Joe Biden wants to make America straight again. “America’s coming back like we used to be,” the former vice-president told reporters in Delaware on Thursday, shortly after he released a video officially announcing his 2020 campaign. “Ethical, straight, telling the truth … All those good things.”
It was unfortunate phrasing, but what else would you expect from a man whose foot always seems to be hovering somewhere near his mouth? Gaffes are part of Biden’s brand and, we will, no doubt see a lot more of them in the coming months.
We can also expect to see a lot more lofty promises about turning the clock back on Trumpism, and returning America to the (entirely mythical) days when the country was a bastion of morality. While it’s still early in the 2020 race, Biden has focused his campaign directly around Trump’s character, or lack thereof, in a way no other Democratic candidate has. His announcement video centered on the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, where Trump infamously claimed that there “were very fine people of both sides”. For Biden, that was a defining point in Trump’s presidency. “[I]n that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I’d ever seen in my lifetime,” Biden says. “If we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House I believe he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation.”
Sign up to receive the latest US opinion pieces every weekday
Is Trump a morally bankrupt racist? Yes, obviously. However, there is a reason that the other Democratic candidates didn’t launch their campaigns with attacks on Trump’s character: that strategy was tried, tested and proved an abysmal failure by Hillary Clinton. You don’t get Trump supporters to see the error of their ways by calling them “a basket of deplorables”; you simply fuel a culture war. (Not to mention, when you have a history of implementing racist legislation like the 1994 Crime Act, a key driver in the mass incarceration of African American men, you set yourself up to be called a hypocrite.)
One of the many reasons the Clinton campaign failed was that it spent more time and energy criticizing Trump than interrogating the underlying reasons why he was popular. Clinton parroted the idea that “America is already great!” to people whose lives were anything but. She offered business as usual to people who desperately wanted change. Now we’ve got Biden, another establishment Democrat, doing exactly the same thing.
Let’s rewind the clock a few years to when everything was just fine and dandy
Biden’s answer to Trump isn’t systemic change that will make America a more equitable place. He’s not offering progressive policies like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. His is the vaguest and most centrist of battle cries: let’s go back to, you know, “all those good things”. Let’s go back to a time where racism was a little more polite and white people could pretend America was a post-racial society. Let’s fight for the soul of America by pretending that Trump is the problem, not just a symptom of the problem. Let’s pretend that Charlottesville was a direct result of Trump – an aberration – and not a product of a racism that has always existed in America. Let’s rewind the clock a few years to when everything was just fine and dandy.
What’s really frustrating about Biden is the fact that, even though he is another version of Clinton, and seems to be getting set to run a carbon copy of Clinton’s campaign, we’re going to be told ad nauseum that he’s our best bet at beating Trump. We’re going to be told that he’s the only Democrat that can win the white working class over – forget the fact that Sanders is currently the candidate best connecting with that demographic, gaining cheers and enthusiasm at a Fox town hall with his vision for universal healthcare. We’re going to be told that candidates offering real change, like Sanders and Warren, are too progressive for America. That they’re not “electable”. We’re going to be told that we should repeat the mistakes of 2016 all over again. We’re going to be told that it will work out this time.
Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist