What Biden and Trump Have In Common

Before reinventing himself as an Obama ally, the former VP built his career as an icon of white working-class grievance.

Joe Biden is one of those Democrats who makes you wonder if there really is a liberal party in America, or if one is even possible. The substance of Biden’s politics—the legislation he’s authored or voted on, the actions he’s taken when political convictions mattered—has, as the New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie notes, a consistent pattern: “For decades Biden gave liberal cover to white backlash [against the Civil Rights movement]. He wasn’t an incidental opponent of busing; he was a leader who helped derail integration. He didn’t just vote for punitive legislation on crime and drugs; he wrote it.”

Biden built his career as the political avatar of the white “Middle America” everyman—protective of his blue-collar job, suspicious of cities, and even more suspicious of societal change. Biden’s candidacy and potential election to the presidency, Bouie writes, might “affirm the assumptions” of Trump’s politics, in particular that white resentment and racial chauvinism make up the “center of American politics.” Biden will likely present himself “as the real embodiment of working-class white identity.” By taking up that role, however, he would not be repudiating Trump’s politics—he’d be affirming it.

Obviously, Biden did not invent his constituency, nor did he invent the racialized politics that earned him consistent reelection. Stoking—or at least attending to—parochial whites’ fears and resentments is the dirty energy fueling American politics. Lyndon Johnson understood what’s “at the bottom of it” and told Bill Moyers in a Tennessee hotel barroom in 1960: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

Johnson’s knowledge of how white anxiety works, and of how easily it can be exploited, haunted him four years later. The night he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law, he told Moyers, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come.”

Johnson would be proven wrong. Richard Nixon delivered the South and most of what we now term the Rust Belt to the GOP. But only after Alabama Governor George Wallace—of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” infamy—demonstrated that white anxiety was not bound by geography, or even by ostensible ideological allegiances.

Marshall Frady wrote in his imperishable profile of Wallace that the Alabamian “sensed a subterranean political consciousness congenial to him.” He saw himself, not incorrectly, “as the very incarnation of the ‘folks,’ the embodiment of the will and sensibilities and discontents of the people in the roadside diners and all-night chili cafes … the great silent American Folk,” who had a “silent massive suspicion of a conspiracy which threatens home, job, status, the accustomed order of life.”

Even in Wisconsin, a bastion of the Progressive Movement, Wallace found especially large audiences. He performed particularly well in white working-class areas in Milwaukee, which between 1910 and 1960 had repeatedly elected three different mayors belonging to the Socialist Party of America. (During that fifty-year span, a socialist was mayor for 38 years. The Socialist Party, a key component of the Civil Rights coalition, would never return to power after 1960.) A key source of Wallace’s appeal: his opposition to busing.

Wallace may not have won the presidency, but he won a greater victory. His politics became the node around which all other politics in America had to operate. Nixon and the GOP co-opted Wallace’s strategy to devastating effect. Between 1968 and 1992, Democrats held the presidency for only four years. The party retained whatever power it had, and ultimately regained power through the election of Bill Clinton, who essentially submitted to the strategy’s fundamental premise: that power can only be won by attending to the anxieties of whites.

Few Democrats have understood this better than Joe Biden. Indeed, it was his unimpeachable record of “looking out for” parochial whites that made him the perfect running mate for Barack Obama. Biden acted as a shield of reassurance that the first black president wouldn’t do anything to upset the racial order.

Trumpism” is an unfortunate cliché created by pundits that gives Trump too much credit. He did not invent anything, much less anything like a new ideology deserving an eponymous “-ism.” He has only aggressively resurfaced America’s subterranean politics, which were thinly buried under euphemisms by politicians in both parties. Pundits mostly exist to reassure Americans that the American political system works. Trumpism is a convenient moniker that does the job of separating Trump from “true” American politics; it implies that if you defeat the man, everything will go back to “normal.”

Naturally, then, the D.C. pundit windsock is billowing in one direction. It’s annoying that before he even declared his candidacy, and well before any primary voter submitted a ballot, Biden was anointed the “front-runner.” (Why even have a primary at all?) I’m not surprised that conservative columnists fervently wish for him to be the Democratic nominee. I wish I could say I’m surprised that some liberal columnists appear to be blissfully unbothered by this. What brings them together is a desperation to go back to 2015, to a time when they could breezily reassure both themselves and readers that things worked as they should. Biden is the affable face of power from that time. Biden, whose political brand rests on reassurance, is a pundit’s candidate. America is “coming back like we used to be,” he said recently.

The primary goal, the pundit herd argues, is to deny Trump a second term. The strongest argument in favor of Biden is potentially a winning one: His natural constituency is the same one that handed Trump the presidency. Biden spent the first days of his campaign in the Rust Belt, courting unions and white working-class voters. Trump, judging from his frenzied tweets, appears to believe he’s vulnerable.

Additionally, Biden is reportedly shoring up his support from black politicians and voters. It would hardly be surprising if Biden ultimately wins most black primary voters, even with full knowledge of his record and even if he doubles down on appealing to white identity. Black voters, by necessity, are adept at voting for white men who practice white identity politics while signaling that they’ll protect black interests. (See the elections of Bill Clinton.) Biden’s store of trust and goodwill among the white working-class helped create the credibility Barack Obama needed. A President Biden could, if he chooses, use that capital to advance black interests. Only Nixon could go to China. Only Trump and the GOP could pass criminal-justice reform. Only Biden could, perhaps, restore the Voting Rights Act.

This analysis may be the right one, but it’s also the saddest one. Trump’s politics are organized around the resentments of a provincial class of white voters. A growing mass of progressives wants to remove this constituency from the center of politics. No more negotiating around their interests and neuroses, no more having to rely on them to apologetically advance justice for others. Perhaps that day will come, but Trump is ultimately the bearer of the hard fact that the country is still in their hands. Biden as the Democratic nominee, and the president, is, in effect, a capitulation, a negotiation with Trump’s constituency and its interests. Pundits may be right that this is the surest way to defeat Trump. But what that says about America should bring no joy to anyone interested in a different future for the country.

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Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.