COMMENTARY

Joe Biden defends democracy abroad — but what about right here at home?

Joe Biden is floating in a tin can, far above the world: His quest is noble, but likely bound for failure

By Chauncey DeVega

Published April 1, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

Joe Biden | Trump supporters rioting at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden | Trump supporters rioting at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

I voted for Joe Biden in 2020. He was the only viable option to defeat Donald Trump and his neofascist regime and movement. I will certainly vote for Joe Biden in 2024 if he chooses to seek the presidency again.

Is Joe Biden perfect? Of course not. Is Biden the "progressive" leader that so many members of the Democratic Party's base and others wanted? No — and he never was going to be. As a person gets older, they become more their true authentic self. Biden is a man of "the system." He will not abandon it.

My hope is that Biden can find moments when he surprises himself, and the American people, by being more progressive, more of a change-maker, than he thought he could be. He will have to be pushed to become such a leader. It is not a natural role for him.

But ultimately, the perfect is the enemy of the good, and the point of politics is to get things done. Biden has accomplished a great deal in terms of defeating the coronavirus, rebuilding the American economy, and salvaging a country that was brought to the precipice of ruin by Donald Trump and his regime. Biden has also begun to restore America's global leadership role.

RELATED: Biden sounds the warning, and the fog of war descends: How bad will it get?

But my admiration for Biden is colored with mixed emotions, including great sadness. He presents so many frustrating moments when he comes close to being the leader that American democracy needs in this moment of multiple crises. But he cannot or does not take the next step. Some of this is outside his control, such as the Republican opposition, evidently intent on destroying democracy and obstructing his agenda.

But I sometimes still see a president who could be a great champion. Biden's visit to Poland last week was one such moment. In his Warsaw speech, he stood up to Vladimir Putin, condemned the war in Ukraine, and offered continued support for the Ukrainian people and their struggle against the Russian invaders.

RELATED: Biden's biggest mistake: It wasn't what he said about Putin — it was taking it back

Putin is more than the autocratic leader of Russia. He has become the symbolic leader of the global right, which wants to destroy multiracial democracy and opposes pluralism, cosmopolitanism and a more inclusive and diverse future across North America, Europe and other parts of the world. These are of course the values and goals of the Republican-fascist movement in America, and Biden's speech in Warsaw must also be understood in that context. 

Writing at the Daily Beast, David Rothkopf summarized the power and potential of that speech, comparing it to Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech, given in Missouri in March of 1946. 

With his remarks, Biden acknowledged that, solely as a consequence of the ruthless aggression of Vladimir Putin, Europe was once again divided. More broadly, he defined the struggle of the moment as "a new great battle for freedom: a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between rules-based order and one governed by brute force."

Biden's remarks to the massive outdoor crowd were a call to action not just to stop Putin but, as American listeners surely noted, to recognize the threats to democracy that exist within our own country. He not only praised the courage of the people of Ukraine but made it clear that they were fighting on behalf of all of us who value democracy worldwide. He enumerated the ways that the U.S. and our allies would seek to aid Ukraine but he also made it clear that our commitment extended beyond the current war. "We must commit now to be in this fight for the long haul. We must remain unified today and tomorrow and the day after and for the years and decades to come," he said.

Biden's next words were: "It will not be easy. There will be costs. But it's a price we have to pay. Because the darkness that drives autocracy is ultimately no match for the flame of liberty that lights the souls of free people everywhere." Rothkopf argues that Biden's "extemporaneous reference to Putin" in his controversial closing — "For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power" — was a "moment of clarity from the plain-spoken president" which made clear that "Biden's passion was deeply felt and real":

It was the truth at a time when it is essential to be honest about Putin's barbarism and the threat he poses not just to the world, but to the people of his own country who will be denied full access to the community of nations so long as he remains in office.

Thus, my feelings of great frustration when I think of Joe Biden. He understands the connections between the fight against fascism and other forms of authoritarianism abroad and the battle against the Republican-fascist movement and white supremacy here at home. In that light, his failure to fully defend American democracy is a choice.

Biden understands the connections between the fight against authoritarianism abroad and the battle at home. His failure to defend American democracy is a choice.

In his role as president, Biden is the chief executive, leading law enforcement officer, secular priest, national cheerleader and, of course, commander in chief. An American president commands a bully pulpit of unequal power, and has powers concentrated in one person and office that are unique among Western democracies. Biden is not using the full range of his powers to defend democracy against the neofascists who are attacking it from within. He has spoken with great sincerity about the depth of America's current crisis, but he has not responded with urgent action. 


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Every day week we learn more about Donald Trump's coup cabal, their many obvious crimes and how close they actually came to nullifying the 2020 presidential election. The coup of 2021 continues and has never stopped.

It appears likely that Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, was among the Trump coup plotters, and that her husband has used his power to shield her from accountability. In a better world, Clarence Thomas would be removed from the Supreme Court for his obvious ethical violations. Since that will not happen, Biden and the Democratic leadership in Congress should use Thomas' corruption and betrayal of the rule of law and the Constitution as an urgent reason to expand the Supreme Court. It is not likely that will happen either. 

Donald Trump has once again publicly asked Vladimir Putin to interfere in domestic American politics, this time by "releasing" (or inventing) supposed information that will implicate Biden and his family in a scandal. Trump and his allies will then use this "information" as part of a scheme to somehow remove Biden from the presidency.

RELATED: Trump asks Putin for Biden dirt; Russian state TV calls to "again help our partner Trump"

More than seven hours of entries are missing from the White House presidential call logs on Jan. 6. 2021. In all likelihood, they were deliberately deleted. In the hours during which Trump's attack force overran the Capitol, we are supposed to believe that Trump ceased all communication with his allies, advisers and others in his inner circle. This is inconceivable: As others have concluded, Trump and his cabal were likely using disposable "burner phones" to coordinate their next moves in the coup attempt.

The House committee that is investigating Trump's coup plot and related events lacks the power to properly enforce its subpoenas or other demands. Many high-profile members of Trump's inner circle, including Steve Bannon, Mark Meadows and Peter Navarro, have refused to cooperate, making a mockery of both congressional oversight and the rule of law. Despite occasional rumblings to the contrary, to this point Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice have proceeded as though they are more afraid of looking "political" and "partisan" by enforcing the law than of the implications of allowing Trump and his coup plotters to remain free to continue their assault on democracy. 

On Monday, a U.S. District Court judge in California ruled that John Eastman, the law professor who attempted to craft a legal rationale for rejecting the electoral votes on Jan. 6, must release his emails to the House select committee. In his ruling, the judge found that it was "more likely than not that President Trump corruptly attempted to obstruct the Joint Session of Congress on January 6, 2021. … If Dr. Eastman and President Trump's plan had worked, it would have permanently ended the peaceful transition of power, undermining American democracy and the Constitution. If the country does not commit to investigating and pursuing accountability for those responsible, the Court fears January 6 will repeat itself."

Merrick Garland seems more afraid of looking "partisan" by enforcing the law than of allowing Trump and his accomplices to remain free and continue their assault on democracy.

 

In America, no one is supposed to be above the law. Throughout his life, Donald Trump has openly flouted that rule. Joe Biden clearly believes in the enduring power of the country's governing institutions, in consensus politics, the Constitution and the rule of law. He also believes in national unity, a shared political culture and the inherent goodness of the American people — including those who support Trump and the Republicans. In practical terms that means that Biden, like many other leading Democrats, is unable or unwilling to face the reality of America's democracy crisis and what is demanded to fix it. This "normalcy bias" and the inertia it creates may very well be fatal to our nation's democratic experiment. 

Barbara Walter, author of "How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them," expounded on this in a recent interview with Salon:

The American people as a whole have not witnessed the horrible things that human beings can do to each other because they have not been the target of such violence — except, of course, for African-Americans and other people of color who do see the approaching violence and disaster. Many white Americans do not want to see it. They do not want to hear the metaphorical train that is coming at them because they have not been targets of such violence as a group.

White Americans as a group tend not to believe the warnings by Black and brown people and others who see what is happening. Because they haven't had the direct experience, the hard evidence, of such things being true. I also believe that's because white Americans have a vested interest in the system. They really want to believe that the system is OK, and if they just keep their heads down and just weather this storm, everything's going to be OK.

In a series of tweets, political commentator and author Jared Yates Sexton wrote that new evidence emerges almost daily to show that Jan. 6, 2021, "was not only an attempted coup but that the efforts were widespread. And every day it becomes more obvious how much our media and pundits either failed or simply weren't willing to care about the overthrow of an election":

Top to bottom, our media and political class are so insulated and compromised by their economic and social statuses that they are either incapable of recognizing the attack on democracy or else complicit. These last few years have been disastrously instructive.

Never forget for a second how many people spent years profiting off Trump while assuring everyone there was no way he or the GOP would ever attack democracy. And then, when they did, they pretended it didn't happen, that it wasn't serious.

David Bowie's music has been my constant companion during these last six or seven years of trying to make sense of watching America's democracy collapse in real time and seeing fascist monsters reborn in the 21st century. I have no grand theory or profound observations about semiotics and music to explain why this is. Bowie's music just feels right to me for this interregnum period amid all the doom and trouble that menace America.

When I think of Joe Biden, that man who could be champion, and the feelings of frustration mixed with sadness I so often experience while observing his presidency, I imagine him as Major Tom in Bowie's song "Space Oddity." The president and the song are not a perfect fit, to be sure. But art does not work that way: These are questions of impressions, emotions and pathos.

I hear these lyrics (too often):

Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit's dead, there's something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?

In America's democracy crisis, Joe Biden is that brave astronaut. Something has gone wrong with his spaceship, and his journey is heading toward a tragic conclusion. Ground control is trying to keep him calm. But they cannot save him.

But while Major Tom knows he is doomed, Joe Biden still has time to be America's champion. It's not too late, Joe, but you are running out of time. You are not powerless to shape the outcome of history — and you must act now to save America's future.

Read more from Salon on Joe Biden's dilemma:


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Commentary Democracy Fascism Jan. 6 Joe Biden Republicans Vladimir Putin