Biden is right about Trump. Democrats should listen.

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaking at a recent campaign event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Presidential campaign announcements are generally vapid affairs, full of marshmallowy rhetoric about coming together and securing America’s future and other things that won’t offend anyone.

So it was notable when Joe Biden’s announcement video, released just after I posted this column about him last week, touched off a raw argument among a certain segment of Democrats. Here’s the one line from Biden’s spiel, in particular, that infuriated some progressives:

“I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time.”

Doesn’t sound so provocative, does it. You’d be surprised.

The Washington Post’s Jacqueline Alemany did an excellent job rounding up the outrage, quoting historians and activists on the left who found Biden’s formulation dangerously naive. As Ibram Kendi, an American University professor, put it, “Anybody who imagines that Trump and white supremacist violence is an aberration is someone who is completely out of touch with American history.”

The larger context of this debate is worth exploring, because it gets to an important choice about how Democrats, who really don’t disagree about much when it comes to policy right now, want to explain the reign of Donald Trump and the moment we’re living through.

Where they come down on that question will help frame the 2020 race for American voters — and could well end up determining who wins.

Let’s start with what Biden was actually saying. I’m pretty sure he did not mean to suggest that America didn’t have a long history of xenophobia or white nationalism.

I remember interviewing Biden about some unrelated subject, back when he was in the Senate, and watching him pound his desk as he spun a long and impassioned story about the Mississippi senator John Stennis, who had once owned that desk, and the evil of segregation. (Biden told this same story on the Senate floor when he resigned to become vice president, and I imagine he told it hundreds of other times, too.)

Anyone who knows Biden at all knows that he has always considered civil rights central to his political identity; he’s not someone who minimizes it.

What Biden is saying, really, is that our history may not move in a straight line all the time, but it always ends up moving, ultimately, in the right direction (or at least it always has). The darker aspects of Trumpism may represent a giant step back from Barack Obama’s moment, but they are only that — a step back on a much longer path forward.

In Biden’s view, Trump’s narrow appeal to a certain segment of aggrieved Americans is about where we’ve been as society, not where we’re headed.

In some quarters on the left, though, there has always been a diametrically different view of social progress. Those activists believe that the history of the country is not, in fact, a story of a society lurching ever forward toward a more enlightened place, but rather of a long, slow reckoning with inequalities that only grow more pronounced.

In this bleak worldview, our most celebrated advances toward a more perfect union — civil rights laws, the election and reelection of the first black president — are merely temporary salves for a festering wound. And Trump represents the moral corruption at the heart of white society.

Personally, and this won’t surprise anyone who reads this column regularly, I find Biden’s version of history a lot more compelling.

It’s hard to argue, when you look back at where the 20th century was at its midpoint, that the country isn’t demonstrably more just than it used to be, even if some consequences of that ignoble history persist. Or, when you look at the demographic trends for the next 50 years, that Obama’s presidency doesn’t more closely reflect what the country is becoming than Trump’s does.

Sure, white nationalism and nativism are louder now, and even more virulent; we have social media, after all, which magnifies everything and amalgamates disparate, disaffected pockets of the citizenry into something resembling a movement.

But the loudest ideologies are often those clinging to the last vestiges of legitimacy. Just because something is loud doesn’t mean it’s growing.

As I’ve written before, it’s worth remembering that the white supremacist movement in America put out a national rallying cry a few years ago and just about filled a park in Charlottesville. The next year, it couldn’t even pack the square across from the White House.

But my view is a little beside the point. It’s what American voters think that matters here, because a party that projects the opposite message could actually lose again.

In fact, it may be the only way Democrats could manage to lose again.

Let’s be clear-eyed about this; Trump is not FDR. He won a single election in which a lot of conservative and independent voters said they didn’t really like him but took a flyer anyway, because they so disdained the alternative.

Since that moment, Trump’s approval ratings have mostly hovered just above 40 percent, largely because independents have rejected his reckless, reactionary governing style. Americans have voted in exactly one set of national elections since 2016, and the results dealt Trump an unambiguous rebuke.

So there’s really no reason to think that Trumpism is some mighty force reshaping the political terrain. Basically, any Democrat who can offer independents and rural white voters a reason to feel good about their votes, as Obama did, should win this one.

And yet America has never voted — not once — for a Democratic nominee whose chief argument was that the country was bad and unjust. That’s what Bill Clinton and Obama both understood, and it’s a big reason that they won.

If you’re objecting to Biden’s formulation because your plan is to tell white America that it’s inherently racist and immoral (or maybe “deplorable,” to use Hillary Clinton’s term), then you’re going to end up right back where you were on election night in 2016 — wondering how it is you succeeded in sending Trump to the White House.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, my strong sense is that Democratic primary voters are ready to move past Trump and hear more about what’s next. And they’re right.

Because, as Biden understands, the more you treat Trump as an aberration, the more likely he is to become one.

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