Scene: presidential campaign season is underway. A deepening pool of Republican hopefuls are entering the fray, believing now—right now, this year—is theirs. The bench is extending indefinitely. A Florida man with an array of big-moneyed donors on his recent call list looks like a shoo-in. There’s unrest in the country after years of a neoliberal, domestically indifferent president. The coastal elite have never seen more out of touch.
Now to put too many of my chips on vibesocracy. I was burned last time I drank the too-steeped tea leaves—a real harsh of my mellow, man. But there are a few parallels between this ante-presidential year and the historic ride-down-the-5th-Avenue-escalator-into-the-Oval.
Foremost is ferment. The feelings of anger and betrayal that underlie the Trump demo haven’t gone away. Tim Carney’s book on Alienated America profiled the early MAGA minions, describing them as isolated, unchurched, ruddy-faced-and-fisted populists who felt ignored, disrespected, and left behind. Four years of Trump in charge changed nothing for them, other than their shiftless, Oxy-addicted cousin possibly landing a job sometime in 2019 before the Wuhan plague wiped it away. The President was never going to fill the hollowed-out lives in flyover country. But the bad-mouth billionaire was a big symbolic F-U on behalf of the blighted.
Joe Biden, despite his Scranton roots and old-world mannerisms, hasn’t tamed the resentment. Quite the opposite: his hands-off style has inflamed it, with younger admin. apparatchiks force-reading the entire DEI instruction manual to the country. The move mirrors that of the Obama Education Department’s 2014 “Dear Colleague” letter, which used the same unilateral pressure to forcibly correct the racial imbalance in public school punishment. The resultant leniency via leveling sacrificed the academically inclined on behalf of classroom delinquents.
The contempt for middle America was on full display last week with two contrasting images. As the residents of East Palestine, Ohio, struggled to understand the enormity of the Norfolk Southern train wreck and chemical spillage in their town, President Biden was halfway across the globe, play-acting wartime general in Kyiv. Biden cut a half-billion dollar check to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy while FEMA was denying Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s beg for federal disaster relief.
Now, if there’s something Washington excels at, it’s profligacy with stolen money. Ohio/Ukraine isn’t a dichotomous choice. And Biden’s no deficit hawk—he’s always been a ducks and drakes spender. Old “Caring” Joe could have had his pre-mushed cake and eaten it too: made the Ukraine trip while authorizing disaster funds for Ohio. Instead he spurned the suffering homeland in favor of defending the abstract ideal of liberal-democracy against Russian conquest. The contempt was compounded by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttimeh opting for “personal time” over visiting the crash site.
Instead, the task of showing national sympathy for East Palestinians fell on former President Trump, who scudded to the accident zone in his branded Boeing, and treated first responders to a round of McDonald’s. He even mouthed the trite but needed line, “You are not forgotten.” Call it chincy, but at least Trump showed up, if only for a photo-op and to pawn off some campaign merch.
A strangely sweet chloristic effluvium isn’t the only aroma emanating from this episode. Whiffs of 2016 should come to the fore. That year, Louisiana was inundated with rain, causing catastrophic flooding. The southern part of the state was soaked to its bungalow tops, bringing billions of dollars in property damage and killing dozens. Then, like now, Donald Trump was first on the scene, perfunctorily carrying cases of water and snacks from one truck to another. Hillary Clinton couldn’t be bothered to stick her kitty heels in the bayou mud. The biggest newspaper in the state excoriated her for absence—then handedly endorsed her, proving once you can’t trust the pseudologia print of editorial boards.
And what would a political match-up be without some mud-filled name-calling? While Trump has perfected the art of a tossed-off Twitter tag, Democratic candidates, being unimaginative jargon parrots, have their own grab bag of dismissive designations, most tailed with the suffix “phobic.” These appellations are more contemptuous signifiers than jokey labels. Remember Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”? Joe Biden’s got his own, this one less weavened. The President branded his opponents’ ideology as “semi-fascism,” suggesting an army of MAGA Mussolinis is waiting in the wings of our imperial capital, ready to strike. Like Lady Clinton deplorably dismissing a quarter of the country, Biden invoked interbellum Italy while bathed in blood-red light. Such poetic projection plays the heartstrings of the base, but does little for the suburban white wine moms who increasingly compose the fulcrum of political power in Washington.
Politics runs off parallels and playbooks. *Author grasps right wrist with left hand, heroically resisting the urge to type the consultant cliché “past is prologue!”* The Trumpian populist strategy worked once before because of two factors: homogenous interparty competition (check!) and an insulated and aloof opponent (double check!). The January 6th insurrection manqué may not matter. Voters have fickly short memories. A populist outsider making political capital out of indifference at the top can easily be a sequel. Marvel movies still break profit records using the same formula.
Small gestures matter, and stick in the back of minds more than grandiloquent speeches over the future of Western democracy. Back in 2017, liberal political commentator Krystal Ball explained how elites lost the farm on Hillary: “People who are holding onto their livelihoods by their fingernails thought that at least Trump gave a crap. Maybe it was a pack of lies he was selling them, but at least he didn’t hold them in contempt.”
The lesson of 2016 is easily forgotten: never underestimate spite voters. Joe Biden may regret not drinking the water. A second term may have been worth sprouting a third nipple.