A week off didn’t help. Nothing changed. Joe Biden announced he’s running for president. He wants to bring back decency and compassion to public life, or at least to American politics. Trump continues to tell America to sneer at everyone and everything – they’ve been laughing at us behind our back for decades, all of them, and it’s about time to humiliate them – even our allies, or especially our allies. Joe Biden says that’s not America. Donald Trump guessed that was and is and will be America forever, or enough of America to make him president for four years, and win him another four years. Which is it? Which is America?
Of course both are, because one America is both decent and compassionate and inclusive and thoughtful, and the other America considers those four things stupid if not dangerous, and those two Americas seem to despise each other. One side won the presidency for eight years, the Obama years. The other side then won the presidency, with these the Trump years. And those Obama years are how things really should be, or these Trump years are how things really should be. And no one will ever change their mind about that.
Joe Biden doesn’t believe that, as E. J. Dionne notes here:
In his announcement video Thursday, Biden did not discuss his service as Barack Obama’s vice president or his connection with blue-collar voters. Using Trump’s shameful response to the 2017 white-supremacist, neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, he sought to make the election a referendum on the country’s core values. Implicitly, he was arguing that his experience and broad appeal make him the best choice to deprive Trump of a second term, the one issue that truly matters.
The 2020 outcome, he said, would determine whether the Trump years would be seen as “an aberrant moment in time,” or if a reelected president would “forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation.”
But Biden’s most clarifying comment came later Thursday, in Wilmington, Del., when a reporter asked whether he had a message to the world. Biden replied: “America’s coming back like we used to be – ethical, straight, telling the truth…. supporting our allies, all those good things.”
A lot hangs on the phrase “back like we used to be.” It suggests that the nation’s priority is a restoration of its core principles and normal life.
That white-supremacist, neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville wasn’t America. Dropping out of NATO isn’t America either. Sneering at Canada isn’t America either – and so on – and Dionne sees this:
This will attract many primary voters – and, in a general election, moderates, independents and dissident Republicans. But a significant number of Democrats (and many candidates in this field, especially Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sanders) say fervently that a return to “decency” and “honor,” to use Biden’s words on ABC’s “The View” on Friday, is not enough. Trump’s victory, they contend, revealed deep injustices in American society that must be righted, and they see 2020 as an opportunity to move “much further and much faster toward progress,” as Adam Green, a Warren supporter and leader of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, told the Wall Street Journal.
Progressives will make their case with visionary proposals, Warren’s stock in trade, and by trying to make Biden yesterday’s man.
They don’t want a new “Make America Great Again” argument about which past is the ideal past, but that’s what this seems to be about:
Biden draws not on his party’s ideological passions but on the comfort he creates by occupying the Democrats’ center of gravity. His hope is that Trump has created a thirst not for adventure and experiment but for reassurance and a glorious tranquility.
Biden may be offering comfort food but Kathleen Parker offers this:
Notwithstanding his handling of the 1991 interrogation of Anita Hill while chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, when Hill testified against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas for sexual harassment, Biden is naturally kind – and, as we’ve recently been reminded, affectionate.
Most important, in contrast to President Trump, Biden is freighted with copious supplies of empathy. While the former vice president’s well-known personal losses have made him a fuller man capable of great compassion, Trump seems to have been born without the capacity to feel anything for others beyond their utilitarian value. Following his annual physical in February, the surprise wasn’t that he has a strong heart but that he has one at all.
The question for Biden, who became the 21st Democrat to toss his hat in the ring, is whether he is tough enough to be president.
Did, in fact, Trump get this right? Parker isn’t so sure:
That Biden isn’t a cauldron of raging hormones, or shouting slogans of radical change, is likely more comforting than not to many Americans, including baby boomers who aren’t dead yet and who tend to vote. Moreover, he’s a longtime populist and activist for America’s working class, thus perfectly positioned to woo back some of the almost 40 million white working-class Americans who voted for Trump.
Unlike Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) – 72 and 77, respectively – Biden isn’t a grumpy old man. He’s got a megawatt smile and doesn’t hide it behind a pout. He’s imperfect, yes. But his malaprops and his too-affectionate ways are endearing compared with the boasts and bloody bombast of The Current Occupant.
Finally, age confers some privileges: Biden won’t have to chop wood, shoot a gun or perform any of the other “manly” stunts male candidates often do, presumably to convey strength, stamina, virility or whatever. Really, hasn’t this gimmick run its course? The presidency hardly requires that one mount a rough steed and spear an antelope for din-din. Besides, we’ve all witnessed Biden’s suffering and profound grief. He doesn’t have to prove a thing.
No, he doesn’t, but Donald Trump does:
President Trump said in a television interview Sunday that ending the practice of separating children from their families at border crossings has been “a disaster” that has resulted in a surge of people coming into the country illegally, though he overstated the increase as measured by the government.
Trump said the practice had served as an effective “disincentive” for people who wish to enter the country illegally.
“Now you don’t get separated, and while that sounds nice and all, what happens is you have literally you have ten times as many families coming up because they’re not going to be separated from their children,” Trump told Fox News host Maria Bartiromo. “It’s a disaster.”
He was arguing the disaster was a culture that forced him to be nice:
The Trump administration was the first to initiate separations on a widespread basis for the purpose of deterring illegal migration. It implemented a “zero tolerance” policy last year that separated more than 2,700 children from their parents last spring.
Under the practice, adults were taken to immigration jails and prosecuted for entering the country illegally. Their children were sometimes detained in chain-link holding pens and then sent to shelters overseen by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Trump ended the practice in June in the face of condemnation from some Republicans and growing evidence that his administration had not developed a plan to reunite families.
Images of children in the chain-link holding pens – which were likened to animal cages – also prompted public outcry and played a role in ending the separation practice. A federal judge issued a temporary injunction, ordering Trump to reunite families and end the practice, effectively preventing him from re-instituting it.
But those images of children in the chain-link holding pens were the whole point. So were the two young children who died in custody – because one America loved that sort of thing and Trump had something to prove. That’ll keep those people from seeking asylum here. And the other America was appalled. The holding pens and the two dead kids were too much. That other America was a bunch of liberal snowflakes of course. Those two Americas don’t talk to each other.
And that’s playing out again, as Felicia Sonmez and Ashley Parker report here:
First came Joe Biden’s campaign announcement video highlighting President Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” comment about the 2017 white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville that left a counterprotester dead.
Then Trump dug in, arguing that he was referring not to the self-professed neo-Nazi marchers, but to those who had opposed the removal of a statue of the “great” Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Less than 24 hours later came another act of violence described by authorities as a hate crime: Saturday’s shooting at a synagogue in Poway, Calif., in which a gunman killed one person and injured three others.
Those events have pushed the rising tide of white nationalism to the forefront of the 2020 presidential campaign, putting Trump on the defensive and prompting even some Republicans to acknowledge that the president is taking a political risk by continuing to stand by his Charlottesville comments.
“The president’s handling of Charlottesville was not one of the finer moments of his time in office,” Republican strategist Ryan Williams said. “He shouldn’t take Joe Biden’s bait and re-litigate this controversy.”
But he took the bait and reopened the whole argument:
Trump advisers maintain that the president’s comments about Charlottesville were – in the words of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway on Sunday – “darn near perfection.”
“All white supremacy, all neo-Nazis, all anti-Christianity, all anti-Semitism, all anti-Muslim activity should be condemned,” Conway said on CNN’s “State of the Union,” arguing that Trump’s words were “twisted for many years for political purposes.”
Nonetheless, the rise of white-nationalist violence during Trump’s tenure is emerging as an issue as the president turns his attention toward his reelection campaign.
This is emerging as an issue because Trump has been inadvertently clear about things:
According to the most recent annual report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which has long tracked extremist activity, 39 of the 50 extremist-related murders tallied by the group in 2018 were committed by white supremacists, up from 2017, when white supremacists were responsible for 18 of 34 such crimes.
Trump has previously played down the threat posed by white nationalism. After a gunman last month killed 49 Muslims in two consecutive mosque attacks in New Zealand, Trump was asked by a reporter whether he thought white nationalists were a growing threat around the world. “I don’t, really,” Trump replied. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.”
He saw no real problem, but he may have fed the problem:
Trump also has a long history of anti-Muslim remarks, including saying in 2015 that he would “strongly consider” closing mosques in the United States, declining to rule out the creation of a national Muslim registry and saying during a 2016 CNN interview, “I think Islam hates us.”
Perhaps he shouldn’t say such things:
Trump’s doubling down on his remarks in response to Biden’s video has prompted calls from the ADL and others for him to be clearer about condemning what actually happened in Charlottesville, where white supremacists brandished torches and chanted anti-Semitic slogans such as “Jews will not replace us.”
“We need our leaders to lead, to be clear and consistent in calling out hate when it happens and to recognize there is a through line between Charlottesville and Pittsburgh and Poway,” ADL chief executive Jonathan Greenblatt said. “We know the extremists are feeling emboldened because they’re saying so.”
They have become emboldened:
Jonathan M. Metzl, director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University, was holding a discussion on his recently published book, “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland,” at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Northwest Washington on Saturday when a handful of self-proclaimed white nationalists entered and disrupted the event.
They walked in and chanted “This Land Is Our Land” on bullhorns for five or ten minutes. They didn’t have the Woody Guthrie song in mind. Then they walked out, so this wasn’t a shooting or anything, but it was still odd:
Metzl said that while “there are always going to be people with horrific, racist views,” usually those types of sentiments have been largely condemned – but Trump’s remarks on Charlottesville have muddied the waters.
“Part of what was frightening was this was happening and those usual checks and balances may or may not have been there, because the president was doubling down on his Charlottesville comments… Historically, this is the role of government,” he said. “And we have a very different government right now.”
That’s what Joe Biden was saying, and Will Bunch has more detail:
On a sun-soaked morning in Southern California, the pop-pop-pop of an AR-15 semiautomatic in the hands of a 19-year-old, barely a man, shattered the peace of a Passover service at a synagogue in Poway, Calif., near San Diego. A 60-year-old woman named Lori Gilbert Kaye was killed by the gunfire as she jumped in front of her congregation’s rabbi, who’d already had a couple fingers blown off by a bullet. Two others were wounded – all in service of the gunman’s insane rants that the Jewish people have been scheming to boost immigration to replace whites in America.
It was the exact same white-supremacist baloney that caused another man with an AR-15 to slaughter 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue exactly six months earlier to the day…
It would be hard to imagine a worse time to take a man who’d just been arrested two months ago with a giant cache of weapons and ammunition, a man whom authorities call a self-proclaimed white nationalist with an alleged hit list that included Supreme Court justices, Democratic politicians and TV journalists – and grant him freedom, even temporarily.
But Christopher Hasson, a 50-year-old Maryland man who was a high-ranking U.S. Coast Guard officer with a security clearance, may walk out of jail in a few days, maybe less. A federal judge said he can’t justify Hasson’s continued imprisonment because – despite his seeming terroristic threats – the U.S. Justice Department has only seen fit to charge him with low-level drug and weapons charges. This after the government had refused to even publicize Hasson’s arrest, which instead was stumbled upon by an enterprising journalist.
Yes, these two things are related:
Experts say, to some extent, prosecutors are hamstrung by a criminal code that despite a so-called war on terror created no statutes to specifically address the specific terror threat posed by Hasson – motivated by white supremacy and stockpiling the kind of conventional weapons blessed by the National Rifle Association.
That may be true, but let’s be honest: The failure of AG Bill Barr’s Justice Department to move heaven and earth to keep Hasson in custody or even issue a press release alerting the public is symbolic of a giant blind spot in our nation’s capital when it comes to the deadly threat posed by white supremacy. And that giant buck stops at the desk of President Trump.
Although U.S. policy on white homegrown terror has been abysmal since the turn of this century, this president – with his vainglorious refusal to admit that an immoral strain of white nationalism helped elect him in 2016 – and his administration are making the problem much, much worse.
And one can be specific about that:
Trump has repeatedly made clear his opinion that violent white extremism is not a problem in his America.
Trump’s see-no-evilism about white violence would be worrisome if just for the moral symbolism – but the blind spot has spread to actual policy. Some of this predates the current president – a 2009 government report calling for stepped-up measures on right-wing terror was famously shelved after howls from talk radio and other conservatives – but under Trump, the government has gone much further to avoid the problem.
George Selim, a former Homeland Security and National Security Council staffer under both Democratic and Republican presidents, said the government office most directly targeting domestic terrorism has seen its budget decimated under Trump, down from $21 million to just $3 million, and its staff reduced by more than half. Earlier this month, the Daily Beast reported that an entire unit of DHS intelligence analysts who tracked would-be domestic terrorists, which used to often issue warnings to local police, was quietly disbanded. Critics note the government isn’t even keeping stats on the right-wing attacks, leaving that task for outside groups.
It seems that Team Trump has zero interest in either poking a stick in the eye of the president’s most despicable yet also most enthusiastic supporters, nor would the 45th president’s ego ever allow the acknowledgement that it was a terroristic, hateful fringe that played an important and possibly decisive role in his razor-thin 2016 election.
Team Trump would deny that – voters just wanted Hillary Clinton locked up and possibly executed for treason – or they thought Trump was sexy. Nothing is provable, but there is more to this:
White-nationalist terror isn’t the only area where Trump and his government is looking the other way – in part because of our narcissistic president’s over-the-top vanity and in part because things that threaten American democracy often seem to be good news for the current occupant of the Oval Office. Consider the Russian election interference that – according to the Mueller report – played a critical role in 2016 and seems to remain a threat for next year’s presidential contest.
When she was Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen reportedly concluded that facing down new and different kinds of Russian election threats in 2020 was a major challenge that needed much greater government attention. But, according to the New York Times, Nielsen was ordered to keep that information away from Trump and his fury over any suggestion his 2016 win was less than legitimate. Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney reportedly told her it “wasn’t a great subject and should be kept below his [Trump’s] level.”
Bunch is amazed:
It’s hard to imagine a greater threat to American democracy and freedom than foreign election interference and computer crimes – until you start pondering the growing white-nationalist movement in this country, and the diminished ability of people to buy a book or get on their knees and pray without fear of harassment or deadly violence.
A true democratic government would be working overtime right now to protect our synagogues, churches and mosques, our bookstores, and our ballot boxes from these insidious threats. Indeed, the grown-ups in Congress should try to pass legislation that will restore funding to the agencies that track domestic terror, require real-time reporting on the threat, and improve our terror laws so an imminent danger like Christopher Hasson can be taken off the streets.
But doing what needs to done will be very, very hard when an egomaniacal autocrat sits behind the Resolute Desk with his tiny hands clasped firmly over his ears – determined to muffle any ideas that might tarnish his legacy, let alone jeopardize the second term he needs to cement his authoritarian legacy… and maybe keep him out of jail.
And so it goes:
America wakes up on a grim Sunday morning to the realization that we’re fighting a war against hate with a yawning black hole at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue where its commander is supposed to be.
That’s what Joe Biden would like to fix – with the comfort food of common decency. But there are two Americas who take turns at this sort of thing every eight years. Unless, this time, common decency makes a surprise comeback. One of those two Americas may be a lot bigger than the other.