Donald Trump Donald Trump. Photo: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0

The failures of Biden’s centrism in domestic and foreign policy are providing Trump with a gilded path to retake the White House, argues Kevin Ovenden

Joe Biden is in trouble. It is extremely hard to see Donald Trump being stopped from becoming the Republican nominee, even though there are ten months until the election. Trump’s victory in the Republican Iowa state caucuses on Monday was at the upper end of expectations. Over 50% of those registered Republicans voting chose him to be their party’s nominee over Florida governor Ron DeSantis and former governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley.

There were no Democratic caucuses as Joe Biden is seeking the nomination unopposed, at least for now. That is a factor that has focused the media and public attention on Trump: there is no one else of interest in the race for the presidential election in November.

You can argue the toss one way or the other about the wisdom of the Democrats putting so much effort into court cases against him. That is especially the ones invoking the 14th Amendment to do with his role in the riotous invasion of Capitol Hill seeking to overturn the election result three years ago and seeking to ban him from holding office. Then there are the civil, fraud and other cases.

The point is that they show little sign of having any net impact in reducing his appeal, certainly with the majority of the base of the Republican party. In fact, they polarise on party partisan lines. And no one does polarisation better than Trump.

This is something those of us on the anti-capitalist left pointed to in 2020. Having won the presidential election and securing a majority in both the Senate and Congress, the Democrats could have set about breaking up Trump’s base and the radical right by addressing the genuine social and economic grievances to which he gave false answers. The twin aspect would be arguing true answers against false grievances over race and women’s rights.

Biden’s losing strategy

That was especially so after the 6 January crisis and the violent incursion by Trump’s supporters. But instead, Biden turned to what has been his habitual fixer role in the US political system for fifty years, and sought to build a consensus with the Republicans on an anti-Trump but America First basis. This created two problems.

First, it meant curtailing the programme of economic reform to what was acceptable to the middle ground of US billionaires that excludes the radical-right ideologues. While infrastructure and other spending seems big by European standards – and is a far more ambitious package than that offered by Keir Starmer in Britain – it meant only a modest improvement for most working people and going backwards for others. Various commentators are perplexed that figures show people slightly better off than four years ago, but at the same time, popular support for the idea that things are getting worse. The reason is that elections and political sentiment are not reducible to a few dollars here or a percentage point on income there. There is the general sense of the direction of the country in an epoch of global change affecting everything from the climate to the nature and availability of work.

The second problem is that the right-wing insurgency that Trump represented back in 2016 was not a flash in the pan. It built upon a decade and a half of radicalisation of the Republican party. It was through a combination of disaffected and increasingly hard-right supporters below and a cadre of rich and ultra-right ideologues from above who sought to break out of the constraints of centrist liberal capitalism.

So Biden and the Democrats could get all the endorsements and warm words from old Blue Blood Republicans, those he had famously gotten along with in Congress, the Senate and as Vice-President. But those people were increasingly out of touch with the actual Republican party. That was shown even before Monday night. The distant second in Iowa was Ron DeSantis who has styled himself as Trumpist politically and in policy, but without the chaos and entertainment. In a Trump vs Trump minus the reality-show shtick, there is only one winner. Those two strategic problems that have beset Biden for four years are already hitting his re-election bid so hard that his allies are worried. He is behind in the one-on-one polls.

The Democrat campaign is so soporific. Biden was supposed to make a rallying call this month about this being a historic election with democracy itself on the ballot paper. It fell flat. One reason is that although Trump is very much a threat to the usual functioning of the emaciated, American version of democracy, an awful lot of people are alienated from the duopoly in the US that passes for a fair political process. Additionally, there appears to be some widespread scepticism of a re-election bid that is not upbeat about what has been achieved, but seeks instead to shift the question to defence of abstractions like the Constitution. And the overall faltering delivery accords with Trump’s barbs about ‘sleepy Joe’. Where there is some energy from the White House, it is in standing with Israel, bombing Yemen and threatening Lebanon and Iran with devastating consequences.

Wars feed Trump

It is also there in promising never-ending support for the Zelenskyy regime in Kyiv, despite the US military voicing doubts. This is the problem: not only most Democrat voters, but most Americans (including a majority of Republicans) are for a ceasefire in both cases. Trump, the great opportunist, does not have to pledge undying support for Israel. He moved the US embassy to Jerusalem – which was not undone by Biden – and is not vulnerable to a radical-right pro-Israel attack. What he can do is repeat his line of eight years ago that he will extricate the US from those wars that the Democrats have gotten involved in and will ‘do great deals’ to fix the rest.

It’s not true, of course. But the idea of doing a deal with Vladimir Putin and getting out of boundless liabilities to promote one ruling-class faction against another in Ukraine will appeal to a lot of Americans as they look at their pay cheque. And the dodgy business dealings in Ukraine by Biden’s son, Hunter, are real. They remain so even if they are not an explanation of the proxy war or the Democrats’ support for it.

They are, however, enough to provide a vivid and simplistic image for Trump of the Biden family’s corruption, for which the average American is paying for through this war. A war that non-partisan foreign-policy figures, and not just Trumpist Republicans in the US, say should be brought to an end.

Meanwhile, Biden doesn’t just take for granted progressive voting support on the grounds that people have no choice but to go for the lesser evil. He daily kicks in the face key groupings of those more loyal than average in the Democrat voter base. A shocking YouGov poll found that only 67% of black voters had a favourable view of Biden. If that is accurate, it poses problems in crucial states such as Georgia.

Then there is the big question of Palestine, which will continue throughout the year and is so intense it is forging strongly held political choices already. They are not for Biden. For three months, more people than not in the US have told pollsters they are in favour of an immediate ceasefire. There is a majority for this among both Democrat and Republican voters. It is remarkable. Yet Biden could make a speech on Sunday recalling the horrors faced by Israeli civilians on 7 October but not once mentioning those faced by the Palestinians and the over 25,000 dead. This slap in the face to key bases of Democrat support could be heard this side of the Atlantic.

The 18-35-year-old demographic has long been pro-Palestinian. A survey last year incredibly found that more in that age group favoured Trump over Biden on Palestine-Israel. Now that will include of course the hard minority that is fanatically pro-Israel. But that cannot in itself explain the overall result. Biden is alienating younger voters who tend statistically to favour the Democrats and have been pivotal in some tight contests.

The extraordinary movement for Palestine and a ceasefire in the US is intergenerational and also marked by young people’s participation. A disproportionate number of those young people are Jewish and of the communities and social layers that are more important to the Democrats’ college-graduate vote than ever before. Then there are the Arab and Muslim communities who have been the backbone of big mobilisations such as in Washington last Saturday for the global day of action for Palestine.

Palestine’s electoral impacts

The US presidential election means that you can lose the overall popular vote and still win provided your vote is concentrated in enough states to give you a majority of their indirect votes in the electoral college. So, complacent Democrats may consider that they can lose no end of radicalised Jewish young people in New York City and still win the state of New York, or all the Arab and Muslim voters in Los Angeles and San Diego and still carry California.

They are right. But there is a half-dozen swing states where Arab/Muslim voters are equal or greater in number to the gap between Biden and Trump four years ago. There is Michigan where there are about 300,000 Muslim voters in greater Detroit. Biden won last time with a majority of half that number. In Arizona, the Muslim/Arab adult population is six times Biden’s 2020 majority. Florida and Texas will probably not be in contention. But in both states, there is a significant Palestinian, Arab and Muslim presence that will matter for city-wide and state elections. Those who high-handedly tell them from the other side of the Atlantic that they ‘must put all else aside and vote Biden’ should do the decent thing and spend the summer in Dearborn, Michigan going door to door to persuade them.

The issue of Palestine stands on its own merits and is a lodestone for progressive and left politics globally. It is also shaking up politics domestically. That is so in the US as it is in Britain, with various strands of Muslim and pro-Palestinian opinion enraged at Starmer-Labour, and its most bellicose pro-Israel MPs especially. They are organising electoral challenges, as in Ilford North in London with a British-Palestinian candidate. Given the wider problems already miring Biden’s limp campaign (not helped by a joke Vice-President), the Democrats are facing serious problems. Those are so great that wholly establishment party figures are calling on Biden to moderate the pro-Israel and pro-war positions. To, for example, at least put some conditions on Israel for the $14.5 billion fresh cash Biden has provided for the genocidal war.

His claims to be quietly influencing Netanyahu behind the scenes are not matched by any diminution in Israel’s mass murder or widening of the war. Thus the US has let it be known that it wants a de-escalation by Hezbollah in Lebanon and by Israel on their border. Netanyahu has responded by assassinating a senior Hamas military official in Beirut. Along with the escalation in the fighting in the Red Sea, everything is moving to a precipice.

Their strategies and ours

Why is Biden doing this? There is, of course, the deep strategic interest of the US state and imperialism in backing Israel and hegemonising the Middle East against any who do not fall into line. But there are ways of pursuing that interest without, as Biden is doing, blowing up your own political base to the extent he has already. This cannot be put down to Netanyahu using political backing and lobbying in the Congress to pressure a US president to go above and beyond in supporting Israel. Netanyahu did do that to undermine Barack Obama’s attempt at yet another peace plan. But in that enterprise, Israel did not need to pressure Biden, the then Vice-President. Biden did it of his own accord, arguing against Obama’s diplomacy.

Thirty years ago, Senator Biden opposed Republican president George HW Bush’s tentative steps towards what became the Oslo peace accords – which came about only out of the Palestinians’ first Intifada, a civil uprising. Biden has been fervently pro-Israel since he first entered politics. It is the kind of quasi-religious backing for the Zionist state that some other politicians evince, such as Gordon Brown in Britain, that invests in it the epitome of progress. Whatever its origins and psychological underpinnings, Biden’s refusal to criticise forcefully and openly the extreme-right government of Israel is not only enabling Netanyahu. It is gilding a possible path for Trump to retake the White House.

That dawned on liberal commentators on both sides of the Atlantic this week. If Trump is still sailing ahead come April, there may be full-blown panic. For it will be happening at the same time as the runup to the European elections in June. Across the continent and in its major states, the far-right of one or other shade is set to do very well.

The fascistic AfD in Germany is already polling second for national elections. This week, French president, Emmanuel Macron, launched his counterattack against Marine Le Pen and the far right. Where it was not feeble, it conceded the national conversation to her. Among his answers to renewing France were linking the national destiny to getting ‘indigenous’ women to have more children and trialling compulsory school uniforms. Treating women as wombs of the nation and enforcing discipline on young people through uniforms only go in one direction politically.

Macron in 2017 and Biden in 2020 were hailed by the liberal centre as slaying the ‘populist’ eruption of the middle of the last decade. All that insurgent politics – whether of right or left – was out. The radical left in the shape of Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos and others had been contained and thrown back. Now we were back to ‘adults in the room’. Refutations of that wishful thinking have come thick and fast if you look at European politics recently from Italy to the Netherlands to Spain. Now a freezing, snowbound, sparsely populated mid-western state in the US on Monday has delivered a result that should shatter complacent centrist illusions. The question for the radical left is whether we can manage to organise our own anti-capitalist political insurgency – this time learning from the mistakes of before. The world-historic eruption for Palestine provides us with a chance to do that. We must seize it. For the forces of reaction are using this exact same moment to do that in their interests.

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.