Since Joe Biden started running for president, it’s been easy to dismiss his frequent calls to “restore the soul of the nation” as mostly cosmetic moral gesturing meant to get him off the hook for a lack of vision or bold policy commitments. And now it’s even easier.
Asked point-blank recently what would happen to Donald Trump’s border wall, given it has hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of construction contracts set for 2021, Biden refused to say he would end its construction, saying merely he was “not going to be spending a lot of money on the wall.” In other words, Biden affirmed that with him in the White House, the United States will continue to pour money and manpower into the controversial project.
What’s remarkable about this is not just that the moronic wall is arguably Trump’s signature policy idea (albeit one he cribbed from the pre-Trump GOP, and that Biden himself once advocated for, in typically rabid style). It’s that the wall is itself a literal physical symbol of the bigotry Biden has spent this entire campaign claiming his simple victory would exorcize from the American psyche, a symbol widely mocked and condemned by liberals as a racist boondoggle.
The paltry promise of Biden’s campaign was that, sure, you might die of preventable illness and continue suffocating from debt, but the racism and ugliness of the last four years under Trump would be erased from your memory. Things would at least feel normal, at least on a purely symbolic level. Biden was articulating the unstated mission statement of the modern Democratic Party: you’ll keep getting knocked to the ground by miserable material conditions, but we’ll let you fall on a pillow of pleasant, progressive words and imagery.
Now, Biden can’t even promise to follow through on this feel-good symbolism.
You won’t be surprised to learn this isn’t the first plank of Trump’s policy agenda Biden has boldly pledged to leave untouched. Asked at the end of March if he would even temporarily lift Trump’s quasi-genocidal sanctions against Iran, Biden took no position, then put out a statement some days later that also took no position. He has likewise said the US embassy “should not have been moved” to Jerusalem by Trump — widely criticized as an inflammatory move that would hinder what’s left of the prospects for a two-state solution — but now that it’s there, he “would not move the embassy back.” He plans to lift the corporate tax rate to 28 percent — seven points lower than it was before Trump’s plutocratic tax bill passed.
But none of these come close to the symbolic weight of Trump’s border wall, one of the major reasons for the repugnance and outrage Trump has drawn from the liberal left since announcing his run in 2015, as well as fodder for the schoolyard taunts of racists the world over. Perhaps Biden will pledge the opposite later in this campaign, as he has already on so many issues — yet keen-eyed readers will note that even the immigration plan on Biden’s website, up since last year, carefully avoids promising to dismantle the wall or even defund it even as it mocks Trump for the idea, pledging only to end the state of national emergency Trump has been using to funnel Pentagon money to the project.
The Real Incrementalism
This is how the political system has worked in the United States for decades, and what happens when an ideologically committed, well-organized Right is set up in opposition to an ineffectual and squishy liberal order whose only priority is maintaining its own existence. The Right, which has an actual ideological agenda it’s committed to seeing through, sets the agenda and pushes things in an ever more extreme direction; liberals then roll some of this back while cheerfully accepting key parts of the new agenda. Rinse, repeat.
This betrayal is then ritually swallowed by loyal Democratic voters, having been trained for decades by the party and its media affiliates to believe nothing better is possible in the United States, supposedly because the Democratic Party is outmatched, or because the American public is simply too right-wing to want anything different. Instead of being furious with the party, they grimly accept the new right-wing consensus, reasoning that since the Republican Party is far more monstrous, this defeat is, in fact, a victory. This is the real incrementalism in American politics, and decades of it has, among other things, helped turn the country into a failed state.
This is exactly what happened with Barack Obama and the “war on terror.” George W. Bush’s lawless anti-terror policies were once condemned by Democrats in the same disgusted terms they reserved for Trump’s wall, particularly Guantanamo Bay, a torture camp that soon became a physical moral stain on the country. Then Obama came along and simply accepted all of Bush’s anti-terror excess, adding his own grisly contributions to the project, and miraculously changing Democratic voters’ minds about the thing they’d spent eight years melting down about. This is why something like ICE, birthed from the September 11 attacks and now barely out of its teens, is today considered too sacrosanct to dismantle, despite its many abuses.
Nothing happened to Guantanamo Bay, by the way. Keeping it open may have been “contrary to our values,” but Obama found it too difficult to close and decided his political capital could be better spent elsewhere. The detention center celebrated a happy eighteenth anniversary this year. When was the last time you heard or thought about it?
Obama at least promised to close Guantanamo Bay during his campaign; Biden now appears afraid to even pretend to want to stop construction of Trump’s wall. And if he ever does try as president, the effort is certain to meet exactly the kind of ferocious right-wing opposition that the Guantanamo closure, the “Ground Zero Mosque,” or even the coronavirus lockdown have faced, the exact kind of right-wing fury that’s tended to make Biden’s knees buckle throughout his career. The chances of seeing a political goal come to fruition aren’t great when the politician in charge can’t muster the courage to get through the lip-service stage of the process.
Not that it will matter. As we’ve been informed, there is literally nothing Biden could do anymore, even cooking and eating children, that will prevent loyal Democrats from supporting him. Should he win, the wall will soon become just another unfortunate anomaly, a curiosity that professional liberals will squint at and privately chuckle at how angry it once made them feel; that is, until the next election year.
There’s a lot of talk about the transformative agenda Biden will supposedly pursue if he wins. But even if he were inclined to do so, it’s hard to see how he could with no grassroots movement behind him, a coterie of neoliberal advisers and donors driving his campaign, and lacking the congressional supermajority that the far more charismatic and lucid Obama couldn’t even make use of.
Perhaps it’s now better to ask the same question that has applied to every Democratic president of the last forty years: Which outrageous parts of the hard-right Republican agenda will he make permanent this time around?