Biden’s Self Trap And Trump’s New Opening – OpEd


The impending midterm elections pose a new turning point of dilemma both for President Joe Biden and the national direction of economic, security and social construct viabilities. In Biden’s speech in September on the threat of the MAGA extremist movement and in vilifying former President Donald Trump, while intending to shore up his Democratic base and salvage his second term prospects, it created a two-pronged backfiring implication.

First, it will paint him in the frame of going to battle from a position of weakness in harping on the Republicans’ perceived intent to alter the soul of the nation, providing a conflicting outcome to his targeted strategy of an all-out assault and counterattack on MAGA and Trumpism. Secondly, the Democratic base, already treating Biden as a liability for the midterm chances, will have to contend with conventional reliance on politics of emotions and creation of threat urgency by an internal source, instead of having new openings for crisis solutions and management for the present economic and security vulnerabilities facing the majority of ordinary Americans. By setting the target on the MAGA Republicans, the hope of trying to segregate the mainstream Republicans from the painted extremist tendencies of the MAGA wing, is a futile effort from the start. 

More than 70% of self-identified Republicans believe that Trump remains the legitimate winner of the 2020 Presidential election. Biden tried to alter the leanings and to sever the entrenched ties and grip of MAGA Republicans to the conventional real Republicans who he tried to lure, but the outcome is blurry at best. MAGA Republicans are not in the minority as he tried to project it, and the only limited openings he can derive going to the midterms will be the resentments against the policies and pursuits of the Republicans on social rights and spectrum of affiliated interests including abortion, social security and gender affiliation rights. Critical bread and butter issues especially on inflation, the economy, crime, opioid crisis, the border crisis, the social implications of unchecked illegal immigration and many more, continue to push the Democrats further even more in swing states. The groundswell of disdain and anger towards the failed policies and the worsening comparative economic conditions cannot be reversed with mere reliance and harping on the moral high road and in creating the picture of urgency of threats from MAGA extremism. It will only create further repulsions and more grounds for the independents and the fence sitters to see through the lopsided mechanisms in play. 

Different timeline of political tooling has demanded a new narrative derivation, where the MAGA movement cannot be seen and framed from a fixed one-sided blame and mold without understanding the root cause and factor in enabling this greatest political movement in America’s history. Upping the ante and the stakes involved in the midterm elections on the value-based order and in saving the soul of the nation which hinge on secondary causes of social rights and in protecting the rights to vote or fate of democracy, will not resonate with most people who are reeling from high crime and gas prices and dysfunctional economic returns. This is worsened by the greater advantage and opening for the Republicans to highlight the blatant double standard and hypocrisy on the part of the Democrats in the agenda setting and policies on critical issues involving the President and current leadership position holders, including the entrenched media bias and systemic misplaced priorities on key issues. 

By framing the spectrum as one where the villain and the bigger threat are from a segment of fellow Americans who identify themselves as fierce defenders of America first doctrine, it creates deepening polarization in an already disenchanted climate. Biden realizes that he would never get the same cult-like support and level of grassroot movement and appeal as Trump holds for almost a decade now, not with the same conventional approach and direction that the Democrats are taking, barring a real underlying and transcending eave of resentment or will to change the national direction and narrative like what Obama managed to create.

Early on, Biden wanted to appeal to both the right and the center, but along the process since his early presidency he has not managed to jettison the ingrained grip by the far left and rising tide of neo-liberal demands in correcting and changing the socio-economic model. He tried hard in winning over these segments, to the detriment of his previous promise to work for all Americans. He has experimented with the debt forgiveness plan, expansion of entitlements and benefits, increasing payouts and attempts to pander to the left’s demands for reduced commitment obligations and greater climate efforts But no matter how much he tried to win over the new demographic demands and to expand the boundaries of extended socialistic returns with full speed liberalization of short term appeals for those groups, current realities and changes on the grassroots will render those obsolete. This is worsened by his own self representation of conventional politics of the establishment, with the impact of these measures further reinforcing the belief by the right that it will further plunge the nation into a deeper abyss of insecurity and economic crisis.

To the right and a majority of the ordinary Americans concerned by the higher cause and issue of cost of living, the focus is shifted towards the greater tier and priority of problem statement, led by security assurances and real solutions to the economic crisis. If the Democrats continue to rely on the ‘second tier’ agenda of pursuing the causes other than the central concerns on safety and security, the economy, livelihoods and health, the pursuit of these central causes by the Republicans for a safe and strong nation based on the espoused traditional values of family, country and faith and a constitutionalized approach to progress will be the dominant appeal and pillars of conviction.

By quick labelling the battle ahead as us versus them, along the lines of ideological partisanship and values, Biden is unlikely to get the desired resonance and emotional sentiments and buy in from the people. In hyping up on the stakes of America’s democracy and in shaping the narrative with instigating the victim card at the onslaught of the extremist MAGA far right movements, it misses the pulse and grassroot sentiments of the people. Most ordinary Americans, whether in the red or blue states, whether in the continental or coastal divide, do not feel the same urgency and level of threat criticality that will spur the needed collective action.

By going for the broader approach, Biden missed the core potential and openings for him to galvanize and exploit, which the Republicans wisely capitalized on in framing the battle as one that is saving the country from the colossal policy mistake and ignorance by the left. Growing swathes of people demand for the current administration to take greater audacity and grip on the overarching themes central to the survival of the nation, instead of being dictated by the whims and long-term aspirations of the far left and interest groups. People can resonate for the difficulties and urgency of now, and often will not want to relate to the utopian and far into the future policies on climate or energy reorientation that are championed by the left which will inflict greater pains on the economy and their finances. 

The bigger threat has always been expected by the people to be from external sources, and for Biden to pivot more to internal source of threat, greater push for him to frame the biggest threat urgency to be from state led geopolitical challenges from China and Russia is more intense. Greater push to prioritize more on local security and needs has been gaining traction, amidst misplaced priority and urgency setting. To them, the border crisis and the daily challenges for the common masses have been bypassed for the preoccupation on climate action and the increased spending on the Ukraine war, all while the China threat has not been given enough emphasis as compared to the local focus on the woke agenda. More demand for compelling actions to halt Chinese increased espionage and bold tactics in influencing local opinions and technological grip, as compared to the priorities on critical race theory in class or empowering children’s options for gender selection, among many others. Greater actions on halting the fentanyl crisis and the influx of migrants have been sought not only from the Republican base but across the political divide, and for Democrats to invoke the bigger spotlight on the same nemesis and increasing the hyperbole on the far right lies and January 6, it will weaken the moral conviction card and making them to be more aloof to the real wants and plight of the people. 

From the start, Biden has always stood on the broad theme approach in putting the soul of the nation at stake, but dynamics on the ground are not aligned in that approach where more people are disheartened by the tone of politics and politicians themselves. Biden realizes there is no opening for him or the Democrats to match Trump’s appeal and the depth of his movement but tried hard anyway to strengthen and enlarge his current base through his younger demographic courting.

By continuously targeting Trump and the MAGA movement, it creates further credence and momentum for the established Republicans and MAGA spectrum to redouble efforts to counterstrike, further empowering the validation to their arguments that the deep state is out to get them. In its argument, MAGA has upended the entrenched narrative of the Democrats that they have been trying to save the fate of democracy, pointing out the consistent pursuit of the MAGA movement to ensure a free and fair election considering the chronic vulnerability in the election integrity. Realizing the inevitable partisan divide and lingering discontent on the grounds in creating the MAGA movement and elevating the depth of Trumpism, if Democrats or the far left continue to frame the whole narrative on January 6 and Trump’s lies and deception on electoral fraud, it will further embolden the Republican base, create further inroad of realistic awareness among the independents on the Democrats’ confused strategy and lack of real agenda push. 

If Biden’s intent is to rouse his Democratic base and to court more votes from the independents, it fails miserably based on the comparative factor of the relatively more prosperous era under Trump where prices are low, and energy is in abundance. People felt safer back then, even in the middle of the pandemic. The sympathy factor for Trump and MAGA and the victim card have been further galvanized because of the constant push by the left, further giving credence to the backlash against the deep state’s all-out assault against Trump and MAGA.

In the growing divide between the establishment and politicians against the people and their rights, the void is filled by the narrative and resonance created by Trump in giving a new credible hope and call for action by the growing disenchanted segments of the population.

The fate and direction of politics in America will never be the same, and it cannot be solved through conventional settings of strengthening one’s own base and instigating hate and disdain for the other. It will depend on the depth and extent of the management of real and critical factors affecting the people minus the broader thematic and value push. It will mean the impact of how well the people’s wisdom and judgments are respected and not being belittled with rhetorical arguments and championing of causes in pandering to entrenched belief and purpose. 

Disillusions and disdain for the ineffectiveness and hypocrisy of the state of ideological pursuit and tone of politics are at the highest, with eroding trust and faith in the sincerity of both sides to exert real and resonating changes on the ground. MAGA captured this effectively in its core tenet, not out of a one-off Trump phenomenon but as a culmination of decades old decline in relative progress and outcome of effective democratic transformation and functions. Years of policies and actions in feeding the rise of a bigger pool of powerful establishment elites that fueled the discontentment and disconnect provided greater yearning of the people to escalate the pushback and to regain and protect the vision of the forefathers and the sanctity of the Constitution.

The Democrats’ approach and Biden’s speech on MAGA did little to spark new dynamism in his base and provided a lose-lose situation to all. The outcome of the midterm elections almost seems to be sealed, where the only question that remains is whether the extent of the momentum and greater narrative advantage of MAGA and Trumpism now can be maintained and expanded to fuel Trump’s winning return in 2024, barring any real strategic reforms and reorientations of the Democratic camp.

Collins Chong Yew Keat

Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya, the top university in Malaysia for more than 9 years. His areas of interests include strategic and security studies, American foreign policy and power analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.

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