The Week the Biden-Trump Rematch Got Real

There are weeks in Washington that clarify, and weeks that obfuscate. And then there are weeks, like this one, when the big picture of American politics may not change so much, but an awful lot of weird and possibly even relevant things happen. On Monday, Fox News abruptly fired Tucker Carlson, the country’s most-watched cable-news host and, aside from Donald Trump himself, the cynical firebrand most associated with the anti-establishment populism that has taken over the Republican Party. On Tuesday, Joe Biden formally launched his campaign for reëlection, citing the existential threat to democracy from Trump and his MAGA Republicans as the rationale for a Presidential candidacy that otherwise might make little sense, given Biden’s advanced age and lack of popularity.

By Wednesday, America’s 2024 choice was once again distilled by the split-screen news cycle into its worrisome essence: the superannuated Biden versus the nearly as old and far-more-terrifying Trump. In the White House Rose Garden, Biden hosted a rare press conference, as part of the state visit of the South Korean President, Yoon Suk-yeol. He was asked a questionthe question, really—about his reason for running, by ABC News’ Mary Bruce: “You’ve said you can beat Trump again. Do you think you’re the only one?” Biden, in a rambling reply, which went on for nearly seven hundred words, said that he had “a job to finish,” that “I feel good,” that his policies are popular, and that it would be up to the American people “to judge whether or not I have it or don’t have it.”

It was a less-than-reassuring response to an obvious question on a day that should have been an exercise in positive contrasts between the current President, hosting a democratic ally with whom he jointly strategized about how to respond to North Korea’s nuclear threat, and the former President, whose signature foreign-policy moment was sucking up to North Korea’s dictator while claiming a breakthrough nuclear deal that never existed.

But, if Biden has a tendency to stumble even on the easy pitches, Trump never fails to offer more opportunities. That same day, in a New York courtroom, Trump was reprimanded by a judge for publicly trashing one of his many accusers, the writer E. Jean Carroll, who took the stand in her civil lawsuit against Trump to describe how he raped her decades ago in a Manhattan department-store dressing room. Trump had called Carroll’s allegation a “made up SCAM” in a social-media post that morning, leading the judge to describe his actions as “entirely inappropriate.” With Trump currently under criminal indictment in a separate New York case involving hush-money payments to another woman and facing several other criminal probes of his actions after he lost the 2020 election, any given day for the rest of the campaign could feature this kind of unseemly courtroom spectacle.

In theory, the attack ads should write themselves: Joe Biden, calm, cool, and collected in his trademark aviator sunglasses, governing from the center, while the Trump circus, with all its chaos and extremism, plays on. There’s a reason Presidents seeking reëlection like to hold lots of Rose Garden press conferences: that big white house in the backdrop is an effective electoral accessory. Only four incumbents since Herbert Hoover have lost their Presidential bids, Trump being one of them.

But there’s already substantial evidence that the 2024 election will not follow the script that history suggests. Trump himself is one big reason, obviously; he’s already defied history and common sense to retain his position as the Republican front-runner, despite a losing electoral record, two impeachments, and more than two centuries of precedent affirming that defeated ex-Presidents do not fare well when attempting to return to office.

More generally, these are unpredictably weird times in our politics. In Florida, Trump’s perceived chief rival for the Republican nomination, Governor Ron DeSantis, has been rapidly deflating in the polls against Trump. His latest cause hardly seems likely to win him votes—a full-scale war on one of his state’s biggest and most prominent businesses, Disney. On Wednesday, Disney sued the state, claiming that the Governor, in violation of the First Amendment, is waging an illegal campaign of retaliation against the company because he does not like “Woke Disney” and its support for causes such as L.G.B.T.Q. rights. Talk about Mickey Mouse politics. Another Trump rival, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, took to Fox News to suggest that Disney consider moving to her home state—just the kind of sniping among the also-rans that helped Trump win in 2016.

Elsewhere in Florida, Carlson briefly reëmerged from his Fox-imposed silence on Wednesday night with a direct-to-Twitter video, seemingly taped in his wood-panelled home sauna, attacking the stupidity of American political discourse. The bizarre rant, quickly viewed millions of times, added to the speculation that Carlson might emerge as a 2024 Republican challenger to Trump. “Celebrity, money, mental acuity, cynicism, pro-Putin isolationism, and an overt love of authoritarianism are a pretty strong secret sauce for the MAGA base,” Rick Wilson, the former Republican strategist turned Never Trump activist, argued on Twitter. “Celebrity got Trump the WH,” he added. “It could certainly do the same for Tucker. And spare me your ‘That could never happen. Even Trump’s GOP would never vote for a former TV host pushing white replacement theory.’ That’s PRECISELY who they’d vote for.”

Whether this is a realistic scenario or wild speculation, it was all a bit much for a Wednesday in April. At the White House, the day did not end until 11 P.M., when the South Korean President closed a state dinner in his honor by taking the stage to offer a spirited rendition of “American Pie.” Standing behind Yoon, grinning, Biden looked as though he could hardly believe that the bizarre moment was actually happening. Which, truth be told, is pretty much how I’ve felt most days for the past eight years in American politics.

Biden’s official campaign rollout was about as low-key as something that is both a genuinely big deal and a long-anticipated one could be. It consisted of little more than a short video that opened with shocking scenes of Trump supporters rampaging in the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, a blitz of fund-raising e-mails, and the news that Julie Chávez Rodríguez, a granddaughter of the famed labor leader Cesar Chavez whose bust sits proudly in Biden’s Oval Office, would be named campaign manager. There were the obligatory calls, in the video, to “finish this job” and chants, in a speech to a supportive labor group on Tuesday afternoon, for “Four more years!”

While this formal declaration was neither surprising nor particularly well timed, it at least laid down a marker for a campaign whose outcome is as uncertain as any I can remember. One theme in particular stuck out: that of Biden as a fighter for “freedom.” Four years ago, in his famous “battle for the soul of the nation” campaign-launch video aimed at Trump, Biden never mentioned “freedom.” In his new video, it was his opening line and repeated for emphasis five times.

This is notable, given that, for decades, “freedom” has been a key part of the G.O.P. brand, the default word of choice for Party speechwriters and ad makers. Ronald Reagan’s seminal “A Time for Choosing” speech, in 1964, redefined American politics as a choice between “freedom” and “security” in a way that has echoed down for generations. But the transition from Reaganism to Trumpism has left the Party vulnerable on this front, according to Democrats, who see political advantage in emphasizing recent developments such as the rescinding of abortion rights by Trump-appointed Justices on the Supreme Court and a new wave of book bans across Red America. “Freedom has been testing very, very strongly,” the Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told New York magazine. “The strongest critique of the MAGA Republicans is that they are taking away our freedom.”

But, if Biden is planning a new campaign theme, so, too, are the Republicans, who also piled on this week not only against Biden but against Kamala Harris, his even-less-popular Vice-President. Nikki Haley, who said in a tweet that the prospect of a Harris Presidency was “scary,” was as crass as I’ve ever heard a politician when she went on Fox and flatly predicted that Biden would likely die in the next five years, thus making support for him in 2024 tantamount to anointing Harris. “If you vote for Joe Biden, you are really counting on a President Harris,” Haley said. Or, as Tom Cotton put it, “A vote for Biden is a vote for President Kamala Harris.”

In Washington, it is a supposition widely believed if rarely stated explicitly as such that the eighty-year-old President is running again only because of Harris’s weakness. This is true, I’m convinced, among many on the left and the right. Is Harris more of a liability than a Party that wants to deny women their reproductive freedom, that spends its time legislating against Mickey Mouse and gender-neutral bathrooms? Than Donald Trump himself? Stay tuned to the circus. ♦

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