The Worst Choice Ever
Donald Trump is a disaster, but Joe Biden's party is democratic in name only. Why this year's election is a vomit milkshake
My colleagues at Rolling Stone recently endorsed Joe Biden for president:
Biden’s lived experience and expansive empathy make him not just a good, but an outstanding candidate… This is a fight between light and darkness…
Joe Biden is a corpse with hair plugs whose idea of “empathy” is to jam fingers in the sternums of people who ask the wrong questions, or call them “fat” or “full of shit,” or dare them to “try me” — and that’s if he remembers what state he’s in. Is he a better human than Donald Trump? Probably, but his mental decline has hit Lloyd Bridges-in-Hot-Shots! levels and he shares troubling characteristics with the president, beginning with a pathological struggle with truth.
Biden spent much of 2020 lying about everything from his Iraq War vote to his educational history to a fantasy about being arrested in South Africa with Nelson Mandela. The same press that killed him for this behavior in the past let it all slide this time. Same with the growing ledger of handsy-uncle incidents that had adolescent girls and campaigning politicians alike wondering why a Vice President needs to smell their hair or plant lingering kisses on their heads while cameras flash.
Biden’s entire argument for the presidency, and it’s a powerful one, is his opponent. This week’s election is not a choice between “light or darkness,” but “pretty much anything or Donald Trump,” and only in that context is this disintegrating, bilious iteration of Scranton Joe even distantly credible as a choice for the world’s most powerful office.
Donald Trump is going to be a difficult case for future historians because he’s simultaneously the biggest liar and the most lied-about politician in American history. The standard propaganda lines about Trump are all incorrect. The usual technique involves sticking his name in headlines next to absurd disqualifying descriptors: “fascist,” “traitor,” “dictator,” and so on.
“18 Ways Trump Might Be a Russian Asset” is a typical example of what passed for commentary at outlets like the Washington Post in the Trump years. Such hot takes were a sure way to get TV invites:
Trump may have played cartoon Mussolini on the stump and reached for Hitlerian cliches in his campaign videos, but the dirty secret of the last four years — hidden from the broad mass of voters by both conservative and mainstream media — was that the president’s much ballyhooed strongman leanings were a fraud. Trump the Terrible was great TV, but away from cameras he was a fake despot who proved repeatedly that he didn’t know the first thing about how to exercise presidential power, even in his own defense.
Trump entered the White House buried in scandals that had been foisted upon him by officials in his own government who were openly betraying him, illegally leaking intelligence about his administration to the press on a weekly if not daily basis. Not to say it would have been a good idea, but he could have hauled every last one of these leakers off to jail, legally, and in a few cases could even have done what Barack Obama did, and used secrecy laws to go after press antagonists as well.
Ask James Rosen, the Fox correspondent who saw himself declared an enemy of the state, his source thrown in jail, for reporting on an Obama-era leak about a North Korean nuclear test. “Nothing that we’ve seen so far from the Trump administration,” Rosen said early in Trump’s tenure, “rises to that level of seriousness.”
Obama crushed the record by using the Espionage Act to pursue at least ten leakers for crimes like disclosing details of America’s use of torture, revealing the extent of illegal surveillance programs, even publicizing details of efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.
Instead of using these imperial powers to send commandos rappelling through the windows of people like Jim Comey, John Brennan or even David Ignatius in message-sending pre-dawn raids, the “fascist” Trump did nothing. Before inauguration, he sat like the dope he is in the Trump Tower while Comey pulled a J. Edgar Hoover to his face, promising to keep “close” a damaging report about a pee tape in a supposedly top secret meeting whose details would be on CNN within about ten minutes.
Trump lacked the sense to fire Comey in that moment, and as for the dozens of officials who afterward leaked classified intelligence to fuel what by then was an open campaign aimed at putting him, Trump, in jail, Trump was mostly too stupefied to root out and fire these people, much less arrest them. Meanwhile it was his Democratic opponents, and proxies like Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, who were executing dramatic raids against people like Paul Manafort and even Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen.
Democratic Senators like Mark Warner of Virginia and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii had the bright idea to threaten Internet platforms like Facebook with regulation unless they accepted direction on “ferreting out” content that foments “discord.” Had Trump pushed his Justice Department’s Antitrust Division to do something similar, we might have been looking at bans of the New York Times in recent weeks instead of the New York Post. In other words: in this and other areas, if Trump had even a drop of LBJ in his constitution, we’d have been in serious trouble. Instead, when Trump finally unholstered the Espionage Act to go after a political actor, it was to prosecute a sort-of ally in Julian Assange.
Trump prior to arriving in Washington spent decades managing his image in New York by buying local pols with contributions and promises of development deals, while pocketing newspaper editors with gossip and invites to booze-and-poon-tang parties.
I’ve heard tales from New York reporters who had adverse Trump stories in the queue back in the day, only to be told by editors to go visit “the boss” for better “insight.” One former Big Apple print reporter laughed as he described being dispatched to Trump, who spent the meeting bragging about what a great ass his wife had. This was how our president was used to dealing with press. He was way out of his league in Washington.
Trump may not have been a dictator, but was guilty of near-total ignorance and incompetence, qualities that shone through during the Covid-19 pandemic. He took personal offense at scientific and media rhetoric about mask use, interpreting all of it as criticism of his presidency, and as a result spent much of the summer creating viral hot spots everywhere he went, in an “I’ll show them!” televised trail of death. No sooner had he recovered from the bug than he was back on the campaign, chucking his mask into huge crowds of gushing partisans, like Justin Bieber throwing his tank top to squealing teens:
To blame Trump for the hundreds of thousands of deaths in this country is to assume the government could have stopped all of them, but his messaging just on this one issue has been insane. Herman Cain right now is playing shuffleboard in the great beyond after going to an indoor Trump rally. Trump isn’t the only politician who’s been irresponsible here — the Democrats’ decision to force long lines of voters into cramped indoor voting areas in order to get March primaries in Illinois, Ohio, Arizona, and Florida in the books while Biden had momentum was the same kind of insanity — but Trump’s inability to grapple with coronavirus highlighted his fatal weakness as a politician, his lunatic narcissism.
When he says things like, “Don’t be afraid of Covid,” or that the disease affects “virtually nobody” or “nobody young” or just “elderly people,” it’s because he’s lost the ability to see the pandemic as anything but a Democrat talking point concocted to hurt his electoral chances.
Most of what Trump actually did in office was lend his loopy signature to exactly the kind of initiatives the “swamp” of elite interests he supposedly ran against in 2016 secretly wanted anyway: a monstrous $1.9 trillion tax giveaway from 2017, this year’s multi-trillion, no-questions-asked bailout of the financial sector, the gutting of regulatory agencies like the EPA and OSHA beyond the wildest dreams of prior Republican administrations, an $82 billion one-year increase in the military budget, the heightening of drone strikes, even indicting Assange. It all testified to the fact that Trump’s image as a fist-shaking enemy of the establishment was as fraudulent as the degrees his online diploma-mill University used to give out.
Trump played populist in public, but his presidency was spent parked limp and hostage-like in a robe before a TV somewhere in the White House, watching in horror as the anchors of shows like Fox and Friends informed him about the Beltway power machine’s latest successful effort to shit all over him. His response, every time, was to sob into Twitter by his lonesome, often deep into the night. He seemed not to have a clue he was president, which again was mostly a good thing. Just this weekend, in his latest race-baiting campaign to accuse “Squad” members Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of being illegal people, he asked out loud, “Where is our Justice Department?” No one in the audience had the heart to cry out, “In your Executive Branch?”
Trump is so totally insecure — and said to be especially terrified of other men — that he was unable to maintain loyal teams of operatives for any length of time, with one aide after another quickly pulling the pin to rip him in tell-all book deals. This dynamic indicated Trump is such a pain in the ass that not even the lure of vast political power can make serving him worth it for more than a few months or weeks.
This left him to go the presidency mostly alone, or with a few fleeting partnerships with ghouls like Rudy Giuliani, Steve Bannon, and Stephen Miller. The efforts of such people to try to “accomplish” something without the assent of existing Washington/corporate interests were eccentric, vicious, pointless, often illegal, and almost without exception ultimately unsuccessful and/or overturned. The “Muslim Ban” survived, but his villainous border policy that used the threat of family separations to try to deter illegal immigration was a more typically failed Trump gambit.
Conservatives anxious to point out that prior administrations also employed policies that sometimes left kids in cages are correct, but it isn’t blue-state propaganda to note that Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy was specifically designed to increase the chances of parents being separated from their children, because the idiots in Trump’s inner circle genuinely thought this was smart. Trump had so few people with a clue in his White House that a lot of his policy decisions ended up sounding like money-making schemes hatched in the basement by between-jobs poker buddies, whispering so their wives won’t hear.
“We need to take children away,” said Jeff Sessions, who spent most of his career as the dumbest member of the United States Senate, but entered the Trump White House as the administration’s most accomplished expert on almost everything. They tried a vile policy, made an attempt for a while to insist in the face of bad press it was a good idea, then ultimately abandoned the plan and pretended they were never for it. This pattern, of stepping on a rake before even getting to do the bad thing at scale, was a chief characteristic of the Trump presidency.
In modern America the president’s most important job might be using his or her voice to reassure the country. Trump not only lacks this ability, he finds ways to make huge portions of the population feel like passengers in a pilotless, plummeting jetliner every time he opens his mouth.
Even if you accept the most generous interpretation of outbursts about “shithole countries” or the “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” in Baltimore… actually I’m not sure what the generous interpretation of those statements might be, but surely the moral power of the presidency is not being exercised when kids in Baltimore turn on TVs to see the golf-playing scion of inherited wealth dumping on their hometown from the White House. Imagine being Trump’s ambassador to Nigeria or Mexico and having to come up with new ways to explain the boss’s Tweets every morning. He was the Ugly American caricature — an ignorant, self-centered, tasteless bigot — amplified to the scale of colossal art.
In sum, this man who secured the presidency because voters thought his blunt, unvarnished persona might prove a corrective to unchecked elite corruption proved incapable in office of doing anything except complain into his phone, and abuse himself like a zoo gorilla every time a camera was pointed in his direction. Used to getting his way as a petty corporate boss, he was uniquely toolless as a Beltway operator, a man who in a thousand years couldn’t figure out how to use the office to achieve something positive.
For all that, Trump comes perilously close to being a better choice than his Democratic opponent. That’s how revolting our situation is.
While the American political establishment disregarding human rights to retain influence is an old story around the world, our powers that be have never had to show their hand in quite the same way at home. The extraordinary accident of Trump winning the presidency in 2016 put imperial America out of the White House for the first time. They didn’t handle the news well.
The last four years have been a ceaseless tantrum of security state hacks, media lackeys, and Beltway nomenklatura who from day one openly sought to jail our Clown-in-Chief for the unforgivable crime of getting elected without their permission. Their behavior is the only reason the Tuesday could turn out to be close.
Again, Trump was a dud as a leader, but many of the things that came out of his mouth — claiming to seek closer relations with North Korea, Russia, and Syria, for instance, or asking why we’re footing the bill for a NATO military alliance that hasn’t been relevant or useful since 1991, or referring to NAFTA in tones suggesting something less than religious awe — made him not just a pain in the ass to the D.C. Brahmins, but our very own domestic version of the “Hitler of the Month” club, a Noriega/Milosevic/Saddam/Assad-style mad interloper requiring immediate removal.
Our imperial government-in-exile spent four years engaged in a protracted prosecution, a mega-Benghazi that involved political spying, open interference of foreign intelligence services in domestic politics, constant lies to the public about nonexistent conspiracies, and the cheering of so many norms violations that things like breaking attorney-client privilege for a sitting president, or a judge refusing to let prosecutors dismiss a case, barely rated notice. They spent almost all of their time on political schemes to oust Trump, and almost none coming up with better solutions for problems like declining incomes, rising inequality and debt, and inadequate health care.
While TV channels increasingly filled their on-air ranks with former CIA and FBI officials, another telltale sign of authoritarian drift, a whole range of private press interests were accused of treasonous collaboration and threatened with new forms of suppression. This turned out not to be necessary, as most private news companies voluntarily accepted the logic of denouncing news adverse to the Democratic Party cause as foreign subversion. As a Washington Post columnist put it about the latest New York Post expose:
We must treat the Hunter Biden leaks as if they were a foreign intelligence operation — even if they probably aren’t.
When Facebook and Twitter took the amazing step of suppressing a potentially damaging story about the Democratic candidate just before an election, party leaders were near-unanimous in praise.
I grew up in New England at a time when being a “Massachusetts liberal” meant being proud to be accused of being a “card-carrying member of the ACLU.” Today Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey says he hopes speech suppression incidents like the New York Post intervention were just a beginning. “The issue today is not that the companies are taking too many posts down,” Markey said. “The issue today is that companies are leaving too many posts up.” In past decades Republicans trafficked in the language of McCarthy. In the Trump years Democrats took over the honor, with people like California’s Adam Schiff even returning red-scare phrases like “disloyalty to country” to the mainstream.
The unknown factor is how much more of this lay ahead in a Biden White House. The obvious first concerns would be increased political surveillance, much more aggressive and coordinated propaganda, more McCarthyite manias, and harsher punishments for Assange/Snowden type figures accused of leaking “misinformation” (now re-defined as true adverse information). As a member of the press, the drift toward a Chinese-style digital media landscape, policed by armies of political truth-scorers, probably bothers me more than most, but that’s on the table. There are going to be a lot of people coming back to Washington who are going to insist that something like Trump not be allowed to happen again, even if it means snipping a passage or four out of the Constitution.
Remember years ago, when tape leaked of Hillary Clinton complaining about a U.S. decision to encourage elections in Palestinian territories? “If we were going to push for an election,” she said, “then we should have made sure that we did something to determine who was going to win."
I think we’re headed toward that vision of American democracy familiar to most of the rest of the world, where we have the freedom to vote, but only the right way. Certainly the idea that there’s more than one legitimate political choice has already been excised from most upper-class discourse, with not only Trump and the Republicans but also every actor from the Green Party to Tulsi Gabbard and Bernie Sanders denounced across the corporate press as favorites of foreign enemies.
It’s no accident the doddering Biden is the nominee. In 2016 Hillary Clinton thought her verbal mastery and nineteen-point plans would impress. In fact they frightened voters, the cool robotic delivery reminding many that she was running as the face of a vast bloodless system they’d already grown to despise. Biden’s grabby hands and nutty-gramps speeches-to-nowhere create the illusion of vulnerability and humanity, concealing the fact that what we’ll actually be doing this week is voting the empire back, only this time, it’s had four years to think about loopholes at home that need closing.
Trump’s incompetence and influence on the darkest part of the national character make it morally impossible to vote for him. But his opponents are lying, witch-hunting scum in their own right, a club of censorious bureaucrats whose instincts for democracy and free speech hover somewhere between the mid-seventies GDR and the Church of Scientology. I thought all year I’d be able to do it, but I wake up this week unable to talk myself into voting for these people, even against Trump. What choices they give us! Thank God at least it’s about to be over. If it’s about to be over. Please, let it be over.