Donald Trump woke up a numb country — and Joe Biden faces a higher bar now

Biden's desire to be the anti-Trump in everything is potentially harming the nation the most

By Brian Karem


Published May 4, 2023 9:00AM (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.

There is an argument to be made that this country never got over the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

The optimism and idealism seen in our culture in the early '60s died when Kennedy did. Nothing illustrates that more than in Kennedy's national challenge to be the first country to reach the moon. We did this in his name with pride, and 60 years after his death millions of people are convinced it was staged and shot on a sound stage in Hollywood. Mind you, with a strong enough telescope you can see the landers we left on the moon, but that is lost on a culture today whose national hubris of Kennedy's Camelot has disintegrated into a turgid stench of misogyny, racism, sexism and fear.

Things are looking a little better since Donald Trump got drummed out of town ahead of the prosecutors who've already indicted him and those who appear poised to do so in the near future.

Joe Biden, while not returning the country to Camelot, has at least taken us out of the gutter where jaded morons like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Kevin McCarthy and Lauren Boebert pimp themselves out to the NRA and anybody else who can feather their foul nests with wads of sweaty cash.

There is no greater example of the lunacy of the Trump administration versus the sanity of Biden than in how the two have dealt with the ongoing problem of illegal immigration on our Southern border. Trump called out the troops and stationed them on the border to "harden and secure" points of entry. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 removed the military from regular civil law enforcement. In order for the troops to be used in that fashion presidents have to ask for a congressional waiver.

I sincerely want to thank Donald Trump for his contribution as president.

So when Trump made his move, I and other reporters, including then-Roll Call White House Correspondent John Bennett, asked Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley if the president would ask for the waiver. "Is that a rule or something?" he responded. When we informed him it was a law, he told us Trump was the chief executive, and we had to explain that's not how it works. We talked a few more minutes and Gidley said he'd get back to us "about that Hakuna Matata thing." Bennett and I stared at each other before Bennett asked, "Did he just quote 'The Lion King'?" Yes. Yes, indeed he did.

Contrast that with the Biden plan. This week Biden announced 1,500 troops would be stationed along the border in a support role — not directly involved in law enforcement. When I asked both Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and National Security spokesman John Kirby about the Posse Comitatus Act, both of them not only knew what the act was, but why it wasn't necessary to request the waiver because the military wasn't directly involved in enforcing the law.

Trump had no idea how the government worked. The Biden crew does. That's the difference.

Nonetheless, I sincerely want to thank Donald Trump for his contribution as president. You see, like many of us, I had grown numb after Kennedy's assassination. Or I guess in my case I grew up numb. The corruption of Nixon, Reagan, two Bushes — well, one Bush and, as Molly Ivins said, one "Shrub" — Bill Clinton and even Barack Obama had left me numb. Obama used the espionage act to go after whistle-blowers; Clinton told me fellatio wasn't sex. Reagan, Nixon, a Bush and a Shrub drilled into me the inadequacies and inequities of supply-side economics while also pounding me over the head with misogyny, racism, greed, fear, idolatry and fascism.

Far from Camelot, I grew up thinking that not only were politicians irretrievably stupid and corrupt, but that they were a standing subversion to the ideals of our Constitution. Still, I just didn't think I could get angry with our government anymore. I thought it had worn me out.

But along came Trump and millions of people who thought they couldn't affect change and had no energy for the struggle woke up. There's the real "woke" army. Donald Trump made that all possible.

So thank you, dear Donald. You gave us hope and woke us up. I'm no longer numb to the ravages of misogyny, racism, greed, idolatry and fascism.

At the same time I thank Trump, I want to express my disappointment in Joe Biden for not providing a better example.

I remember the '70s when there was hope – we naively clung to it during the Carter years, only to have it ripped asunder by supply side economics, Ronald Reagan and his friends the evangelicals.

And that is why I wish to express my gratitude to Trump. He is so fecklessly foolish, he has had the exact opposite effect on the country that he's tried to make. Sure, millions follow him. But the vast majority of the people in this country sees him for exactly what he is — a political cancer that must be excised.

At the same time I thank Trump, I want to express my disappointment in Joe Biden for not providing a better example.

Saturday night before the White House Correspondent's annual dinner Joe Biden gave us his "tight five" standup routine that brought laughs as he skewered himself, Rupert Murdoch and Don Lemon, and gave us a great line about a certain member of Congress; "If you find yourself disoriented or confused, it's either you're drunk or Marjorie Taylor Greene."

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But Biden started out with a serious note and took time to recognize how tenuous and important the First Amendment is to our nation.  "The free press is a pillar — maybe the pillar — of a free society, not the enemy."

Great words. But between the idea and the reality falls the shadow, the writer once said. Biden's defense of the First Amendment rings hollow in my ears.

He said on the campaign trail he'd punish the killer of Jamal Khashoggi and he has not. His administration continues to press charges against Julian Assange brought during the Trump era and that prosecution is routinely condemned by most journalists, many world leaders and anyone with a conscience.

Biden does little himself to support the press. He avoids us with the determination of a Jesuit monk.

On Wednesday, Reporters Without Borders released its latest international press rankings. The United States (45th) has fallen three places. "The Index questionnaire's US respondents were negative about the environment for journalists (especially the legal framework at the local level, and widespread violence) despite the Biden administration's goodwill. The murders of two journalists (the Las Vegas Review Journal's Jeff German in September 2022, and Spectrum News 13's Dylan Lyons in February  2023) had a negative impact on the country's ranking," the report noted.

Meanwhile, Biden does little himself to support the press. He avoids us with the determination of a Jesuit monk. He seeks little public interaction that isn't both controlled and relatively brief. His disdain for public interaction was given away in a photograph last week of him from a rare press conference in the Rose Garden. He was seen clutching a handout with a picture of the reporter he was to call on — along with a copy of the question the reporter was to ask. He got it ahead of time. That's a political and journalistic sin.

Presidential press conferences are like pop quizzes for presidents. They shouldn't cheat.

For a president who says his age is of no concern and for us to judge him accordingly, this is not evidence in his favor.

Do not mistake this as an endorsement for Donald Trump. The best I can say about him is that I'm thankful he woke people up to his larceny and his grave threat against the ideals of our nation. He called us the enemy of the people when we are the people. In 2020 those people spoke. Donald Trump is a failure.

But Biden's manipulation of the press is as reprehensible as it has been successful.

Reporters have fallen into a trap with Biden. They wish to curry favor and get called upon by an administration that uses access like bait on a hook, and there's very little to go around. Starving fish have been known to jump at empty hooks — and the press corps is nearly at that point.

Yet it is this desire by Biden to be the anti-Trump in everything that is potentially harming the nation the most.

It's masterful manipulation — far better than Trump could provide with his limited cognitive functions, both by himself and his staff. Biden's staff is far better, and ultimately more effective.

If Biden is serious about the American public judging him on his ability to serve another term, then he must be more available to us. Part of the job requires a public inspection on a regular basis.

I have no doubt that Biden can fulfill the minimum requirements with little problem.

If he can't handle the press, even if he doesn't necessarily respect the press, then how can we believe he could handle Congressional leaders, world leaders, other aspects of his job?

Of course, part of his revulsion to public inspection is because of the example of his predecessor — or, as Trump is apparently referred to by Biden, the one who shall not be named. Trump's stain is wide, but his actions should give us all hope. Yet it is this desire by Biden to be the anti-Trump in everything that is potentially harming the nation the most.

Biden seems far more cogent in the time I've seen him than Trump ever seemed even for the briefest of moments at the White House. I haven't heard Biden yell at his chief of staff, slam doors, screech like a banshee, threaten reporters, insult others, bay at the moon, throw food, soil the carpets or act anywhere near as abusive and destructive as Donald Trump. If Trump had scooted his bare bottom across the carpet like a dog with worms while growling and spitting, I would not have been surprised.

Biden, on the other hand, has been a complete professional gentleman.

Yet the results speak for themselves. Trump likes to beat you over the head with a mallet, but Biden and his staff are armed with stilettos and facts, and come at you smiling while pretending to be your friend — you know, kind of like Henry Hill described it in "Goodfellas."

The problem boils down to this: Donald Trump woke up the country to what Biden describes as our "inflection point." Biden remains hopeful. Those alive who remember better times long for a new Camelot. Biden has taken large strides, but his hollow defense of the first amendment is no defense at all and leaves him open for withering criticism from the right and growing concern from the middle and left.

In the end, the fear is that Biden, while marginally better than Trump, will be no better at returning us to a sense of national idealism than Trump, and could produce worse results if people's hopes are once again crushed.

The wind-up to the 2024 election has thus begun.

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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