[Publisher's Note] Shadow of a Doubt, by John R. MacArthur | Harper's Magazine

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[Publisher’s Note]

Shadow of a Doubt

Will the candidate with the best chance to beat Trump be on the ballot at the polls in November? Good heavens! It seems that there are some doubts.
A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on May 4, 2020. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

The United States is now teetering on the brink of collapse such as we have never seen before: American society is shut down, there’s mass unemployment, an extraordinary number of people have died, the hospitals are overwhelmed—and our commander in chief is a crackpot who, like the Venezuelan dictator, Nicolás Maduro, plays the caudillo almost every night on television. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party seems sedentary, even unperturbed by it all. Joe Biden—the candidate of the bigwigs, a thoroughgoing patronage hound, an apparatchik who has exhibited no discernible principles over the course of his long career—will be Trump’s opponent in November, called upon to be the savior of the country at a moment of exceptional crisis.

For the time being, a supposed harmony reigns in the different factions that make up Trump’s opposition: Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren both have endorsed the candidacy of the former vice-president, and many militant leftists seem to be cooperating as well. Although Bernie is in disagreement with Joe on just about every thorny subject, the senator from Vermont has declared his fidelity to the project of overthrowing “the most dangerous president in modern American history.” Supporters of progressive reform are supposedly ready to follow their hero’s example; even the feisty Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is in negotiations with the Biden camp with the goal of presenting a united front against the monster currently profaning the White House.

So everything’s fine? Has the centrist bet made by the functionaries of the Democratic Party and their spokespeople at the New York Times and the Washington Post paid off? Will the candidate with the best chance to beat Trump be on the ballot at the polls in November? Good heavens! It seems that there are some doubts. It turns out that Biden, the conqueror of his party’s reformist wing, the enemy of left-wing populism, is perhaps not as pragmatic and clear-cut an alternative to Bernie Sanders as might be wished.

Where does this terrible news come from? Ironically enough, it was published by the New York Times, in two reports that must have delighted the sitting president in spite of his constant anger at the anti-Trump “newspaper of record.” On April 14, the Times announced that polls in key Midwestern states—the iconic Rust Belt, where Trump won his victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016—show that certain Midwesterners aren’t exactly fervent in their preference for Biden. In Wisconsin, he’s leading Trump by only a single percentage point, as compared with his six-point lead in the country as a whole. An essentially similar situation exists in Pennsylvania, where Biden’s ahead by only two points. Simultaneously, the Times reports, “Mr. Trump seems to have made gains among voters 45 to 65, or perhaps even younger, canceling out his losses among older voters over all.”

According to the Times, there is a distinct lack of enthusiasm for a candidate who we’re counting on to save us from such a “dangerous” president. The Times addressed this dilemma in a story published on April 18 in which several Sanders supporters disappointed by his withdrawal from the race were interviewed. The article quotes Mary Shippee, a thirty-one-year-old resident of Milwaukee: “What it feels like is the Democratic Party relies on guilting progressives into voting for them, and they don’t want to have any meaningful changes. For the third election in a row, to have a candidate you’re not excited about makes me a little more interested in voting third party.” Or, for many others, perhaps in not voting at all.

The Times responded to this indifference toward Biden with bizarre condescension. In an editorial, the newspaper exhorted young people to vote for Biden and against Trump, invoking a pro-Biden Instagram live video by the superstar rapper Cardi B.: “This shit is very fucking serious and y’all not taking it motherfucking serious. Right now, the state that America is in, we got no time to fucking play around.”

Since I’m not completely convinced by the Times, I began to think about the difficulties Biden must overcome if he’s to replace Sanders in the hearts of young people. Sanders advocated a system of free, universal health care as well as the elimination of tuition fees in public universities, two positions Biden opposes. So for a young adult crushed by college debt and with no access to private health insurance, Biden’s caution in criticizing the insurance industry is already an obstacle to choosing him. What’s more, and worse, is that young adults are currently facing a lack of employment that’s likely to last for years and could very well lead to personal bankruptcy. When Biden, a dear friend of the credit card companies, was a senator from Delaware, he championed a law that makes it more difficult for individuals to declare bankruptcy in order to obtain legal protection against creditors.

If a low percentage of young voters show up at the polls in November, then it will probably be up to the older, working-class white folks of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania to decide whether Trump will receive a second term. And among those people, the president has a clear advantage over Biden, who voted for NAFTA in 1993 and for the trade agreement with China in 2000. Like Sanders, Trump has fiercely criticized the “free trade” agreements promulgated by President Clinton and the Democrats, agreements justly seen as catastrophic for those men and women who once worked in the factories that have now relocated to Mexico and China. The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which will replace NAFTA on July 1 of this year, isn’t the solution to industrial woes that Trump claims it is (Sanders voted against it), but it is, all the same, an improvement Trump will be able to boast about.

Is a Biden victory in November unlikely? Even though Trump is perfectly capable of self-destruction—witness his recent and widely publicized suggestions concerning the possibility of injecting disinfectants to combat COVID-19—he clearly wants to win, whereas the Democrats are revealing themselves to be patently undecided. It’s been said we’re in a FDR moment— that a national emergency calls for a candidate with the stature and daring of Franklin Roosevelt, someone who can take on a crisis as huge as the Great Depression.  The most plausible person for this role was Bernie Sanders, but not even someone as important as Cardi B. can make that happen. But I do hope she gets fucking serious and fucking goes to Wisconsin on November 3 and drives some reluctant young people to the fucking polls.

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