the national circus

Against Harris, Trump Tries to Run the Birther Playbook

After the sycophancy of Mike Pence, a veep who would tell off her boss is a refreshing novelty. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, what Kamala Harris means for the Biden campaign, Donald Trump’s racist attacks against her, and conspiracists in Congress.

After months of speculation, Joe Biden announced that his running mate will be Kamala Harris. Is she the right choice for his campaign?
The low bar for vice-presidential candidates is that they not be the wrong choice. In retrospect Harris was the safest and perhaps the inevitable choice, which is also why she was the most frequently predicted choice. And yet, when the announcement came, there was genuine elation among Democrats — and perhaps some non-Democrats, too — that is already reflected in polling. The actual fact of Harris on the ticket — a woman of color with a multicultural background as various as the nation’s and a record of ceaseless accomplishment despite all the racial obstacles along the way — is deeply moving. Context counts. The Harris story may be more moving now, in this year of Black Lives Matter protests and a raging pandemic, than it was destined to be during her presidential campaign, which imploded in what now seems like the prehistoric year of 2019.

Harris was a safe choice because, of all the veep finalists, she was one of only two who had been ruthlessly vetted during a national political campaign. Given the bipartisan conviction that Biden’s age is a political vulnerability, it always seemed unlikely he’d pick the other, his fellow septuagenarian Elizabeth Warren, even if he and Warren came to an ideological truce. Nor did it seem likely that Biden would pick a white woman after Black women contributed so mightily to his primary triumph. In retrospect, even Harris’s demerits are compatible with Biden’s: her ideological blurriness, her mixed record on criminal justice, and a presidential run that matched Biden’s failed earlier runs in its haplessness. As for her fierce attack on Biden in that first debate, count it as a plus: After nearly four years of the oleaginous sycophancy of Mike Pence, a vice-president who would tell off her boss is a refreshing novelty.

Almost as soon as Harris had been named to the ticket, she became the target of increased attacks from Donald Trump and others on the right, focused largely on her race and gender. Will these comments energize Trump’s base, or are they a sign of a flailing campaign not sure of what might stick?
It would seem that the only ones who didn’t anticipate that Harris might land on the ticket were Trump and his campaign. It didn’t take 48 hours to see that they are panicked by her. Trump stepped up his threat to sabotage the election by sabotaging the post office, and he embraced a ludicrous birther theory that Harris is ineligible to run for vice-president because her parents were immigrants.

He made these moves after the usual misogynistic and racist insults failed to move the needle anywhere except among his own base and Fox News. His sad attempt at coining a nickname — “Phony Kamala” — fell flat, even as “Sleepy Joe” is also losing whatever zing it had. (The contrast between Biden’s public bike riding and Trump’s shaky walk down a shallow ramp at West Point has been duly noted on Twitter.)

The deploying of race and gender to try to diminish Harris’s stature and achievements is not the sole province of Trump, his sons, and the Fox prime-time thugs who go right for the jugular. There’s also a subtler form of this animus among conservative commentators who almost to a man and a woman use the same locution. “She checks all the boxes,” writes Ramesh Ponnuru at Bloomberg, a necessity because “a white woman would have been a disappointment to too many Democrats.” Or as the Journal summed it up in an editorial in which it also wielded the Trump-favored adjective nasty at Harris, Biden “checked the essential boxes his party had demanded — a woman, a minority, and a progressive who has moved left as the Democratic Party has.”

To which one might respond, Pence checked the essential boxes his party demanded — a man, white, and a reactionary who has moved to the right as the Republican Party has. No wonder so many are looking forward to seeing these two very different representations of America go at it in the vice-presidential debate.

But will that debate happen? The rumors that Trump might replace Pence on the ticket with Nikki Haley or someone else he thinks might appeal to the “suburban housewife” persist. (The White House denials have no more credibility than any other statements from an administration that lies more often than not.) Clearly Trump has to do something to shake up his failing campaign, and, whether it involves Pence or not, what better time to do it than next week, as counterprogramming to the Biden-Harris convention? It would be entirely in character for the desperate, out-of-control Trump to spring an October surprise in August.

In Marjorie Taylor Greene, who won her House primary in Georgia this week, Congress is likely to have its first open supporter of QAnon, the conspiracist pro-Trump movement. Some GOP House members tried to stop or slow her campaign — will they accept her as a colleague?
The simple fact is that Greene has already been welcomed to Washington by both Trump (who applauded her as a “future Republican star”) and the House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, whose office released a statement embracing her after this week’s primary victory. Other GOP House leaders, Steve Scalise and Liz Cheney, who once spoke out against her views, retreated into silence once she won the primary. Trump’s most visible House advocate, the Ohio congressman Jim Jordan, helped raise thousands of dollars for her campaign.

What does it mean to be a follower of QAnon, a conspiracy theory proliferating on the darkest reaches of the internet? In addition to the by-the-book racism and Islamophobia, Greene has endorsed the central QAnon premise accusing the Democrats of officiating over a “global cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles,” has accused Hillary Clinton of murder and George Soros of being a Nazi, and supported a truther theory that no plane crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11.

In a deep-red district, Greene is all but certain to win her House seat. She is only one of “at least 70 Republican candidates” who ran for Congress this cycle and expressed support for QAnon, in the calculation of Media Matters, with 19 of them on the November ballot. As the former GOP political operative turned Never Trumper Tim Miller has said, this coming House Republican caucus “is going to have more QAnon believers than Trump skeptics.”

Miller’s point cuts to the heart of the debate going on right now between disaffected Never Trumpers and other conservative Republicans about the fate of the party post-Trump. Some Never Trumpers argue that the GOP must be burned down. As the longtime Republican strategist Stuart Stevens argues in his new book, It Was All a Lie, the GOP is irredeemable. Trump is the culmination of a party that has been built on white grievance and racism for decades. Other anti-Trump conservatives see hope for rebuilding the GOP after Trump is gone. David Brooks, for instance, sees a future built around the likes of current Senators Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, Ben Sasse, and Josh Hawley, even as he posits in passing that Republicans must “deracialize their appeal.”

Back on planet Earth, that seems highly unlikely. Racism is a cancer that has been metastasizing for half a century in the GOP. If Vichy Republicans like Rubio, et al. can’t bring themselves even now to mobilize against a QAnon candidate like Greene, there’s no reason to believe that they have the will or the power to fight the next iteration of Trumpism any more than they’ve been able to stand up to Trump.

Rich: Against Harris, Trump Tries to Run Birther Playbook