Is the world unraveling? It can feel that way — but Joe Biden still believes

Biden pays a nostalgic visit to Ireland while Trump keeps melting down. This just might lead to a good outcome

By Brian Karem


Published April 13, 2023 9:00AM (EDT)

President Joe Biden waves to members of the public who have gathered for his arrival on April 12, 2023 in Dundalk, Ireland. ( Leon Neal/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden waves to members of the public who have gathered for his arrival on April 12, 2023 in Dundalk, Ireland. ( Leon Neal/Getty Images)

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

You know the world has gone sideways when you wake up in the morning, look at the news feed on your phone and see a video of the 87-year-old Dalai Lama asking a prepubescent boy to suck his tongue.

Then, by 8:30 a.m. I had three emails from "friends" of a certain former president who told me that "He" had risen, "He" hates abortion and "He" is pro-guns. I think they were talking about Jesus and not Donald Trump — but who knows.

And before I could digest that lunacy with the proper humor and aplomb, I got notification that a gunman had walked into a bank in my hometown of Louisville (pronounced LOO-a-vull, for the uninitiated, not LOO-ey-vill) and initiated the 146th mass shooting this year, killing five people and injuring nine others before police officers "neutralized" the threat.

I immediately called friends and family to see if they were all right, and found out as I walked down Pennsylvania Avenue in the fresh morning air that I knew at least one of the victims. I headed toward the White House and was distracted by the sweet, pungent aroma of someone smoking cannabis, as well as the thick scent of sunscreen from a mother and three children in front of me, apparently headed toward the queue on the South Lawn for the annual Easter egg roll.

The three kids, ranging in age from four to nine years old, started arguing about their favorite chocolate and whether or not they could get Peeps at the White House. The oldest and  youngest daughter argued with the middle son, observing that Peeps aren't chocolate. One of them began to scream. I looked at the mother and smiled: I've been there, and it feels like your world is unraveling.

As I crossed the street, I saw three supposed Christians standing in front of a wire stand of handouts promoting the Bible. A man walking by asked one of them if Jesus "would support the right to bear arms," and the preacher responded, "Of course." I guess "turn the other cheek" only means "turn the other cheek while pulling the trigger of your AR-15."

That's when I felt like my life was unraveling.

I'm not the only one to think that. The world seems angrier and more on edge. The two key issues dominating the White House press briefing on Monday were guns and a potential world war — so that sense of unraveling definitely fits in at a White House where the president continues to stress that we are at an "inflection point" in history.

Guns, of course, were at the forefront of the briefing because of the shooting in Louisville, coming just after the shooting in Nashville less than two weeks earlier. The chances of war were discussed for two reasons: recent Chinese war games aimed at Taiwan, and a national security breach that led to a bunch of U.S. intelligence documents about the Ukraine war being shared on social media.

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National Security Council spokesman John Kirby fielded questions on the latter issues and press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre took questions on the former. Kirby said the Chinese war games — a direct response to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen's meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy last week — were a "reaction that didn't need to be made." That's a nice way of calling it an overreaction, so my question was whether the U.S. government is concerned about any other, more substantive reactions that don't need to be made. Kirby offered little reassurance, but said that's why the administration wanted Secretary of State Tony Blinken to go back to China.

Let us be crystal clear here. We are the closest to a nuclear war we've been since the end of the Cold War, and perhaps since the Cuban missile crisis. And the best the current administration could offer this week was to say, "Well, we certainly don't seek any conflict."

As for the shocking breach of security that led to all those classified documents on social media, Kirby couldn't say whether or not it had compromised U.S. efforts to help Ukraine, but vowed that the leak wouldn't affect the administration's support.  

None of that is reassuring. Daniel Ellsberg, recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, is the 91-year-old political activist who gave us the Pentagon Papers. He told the New York Times this week, "I'm leaving a world in terrible shape and terrible in all ways that I've tried to help make better during my years. President Biden is right when he says that this is the most dangerous time, with respect to nuclear war, since the Cuban missile crisis. That's not the world I hoped to see in 2023. And that's where it is."

Domestically, it appears we are unraveling as well. During Monday's briefing, Jean-Pierre was equally unable to offer support for those who are scared about getting shot in any public venue for no apparent reason. She did explain, when I asked, that Biden wants to get something done. "But, look, we've taken action. This is a president who has taken historic actions on this issue. He's not sat back. He's not put his feet on the table and let the issue pass him by."

I asked why Biden, the guy who got a historic bipartisan deal done on infrastructure, cannot even get Republicans and Democrats together to discuss the gun issue. Could he at least get them to the White House to talk? His latest statement demanded safe storage, background checks and liability for gun manufacturers. Republicans, of course, immediately bashed it. 

As I asked Jean-Pierre that question in the briefing room I got a news update on my phone: Two hours after the mass shooting in Louisville, another one occurred, a mile and a half from the first, at a Louisville technical college. It claimed the life of one man, while a woman was injured. The two shootings were called "unrelated." But I see a relationship — both involved guns.

Let's get real. I've never known a mass shooting that was carried out by a sane person. So people with no criminal past need background checks and cooling-off periods. It's the guy who bought an AR-15 a week ago and has never owned a firearm before that I'm worried about, not so much the guy next door who has romantic fantasies about his Glock.

Gun enthusiasts don't get the point. Perhaps they don't want to. 

I still believe Donald Trump won't be on the ballot come November 2024 — and if he's out of the picture, Joe Biden may be done as well. That's not necessarily a bad thing.

That is not too different from the international problem of using nuclear weapons. I am not as worried about Russia, China or the U.S. launching its ICBMs than about the lunatic in North Korea or a stray actor in a war zone, who could then trigger a larger conflagration that might lead to the annihilation of life on our planet. The crazed lunatic in North Korea and the lunatic in a war zone have more in common with every crazed mass shooter in the U.S. than we will admit. 

That brings me to the 2024 presidential election — should our species survive that long.

I still believe Trump will not be on the ballot come November 2024. Anthony Scaramucci recently said that he thinks Trump will fake an illness to back out of the race. That seems plausible to me as well, since Trump laid the foundation for such a move months ago. He said he was running, but also said that a doctor could change his mind.

The question I have is whether or not Joe Biden will run for a second term. He's leaned into it, but his actions make me wonder — and recent moves by others in the Democratic Party have me convinced that if Trump is taken out of the picture, then Biden may be done. That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. This country needs younger leadership in both parties — people who don't have first-hand memories of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.

I wonder about Biden's commitment for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, there's his lack of communication with the press. For a guy who's supposedly seeking a second term, he cares less than a yawn about taking questions from the public. He sees the press exactly as much as he wants to — which is not often.

He doesn't seem to care about our concerns at all. He seems set on a path of doing what he believes is right, come hell or high water. His communications about his actions are poor and he seems immune to criticism, even when his staff has to walk back some of the things he says.

Then there's former White House press secretary Jen Psaki and her recent MSNBC interview with California Gov. Gavin Newsom. It perfectly positioned Newsom to run for the White House. Whether that was on purpose or by accident is the only question. The result is indisputable — it raised Newsom's national profile.

Finally, there's this week's trip to Ireland — a nostalgic tour to Biden's ancestral home. Tied to the 25th anniversary of the peace deal that ended "the Troubles" in Northern Ireland, this is a journey I've been told Biden wanted to make during his first year in office. It sure looks like something you do just before you hang up your spurs for good: a second-term nostalgia trip, with some obligatory politics wedged in between castle and seaside visits.

The deciding factor for Biden may be how many more indictments get hung around Trump's neck during the next nine months. Each new charge will help bell that cat, and will make another run for the presidency exponentially more difficult for Trump.

As an aside, one thing is becoming abundantly clear: The prosecution of Donald Trump will ultimately result in the prosecution of other elected officials for their many nefarious and criminal activities — perhaps even if the Trump prosecution fails, which it won't.

Everyone from Mike Pence and Bill Barr down to the lowest elected school board member should and will be held accountable. That's a good thing.

Biden's visit to Ireland this week sure looks like something you do just before you hang up your spurs for good: a second-term nostalgia trip, built around castles and seasides.

That could also be a factor in Biden's proposed re-election campaign. He's watching the Republican Party unravel and at some point he may simply decide to wash his hands and walk away. He'd probably be happy to visit those green hills of Ireland again.

Then again, perhaps he wants that one last election of his lifetime. Perhaps he needs it.

Perhaps he thinks the world needs him — for we are indeed living in dangerous times.

At the end of the day I know this much: Cool heads and logic must hold sway in dealing with Ukraine and China, if we hope to solve those problems. So far, Biden is the only person with a solid grasp of those things, and that could make him indispensable for the immediate future.

Back at home, Biden is also closer to reality on the gun issue than most other politicians.

I know that the gun lobbyists and enthusiasts, while admitting there "might be" a problem with gun violence, are loath to do anything and will resist any effort to solve the problem. Here's a simple question for them: Why not try it another way? Give it a shot. Your way hasn't worked. Never has and never will. Arming teachers? Arming everyone? Have you lost your minds? I've been to those places where everybody's got guns — they're called war zones. 

I know that Donald Trump is a causative agent in all  this chaos and that as the walls collapse on him, he'll lash out and distort reality even more.

Michael Cohen said something on Tuesday night that rings true: "People say it's Adderall. But it is not. He lives to hate. Donald Trump is motivated by hate and revenge. He gets his energy from it." Trump proved that Wednesday by filing a $500 million dollar suit against Cohen. (It will go nowhere, of course.) It's simply meant to intimidate Cohen, or anyone else who would testify against him.

Trump's negative energy continues to add to our fears that everything from gun control to nuclear policy is unraveling. It shows up in just about every aspect of life. He's Ahab attacking the whale or Khan stabbing at Captain Kirk "for hate's sake."

But Joe Biden is actually right to tell us that he has hope. Why? Because a whole lot of this  chaos is just Donald Trump unraveling, not us. And with a little luck, some hope and a healthy bit of logic, we'll all survive the Trump tornado of turpitude and terror.

Hey, I saw the woman and her three kids after they left the White House. They survived — with chocolate and smiles. We can too.

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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China Commentary Donald Trump Gun Violence Ireland Joe Biden Louisville Mass Shooting Ukraine