Anti-Trumpism Is Now Enough

Joe Biden is calculating that after four years of Trump—and one global coronavirus pandemic—Americans have finally had their fill of populism.

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden
Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden waves to supporters at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Construction and Maintenance conference in Washington on April 5, 2019. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

I was in Paris in the spring of 2017 when the French voted in their first round of presidential elections. Friends of mine who typically voted for the Socialist party announced at dinner parties that they would be casting a vote utile—a practical vote, rather than an act of conviction—for the liberal upstart Emmanuel Macron. In the face of the very real threat from right-wing nationalist—fascist, they said—Marine Le Pen, they were affirming the republican values the French cherish: secularism, tolerance, free speech.

I recall this episode because it seems to me that this is what American Democrats are now doing as they rally around Joe Biden. The former vice president has done virtually nothing to provoke the massive shift of votes from Bernie Sanders’s column to his own; he is the beneficiary of the vote utile. If that’s right, then it appears that Americans—at least a meaningful number of us—needed four years of Donald Trump to arrive at the understanding the French achieved with no special prompting.

The French election featured five chief candidates: Macron and Le Pen, the Socialist Party’s Benoît Hamon, the center-right Republican François Fillon, and the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a standard-bearer, like Bernie Sanders, of anti-globalization forces. Only two candidates would make it into the runoff. Le Pen was a lock for one of those positions. While Mélenchon’s support among angry workers and ideological leftists held steady, Macron benefited from a mass flight by Hamon supporters, who decided they could live with liberalism, and a more modest exodus by backers of Fillon, who appealed to older and more religious voters. In the final round, while many Mélenchon voters stayed home or cast a spoiled ballot, the center-left and -right gravitated en masse to Macron, who won two out of every three votes.

Le Pen did herself no favors with a dreadful performance in a debate with Macron, a mental test that the French take very seriously. But a better showing would only have slightly reduced Macron’s margin of victory. Fear of fascism did the rest. Only the oldest French citizens remember the collaborationist government of Vichy, but the horror and shame of that time remain deep in France’s collective imagination. Nor have the French forgotten the reactionary populist movement known as Poujadism, which burned brightly in the mid-1950s.

France, in short, did not need a recent experience of anti-liberal rule to stimulate republican antibodies. The same may well be true in Spain, which exited from Francisco Franco’s fascist state only 45 years ago and has, so far, experienced less virulent right-wing nationalism than other major European states. In Italy, by contrast, the populist rabble-rouser Matteo Salvini rose to a position of unrivaled influence in a coalition with eccentric leftists before overplaying his hand and falling from power. Since Salvini remains easily the most popular political figure in the country, it is very premature to say that Italy has seen enough of his brand of anti-immigrant authoritarianism to bring back uneasy memories of Benito Mussolini. (Or, worse still, those memories have become increasingly rosy.)

We are still very much in the middle of this epoch of reactionary populism. Neither Viktor Orbán in Hungary nor Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland has worn out his welcome. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro’s support has plummeted almost from the time he took office, but the disgust with conventional politics there is so deep and widespread that he might not even need to muzzle or jail his opponents to win re-election. In a recent poll, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, the craziest of all the right-wing populists, registered a stupefying favorability rating of 87 percent.

The obvious conclusion is that susceptibility to this political virus, and a subsequent immune response, depend both on recent history and current political culture. One reason why Americans did not rally in 2016 as the French did in 2017 is that they were more complacent in the face of an illiberal threat they had neither seen before nor recalled from the past. A hopeful thought is that voters needed to experience the virus for four years in order to be able to throw it off. Biden has sought to make himself the carrier of that reaction. With every passing day, and every new victory, he seems to say less about policy and more about “restoring decency, dignity, and honor to the White House,” as he did in the aftermath of his primary victories earlier this week. He appears to be right in thinking that that’s what people most want to hear.

Biden could still make a mess of the debate with Sanders this Sunday and thus awaken new doubts about his candidacy. Trump could, of course, eat Biden’s lunch in the general election. But Biden’s chances look better all the time. A Biden victory would raise another intriguing question: What kind of mandate do you get after a triumph of negative partisanship?

In this respect, Biden could enjoy a major advantage over Macron. The latter ran not to keep Le Pen out of office but to change France—to liberalize French labor markets, the economy, and even values. Despite gaining overwhelming majorities in the National Assembly, Macron has encountered furious public resistance to his agenda. Macron wanted to change France, but he was elected to stop LePen.

The very act of winning, by contrast, would consummate Biden’s agenda, since it would confirm the national commitment to democratic (we can’t say “republican” here) values. Biden is the proud candidate of the status quo ante. He would “restore” things—our NATO alliances, our respect for the press, our faith in the rule of law, and so on. Like Macron, he would face tough sledding once he tried to do anything beyond the modestly incremental. He may, for example, have enough of a mandate to reverse Trump’s tax cuts for the rich but not to seriously reform a tax system written by lobbyists for the benefit of big corporations. “Big structural change” would have to await his successor.

I wonder if America’s experience will prove paradigmatic. Will the U.K., for example, have to endure a full term of Boris Johnson before some kind of party realignment makes it possible to elect a very different successor? Will that successor, too, play the restorationist role, postponing for another day the large-scale changes needed to adapt to a post-industrial, demographically transformed world? American progressives rightly claim that Biden seems to have no insight into the forces that caused half the country to vote for Trump. Maybe the response needs to unfold in two stages: first the return to sanity, then the marshaling of public energies to confront wrenching questions. First the symptoms, then the disease.

One thing is for sure: If Democrats do not eventually manage to address the underlying causes of American angst, frustrated voters will look for another loud-mouthed would-be savior. We say it couldn’t be worse; but what about Duterte?

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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