In a rational world, the thought would be absurd. Trump not only lost re-election, he continues to remind us why the possibility of returning him to office should be a non-starter. But coupled with Biden’s floundering performance, Trump’s continued hold on the Republican Party makes it an eerily real possibility.
Biden, the would-be anti Trump, has been guilty of aping some of Trump’s most divisive behavior. Still, Trump remains a uniquely dangerous political figure. He did, after all, attempt to overturn the 2020 elections and incited the Capitol riot. We are reminded of these facts on the regular.
Take, for example, new revelations that the Trump campaign was actively involved in orchestrating efforts to present forged state election certificates, falsely claiming that pro-Trump electors were the legitimate electors. (And in case you think the slow drip of bad news will soon cease, the Supreme Court’s decision to allow Trump documents pertaining to Jan. 6 only foreshadows more disqualifying revelations.)
So while he might be as vulnerable as he’s ever been in his political life (and that includes two impeachment trials), don’t sleep on Trump. He has a legitimate shot, thanks in part to both parties unintentionally conspiring to keep him in the game.
It didn’t have to be this way. Had Biden actually followed through and governed like he campaigned—rather than adopting the policy mantle of his losing Democratic opponents—the scenario might have been entirely different.
Instead of bowing to the progressive base, he could have taken advantage of at least one “Sister Souljah” moment. Teachers’ unions who refused to report to work, progressives who waylaid the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and soft-on-crime district attorneys were all worthy targets for Biden to demonstrate toughness and put him on the side of the coalition of moderates and conservatives who actually elected him.
Whether it’s fear of violent crime or inflation, frustration over the inability to move on from the COVID-19 pandemic, or a concern about Russia and China engaging in expansionist foreign policy, Americans are hungry for someone to end the chaos and restore a sense of optimism and normalcy. This was Biden’s mandate. So far, he has failed to deliver on it.
“When people are feeling insecure,” Bill Clinton advised his party in 2002 after losing badly in the midterms—something that rarely happens to the party not occupying the White House—“They’d rather have someone who is strong and wrong rather than somebody who is weak and right.”
If this maxim is true, that’s good news for Trump, who at least projects strength, even though he is decidedly wrong on all sorts of things.
A comment made during a recent New York Times Opinion focus group of 14 independent voters only reinforces this notion. “I think Biden is trying his very best,” said a participant named Jim. “In these times, it’s just really hard to lead, and you know, he’s a nice guy, and sometimes you don’t need a nice guy being president. You just need someone tough.”
That’s just one man’s opinion, but the perception of Biden as wishy-washy might be causing a kind of buyer’s remorse among some voters. For instance, swing voters might view alarming issues like the rise of violent crime and inflation (both hot topics in the Times’ focus group) as a direct outgrowth of Biden’s performance and demeanor. They might conclude that, yes, Trump might have been a sonofabitch—but he was a staunch, results-driven sonofabitch.
During populist eras (like the one we are currently in), voters prize toughness over other attributes, like being even-keeled and diplomatic. Just as 2016 Republican primary voters concluded that the only way to overcome the left and the media was to fight fire with fire, a larger swath of voters might likewise conclude that Biden simply isn’t strong (or alert) enough to combat the bad guys.
Regardless of whether Trump receives the nomination, Biden’s bad first year was a missed opportunity to vanquish the specter of MAGA once and for all.
Trump might be out of office, but by no means has Trumpism been repudiated. Not by a long shot. At this point, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a man who effortlessly channels the “tough” image and reportedly wants to form a special police force designated to investigate election crime, looks to be the GOP’s Plan B.
It’s ridiculously early to project an election nearly three years from now, but the smart money’s on a Trump-Biden rematch.
The truth is that America deserves better than what either of these two old men has to offer. Trump and Biden are obviously not the same, but each in their own way is a doddering, defensive, and dangerous political retread. And the notion that they’re the best our country can do for a chief executive is both ridiculous and troubling.
Biden still has plenty of time to change course, project strength, and earn the country’s confidence. But for now, all he’s doing is leaving the door open for a strongman, whether it’s Trump or one of his disciples.