Biden Is Trying to Jolt Us Out of Learned Helplessness About Trump

After Joe Biden’s speech on Friday marking the anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection and laying out the democratic stakes of the next election, Mitt Romney pronounced himself unimpressed. “As a Biden campaign theme, I think the ‘threat to democracy’ pitch is a bust,” the Utah Republican told a New York Times reporter. “Biden needs fresh material, a new attack, rather than kicking a dead political horse.”

If he is right, it’s as much an indictment of America — including the American media — as of the Biden campaign. It would mean that Donald Trump has already broken us, so frying America’s circuits that we can no longer process the authoritarian peril right in front of us.

Whether or not it was savvy for Biden to center his first campaign speech of the year on the danger Trump poses to democracy, his words had the virtue of being true. “Trump’s assault on democracy isn’t just part of his past,” Biden said in the speech. “It’s what he’s promising for the future. He’s being straightforward. He’s not hiding the ball.”

Romney almost certainly shares Biden’s sense of foreboding; as his biographer McKay Coppins wrote, after Jan. 6, Romney became obsessed with the fall of great civilizations throughout history. “This is a very fragile thing,” he said of America’s democratic experiment. “Authoritarianism is like a gargoyle lurking over the cathedral, ready to pounce.”

That’s fundamentally what the 2024 election is about. But even though Romney appears to agree with Biden about the existential danger of another Trump presidency, he, like many others, seems worried that when it comes to the future of American self-government, a cynical and exhausted populace can’t be made to care.

This fear could easily become self-fulfilling, as commentators treat Trump’s plot against America as a given instead of a major, still-unfolding story. On Saturday, CNN’s Chris Wallace analyzed Biden’s speech, in which the president noted, correctly, that Trump’s rhetoric about migrants echoed “the same exact language used in Nazi Germany.” Wallace asked one of his panelists, “Is Biden smart to go this hard at Trump?” Surely the more important question is whether Biden’s alarming warning about his predecessor is accurate. The #Resistance-era warning against “normalizing” Trump might now seem hokey, but it’s still apt. The alternative is to let Trump redefine our sense of what is shocking and aberrant in American politics.

There was a line in the Biden speech that puzzled me: Trump “proudly posts on social media the words that best describe his 2024 campaign, quote, ‘revenge’; quote, ‘power’; and, quote, ‘dictatorship.’” I follow politics closely but didn’t know what Biden was talking about. It turns out that the day after Christmas, when I was on vacation and only briefly glancing at headlines, Trump posted to his Truth Social account a word cloud illustrating the terms voters in a survey most often associated with his political goals. In the center, in large, red-orange letters, are “power,” “dictatorship” and, most prominently of all, “revenge.” But Trump’s implicit boast about his authoritarian image was just a blip; by the time I got back online on Dec. 29, it had disappeared from the news cycle, much as the memories of so many other Trumpian outrages against the civic fabric have disappeared. All this forgetting is a result of Trump’s singular talent, which is to transgress at such speed and scale that the human mind can’t keep up.

Biden has set himself the task of trying to jolt the country out of its learned helplessness in the face of Trump’s exhausting provocations. This is not, despite the fatalism of people like Romney, a doomed project. Congress’s Jan. 6 hearings demonstrated that a sustained focus on Trump’s wrongdoing can move at least some fraction of the public. Right now, the ex-president benefits from being largely out of the spotlight — his ejection from Twitter has, ironically, been a great boon to him — but the more Trump is in people’s faces, the less they like him. (That’s why his Covid news conferences were so disastrous for him.) It’s thus incumbent on Biden to try to make people pay attention to a man many of us would rather never think about again.

On Monday, Biden gave his second campaign speech of the year, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., site of a racist mass murder in 2015. It was ostensibly about white supremacy, but its real theme was truth, and the way historical fictions from the Lost Cause of the Confederate South to Trump’s big lie about the 2020 election license tyranny and oppression.

“The truth is under assault in America,” said Biden. “As a consequence, so is our freedom, our democracy, our very country, because without the truth, there’s no light. Without light there’s no path from this darkness.”

We won’t know until November whether this approach works, but given where we are, it’s hard to imagine a better one. I’d love to have a candidate who makes voters feel inspired, giving them something to vote for instead of against. But after three years in office, Biden probably won’t be able to talk Americans into feeling excited about him, and the pro-Palestinian demonstrators who interrupted him are a reminder of how disillusioned many progressives are by his Israel policy.

To be sure, Biden’s presidency has been full of serious accomplishments; he spoke about some of them on Monday, including lowering the cost of insulin and canceling student debt for more than 3.6 million people. But ultimately, the best reason to vote for Biden is to stave off the calamity of an encore Trump administration, in which a lawless would-be dictator, proclaiming his own immunity from prosecution and lionizing the violent mob that tried to keep him in power, enacts an orgy of retribution against small-d democrats. If hammering away at this reality is an ineffective campaign strategy, we’re already lost.

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