Has the tide turned for Biden and the Democrats? It's way too early to celebrate

Republican hubris and overreach is leading toward dramatic payback — but Democrats' sugar high could be fleeting

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published September 1, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to supporters at Max S. Hayes High School on July 6, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Angelo Merendino/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to supporters at Max S. Hayes High School on July 6, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Angelo Merendino/Getty Images)

For most of the last six years the Republicans have been winning their war against democracy — and against the Democrats. Yes, Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 election but for a variety of reasons, some his own fault and others outside his control, he has not been the type of forceful leader and champion needed to defeat the Republicans and the larger fascist movement.

But right now, at least for the moment, things have changed. As a recent editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer puts it, it may be time to give Biden his due:

While Biden's approval rating doesn't reflect it, Uncle Joe is on a roll. After some bumpy months, gas prices are dropping, unemployment is at record lows, the job market is booming, incomes are rising, a top al-Qaeda leader was taken out, the first Black female Supreme Court justice was seated, NATO has expanded, and Biden unified European support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia.

Even better, Biden's policies are helping average Americans and not special interests. Last week, Biden announced a plan to cancel up to $10,000 in student debt for middle-income families and up to $20,000 for lower-income families — a big help for many households and young workers struggling to get ahead.

An expanded child tax credit briefly reduced poverty and hunger for many kids — until the program wrongly ended due to a lack of Senate support. Meanwhile, a record number of Americans now have health insurance thanks to the expansion of Medicaid and COVID-19 relief measures.

Perhaps Biden's most impactful accomplishment was the passage earlier this month of a sweeping $370 billion bill designed to combat climate change, lower prescription-drug prices, fight inflation, reduce the deficit, and impose a minimum tax on large corporations. The historic measure contains many lasting benefits, yet not one Republican voted for it.

Biden has endured withering criticism, even from some Democrats, but he has stayed focused on the job. After four years of what often felt like a daily presidential circus, the Biden administration has provided some welcome calm and competence…. If nothing else, it is a relief to have a president whose tenure is notably devoid of drama.

Edward Luce of the Financial Times writes that "America's oldest president can now boast a stronger legislative record in less than two years than Obama or Bill Clinton achieved in eight years. Turns out, low expectations are Biden's secret weapon."

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Democrats are now polling even with Republicans, or slightly ahead, on the generic ballot for the upcoming congressional midterms. Biden's approval rating has crept back up to 44 percent, which is higher than Trump's was in 2018 at this point of the midterm cycle.

Ultimately, positive news amid so much stress and trauma in America and the world just feels good — and there is nothing wrong with that sentiment. But exactly what is happening here? Like many conquerors, the Republican-fascists and their allies are victims of their own success, not to mention their immense hubris. They outran their supply chain after achieving their goals and didn't have a well-developed plan for what to do next. At the rear and on the flanks, the Republican-fascists and their allies are vulnerable to counterattack — or so it seems.

These have been difficult years for those of us committed to defending American democracy against the fascist tide and the many evils of Trumpism and today's Republican Party — as well as to telling the full, harsh truth about the nature of the disaster. The hope-peddlers, professional centrists and happy-pill sellers of the mainstream media and political class have had a much easier time by constantly soothing themselves with fantasies.

It is hard to explain how it feels to be constantly writing the obituary for American democracy in real time. I refer back often to what James Baldwin wrote in "Notes of a Native Son": "I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually."

Baldwin's wisdom is a call to action and a caution for those of us who strive to tell uncomfortable truths about America, and even more so for Black and brown Americans who are struggling through the current "democracy crisis," which might better be described as a 21st-century reassertion of white supremacy in the form of a new Jim Crow racial regime.

The Black Freedom Struggle defeated American apartheid before. We who are heirs, inheritors and trustees of that struggle still carry that pain and that triumph in our blood, historical memory and lived experience. That is a heavy burden, one that is simultaneously empowering and a great weight. Black and brown Americans and members of other groups targeted by the Republican fascists and the larger white right do not have the luxury of being naive or carelessly optimistic about an apparent "turning of the tide".

Cheers for Biden and the Democrats are understandable, but nothing has been decided beyond a few small battles in a much larger war. Now is the time to press the attack and to increase our vigilance, not the time to exhale and celebrate as too many are now doing.

Women's reproductive rights and freedoms are far from being restored in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision. We have seen a major electoral victory in Kansas, legal injunctions in other states and an expansion of on-the-ground organizing across the country, but it may be years or decades until the rights and protections formerly granted by Roe v. Wade are restored.

Trump's chosen candidates and others who channel the Big Lie and attack the legitimacy of the country's multiracial democracy have been highly successful in key primaries, and there is no guarantee that many or most will not win election. In Ohio's crucial U.S. Senate race, Republican J.D. Vance is essentially tied with Rep. Tim Ryan. In Georgia, Sen. Raphael Warnock is polling about even with Trump-endorsed Republican Herschel Walker. In Pennsylvania, Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano is an overt Christian nationalist with multiple ties to neo-Confederate and white supremacist groups. Mastriano has been a major supporter of Donald Trump's election lies, and can be expected to do his utmost to rig Pennsylvania's electoral votes for Trump (or another GOP nominee) in 2024. 

Republican primary candidates are copying Donald Trump's coup template, refusing to concede when they have been defeated — even by voters of their own party — and claiming that they are the victims of imaginary fraud.

Trump and the Republican fascists continue to beat the drums of civil war and violent insurgency. In an attempt to stop Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice from holding him accountable under the law for his apparent crimes, Donald Trump (with the help of other right-wing propagandists and ethnic violence entrepreneurs) continues to incite his followers to acts of violence on his behalf.

At the Washington Post, historian Nicole Hemmer recently said this about the escalating threat of another Oklahoma City-style mass casualty attack:

There's so much violent rhetoric. There's so much rhetoric about the federal government being out to get you.

You are going to be a political prisoner. You're going to be silenced. You're going to be jailed. That feeds into a politics of violence.

We've seen acts of terror and acts of violence domestically over the past 10 years. There's no reason to believe it won't escalate.

As national security and extremism expert Stephanie Foggett recently told Salon, the response to the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago "exposes how much of the far right's anti-government disdain and propensity for violence has permeated the American mainstream":

While there has been an important focus these past days on violent threats to law enforcement — the FBI in particular — it's important to remember that this rhetoric is not coming out of a vacuum. Much of the far right's rhetoric driving threats today has been formed over many years within a violent information ecosystem that is also consistently targeting and villainizing religious, racial and ethnic minorities, as well as women, the LGTBQ+ community, journalists and activists.

The spike in violent rhetoric and threats of violence we witnessed this week against law enforcement targets leaves me very concerned about other communities reviled by the far right. We must continue to pay attention to the full spectrum of violent and hateful narratives in this space.

There has been a significant increase in threats against Democratic elected officials and government employees. Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat, shared this on Twitter:

A staffer of mine — who's 1 month into her job — received a call from a man saying he's coming to our office w/ an assault rifle to kill me. I hesitate to share this but how else do I tell you we are in violent times, & the architects are Trump & McCarthy. Bloodshed is coming.

Unfortunately, even six years into the Trump era, after a blatant coup attempt and increasing right-wing terrorism, too many members of the political class and the commentariat are obsessively mated to obsolete frameworks of "normal politics." That normalcy bias encourages premature celebration of good news, assuming that we are returning to some median "consensus" in political and social life, even when the evidence does not justify that conclusion. These errors are also rooted in basic (and at this point willful) misunderstandings about political behavior in America.

Some six decades of political science and other social science research has repeatedly shown that the average American is not politically sophisticated or highly ideological, and does not routinely engage in highly reasoned, reflective and rational considerations of political matters. As a practical matter, too many "trusted voices" and members of the Church of the Savvy are trying to impose their narrow understanding of politics onto the American people, primarily guided by their prior assumptions.

Trumpism, neofascism and "conservatism" in the post-civil rights era are based on white identity and the protection of white privilege and white power. Issues relating to "identity" and the "culture war," in that context, are entirely legitimate ways of making political decisions even though many (largely white) members of the pundit class, including liberals, view that as irrational. 

Political scientists and other experts have repeatedly shown that racism and other forms of anti-Black and anti-brown racial animus are central to the political decision-making of white Republicans, conservatives and right-leaning independents across numerous issues — including seemingly race-neutral policies such as tax policy or abortion.

Race and racial attitudes (both on the conscious and subconscious level) are not a peripheral sideshow or an "inconvenience" when it comes to white conservative and right-leaning voters. Habitually, many white members of the commentariat and pundit class are making such errors in their assumptions, analyses, and conclusions.

In the short term, when it comes to campaigns and elections it is certainly possible that Democrats' recent successes and the backlash against the Dobbs decision and the widening Trump scandals may win over some voters on the margins or demobilize some "suburban" moderates and conservatives. But it's very much in doubt that such a dynamic will demoralize Republican base voters or the most die-hard Trumpists.

The Democrats must confront a frightening reality: Many tens of millions of white voters can never be won over by reason or their purported "material interests," and will consistently support policies that cause themselves material and other harm — as long as Black and brown people are made to suffer worse

In his book, "Dying of Whiteness," public health expert and physician Jonathan Metzl wrote about such voters and their communities in red state America. He explained his findings to Hari Sreenivasan in a 2019 interview for PBS, discussing focus groups he conducted with low-income white and Black men in Tennessee:

I met a man named Trevor who was quite medically ill. He had a series of chronic medical conditions and came to the focus-group with an oxygen mask. He was having a hard time breathing, he was having problems with his liver. He was somebody who very badly needed health and support. He was also living in a low-income housing facility that was partially funded by the government. And when I asked him, "Gosh, what's your feeling about the potential of health care reform?" He said, "Look, I know I'm dying. I know that I have a very unhealthy lifestyle. I know that I could benefit from treatment, but I want to tell you that I'm not going to support the Affordable Care Act because it means that my tax dollars are going to go to lazy minorities and immigrants." ...

[H]is idea of this particular ideology was so profound that even on death's doorstep he was unwilling to think about a government program that might benefit everyone. And for me what this spoke to was this bigger ... concern about somebody taking away what's mine. 

Sreenivasan asked Metzl whether there was a particular identity that such white voters were "bonding into," and Metzl responded: 

The issues themselves become racial identities. The minute we're talking about Obamacare or guns or tax cuts ... they become racial identities. And so it's absolutely the case that people's racial identity, in other words this is what means to be a Republican, this is what it means to be right, depended on them taking up a position in this case in Tennessee that was against the Affordable Care Act. ... This book is an object lesson that I think that liberals were very slow to respond to, which was the depth of commitment that many working-class white Americans had to particular positions even if those positions were bad for them. 

Americans who believe in real democracy should celebrate Biden's recent successes and the Democrats' electoral momentum. But that celebration must be brief and cannot be confused with ultimate victory, or with the hard and long battle that still lies ahead. The premature high of this moment is likely to mean that the inevitable lows following the next crash will be even more severe and painful. Republicans are not done fighting, and will never concede defeat.

By Chauncey DeVega

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

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