Keir Hardie wrote in Labour Leader, the newspaper of his Independent Labour Party, that ‘modern imperialism is really run by half a dozen financial houses, many of them Jewish, to whom politics is a counter in the game of buying and selling securities.’

Then we discovered that as recently as 2009, Corbyn wrote a column expressing outrage that the BBC refused to broadcast the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Gaza appeal. Fair enough, of course. But Corbyn had to go there: “What this embarrassing saga demonstrates is the … unbelievably high levels of influence that Israel’s government appears to have in the upper echelons of the media.” I’m a critic of Netanyahu’s Israel, and have sympathy for the notion that Gazans have not been adequately supported by the West — even though they live under a foul Hamas government. But blaming Jews for the BBC’s decision — which is the undercurrent of this passage — is classic anti-Semitism.

When you consider how lame the Labour leadership has been with respect to rampant anti-Semitism among a swathe of its base, how Corbyn attended a wreath-laying ceremony in Tunisia which included one of the Munich Olympic terrorists, and fought to retain a near-parody of anti-Semitic imagery on a mural in London scheduled for removal … well, the cumulative effect is quite something.

Yes, the Tories have recently lost a quarter of their support to a new “Brexit Party” led by Nigel Farage, giving Labour a new lead in the polls. But their share of the vote is still at a sad 33 percent, 11 points down from the 2017 peak of 44 percent. More to the point: Combine the Tories with the Brexit Party and UKIP, and the right has 46 percent. The hefty popular support for a leftward lurch in Britain has effectively been clobbered by the extremism of the Labour leadership. The Democrats might want to take note.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: Why Biden May Be the Best Bet to Beat Trump