Trump may run again and the nation's mood darkens: Here's what Biden must do

Facing an authoritarian insurrection that never ended, Biden needs big wins — and needs to get his message out

By Brian Karem


Published September 30, 2021 9:30AM (EDT)

Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

Joe Biden has told us several times he's an eternal optimist.

Whether he's trying to salvage an infrastructure package, work on the debt ceiling, dealing with China, Afghanistan, or the pandemic that's killed more than 700,000 Americans, during his first nine months in the Oval Office Biden and his press secretary Jen Psaki have smiled at reporters and reiterated just how upbeat the president really is.

I've been able to personally ask him just three questions in nine months, and it's telling that in one of those three interactions he told me he was eternally optimistic. It's his go-to catchphrase, and you have to hope he's not like Chip Diller shouting, "Remain calm. All is well," in "Animal House" — only to be trampled by a panicked crowd later.

On Wednesday I again asked Psaki about this optimism at the end of her daily briefing. If Biden is so eternally optimistic, I asked, is he optimistic he can get any Republicans to flip and vote with the Democrats — since he can't seem to get Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema to do so?

"He's always an optimist, Brian. Always," Psaki said.

Remain calm. All is well.

Behind the scenes, high-ranking officials who feel comfortable enough to talk say there's often another side to Biden — the Biden I remember from the Senate. That Joe Biden is less optimistic, more pragmatic and can be tough and stubborn, traits he needs as he's trying to wield his influence and power against all odds to accomplish something few believe he can — getting Republicans and Democrats to work together for a common cause.

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This action is deemed so futile by some that there is seemingly no end to speculation that the U.S. is headed for a dark calamity of riots and a civil war-like dystopia that will look like a cross between a zombie movie and "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome"; not to mention the potential (shudder) re-election of Donald Trump in 2024.

There's hellfire a-coming, if you listen to these people. A recent Washington Post opinion piece claims we are in the middle of a constitutional crisis, thanks to Trump's actions and what Biden faces in his futile struggle to bring the country together.

I'm reminded of Bruce Willis' line in "Die Hard": "Welcome to the party, pal."

We've been here since the 2016 election, and it is truly and furiously frightening that only now are some beginning to understand the damage done to the American way of life in the last five years, just how menacing and charismatic Donald Trump remains and how cancerous he is to life in general — not to mention the uphill battle Biden is trying to fight in order to deal with it. It's even more telling that most of these people who don't understand seem to be elected Democrats who are too busy arguing with each other to see the bigger picture.

You don't have to go any further than acknowledging the politicization of a pandemic in which more Americans have died than during the 1918 flu pandemic, when medical science was a pale shadow of what it is now, to understand how far from normal things are.

If anything, we are beyond a constitutional crisis. It is now a crisis of survival. Can humanity survive when so many people deny scientific facts, and the world is literally on fire and drowning at the same time? The stakes could not be higher. A recent study from the journal Science reported that if you're under 40, you can expect an "unprecedented" life of extreme heat waves, droughts and floods. You will live through seven times as many heat waves, twice as many wildfires and nearly three times as many droughts, crop failures and river floods as your grandparents. Never mind the pandemic.

Meanwhile the U.S. is ripping itself apart due to the continued actions of a narcissist — our former president, who apparently pulled former press secretary Stephanie Grisham aside while both were on Air Force One to tell her he didn't have a toadstool-shaped penis, as reported by one of his paramours in social and mainstream media. 

This alone is enough to lead some to give up hope while simultaneously melting into hysterical laughter. The truly minacious has merely become the mundane and that has caused some to throw in the towel, convinced that Trump will not only be the Republican candidate for president in 2024, but because of his continued cries about voter fraud, the GOP will manipulate state and local election laws to ensure his re-election. Those who believed Trump would fade from view after losing in 2020 have been deemed "delusional."

But Michael Cohen, the former Trump fixer who turned against his puppeteer, doesn't buy it. "I'm not even convinced he will run," Cohen told me. "He just wants the money." Cohen may well be right, but millions of Americans, faced with Trump's current antics, are more pessimistic — no matter how optimistic Biden says he is. That's because whatever Trump ultimately wants, right now he controls the Republican Party and anyone who's not along for the Trump ride is thrown from the elephant. That scares millions of Americans.  

Compounding the pessimism are the acts of congressional Democrats who are fighting with each other, and the fact that many believe that Biden's optimism is really a function of how out of touch he is with current events. There is growing concern that those two points of drama will give the Trumplicans an opening to seize power in the midterms — without even needing to cheat to do so.

The problem is, you can't really hear Biden for the screams and rants from the banshees aligned with Trump. Biden believes that actions speak louder than words — what he forgets is that in today's media landscape, your actions often are your words. For example, Biden does not spend much time before reporters. He's had only one full press conference in the White House since he got there nine months ago, and that was only to a small cadre of reporters, the numbers reduced to a mere handful because of pandemic restrictions.

Still, many on Biden's staff think he's spent too much time with the press answering too many questions — I was told that as recently as Wednesday evening. It's simply not the case, and while some in the White House think it isn't wise to do so, Biden better wake up to the fact that he's not getting his message out — at least not as loudly as his opposition gets its message out — and no amount of eternal optimism will help if no one can hear you. 

The appearance of bedlam in the Democratic Party over infrastructure and the debt ceiling may be just that, an appearance. But it is certainly adding to the concerns of people who fear an authoritarian takeover of the government. If you look at Texas, Florida and other states where voter suppression is real and a woman's right to choose has been extremely compromised, you can understand that these concerns are real — and that eternal optimism is viewed as being either naïve or out of touch.

A break in the supply chain that may cause a slowdown in domestic automobile production, along with questions about how strong the economy will be in the fourth quarter of this year and the first quarter of 2022, are also cause for concern. Many do not share Biden's optimism that all is well.

It's perfectly true that the Trumpers will convince themselves of anything that Donald says or does. But Biden still doesn't seem to understand he has to cut through the clattering, monotonous, chest-beating Trump bile that's infected this country. People are concerned, and rightly so, that a party of fascist authoritarians is poised to sweep aside democracy and take over.

For Biden to maintain his optimism and convince others he's not just whistling in the dark, he needs a few legislative victories, a continued solid improvement in the economy and real progress in getting the pandemic under control. He also needs to speak out more about what he's done and what he's doing. His falling poll numbers are a byproduct of being outshouted in the court of public opinion by the former president and his band of mouthy mutants.

Actions may speak louder than words, but Biden has the bully pulpit at his control — he cannot allow himself to be bullied by an outlier who was twice impeached and whose minions include some of the most sanctimonious, authoritarian troglodytes ever to disgrace the American political stage.

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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Authoritarianism Commentary Democrats Donald Trump Elections Joe Biden Republicans