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The Flight 370 Election

A progressive case for Joe Biden.
August 13, 2019
The Flight 370 Election

Donald Trump has been normalized.

Despite repeated warnings, we have arrived at the moment in which President Trump is more or less just another unpopular incumbent president trying to figure out how to claw his way to 270 electoral votes with a 43 percent approval rating tied around his neck. He’s in the zone where his reelection is tricky, but not impossible. It is an open question as to whether an odds maker would put his money on Trump or the field.

How did this happen? Because it turned out that the country simply didn’t have the bandwidth necessary to deal with the never-ending procession of dumpster fires emerging from White House, more or less every week, for years on end. Remember when the president was accused of a violent rape? Remember when he said that there were “very fine people” among the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville? Remember when he said that the Constitution grants him the power to do “whatever he wants”? Remember this weekend when he retweeted a conspiracy theory that accused a former president of murdering his friend who killed himself in federal prison while awaiting trial for child sex trafficking?

Any one of these incidents should have been a big, administration-ending deal. And yet, I suspect that very few of them—and there are dozens of such incidents at this point—will merit a mention when the postmortem of this presidency is written.

We are exhausted, and we are lost.

In March 2016, the Claremont Review of Books published an essay titled “The Flight 93 Election” by Michael Anton, who was then writing under the nom de guerre “Publius Decius Mus.” Anton argued that, like the passengers aboard Flight 93 on September 11, Republicans faced certain doom if they didn’t coalesce around then-candidate Trump and allowed Hillary Clinton to ascend to the presidency. Unlike the various Franz von Papens of the conservative movement during the 2016 election who saw in Trump a vessel for conservative judicial nominations, Anton argued from a kind of intellectualized alt-right perspective. Electing Trump would, Anton claimed, end “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty,” and reverse the trends making the overall electorate “more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle.”

Anton’s (and Steve Bannon’s) arguments for a more authoritarian, populist version of the Republican party created the foundation for the new “national conservatism.” The goal of this movement is not entirely clear. Sometimes it looks as though they simply want to Make Corporate Tax Breaks Great Again. At other times it look as though they want a white ethno-state. And then sometimes it looks as though they want theocracy, but just haven’t figured out how to get there.

What they all agree on, however, is that they want to replicate Trump’s electoral success. And in order to do that they will need the unyielding support of the white working class, a group traditionally predisposed to supporting the Democratic party, which has nominally been a workers’ party since Franklin Roosevelt. Tucker Carlson noted the shift in political affiliation in an interview with Salon:

The effects of Trump getting elected have been a lot more confusing than I think anyone ever would have anticipated. Basically the parties switched sides. I’ve watched it in real time every night, and it’s been very distressing to watch. But it doesn’t change the fact that one way or another, all of this is going to end soon.

The jumbling of the traditional right-left fault lines has been dizzying in the past few years. It’s one of the areas where progressives and Never-Trumpers are truly aligned, as well, in both their bewilderment and fear about where this road leads, since the track record of nationalist, populist, right-wing movements throughout history is . . . checkered.

I’m loath to borrow from Anton’s tortured metaphor, yet I believe the 2020 election bears some resemblance not to Flight 93, but to another famous airline disaster: Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

On March 8, 2014, a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 veered thousands of miles off course and disappeared over the Indian Ocean. The best guess as to what happened to MH370 is that a detached, deranged pilot (with an unhealthy social media obsession) decided to commit suicide by flying out into the middle of the ocean and dragging 238 passengers and crewmembers along with him. The jet flew over open ocean for nearly 6 hours toward Antarctica until its fuel was depleted and is believed to have crashed with no attempts by the cockpit to alter its trajectory.

In a strange way, this metaphor is a fitting description of our current situation. A plane adrift at night over open ocean creates navigational confusion in which it’s nearly impossible to tell where you’re headed. Up is down. Left is right. Tucker Carlson likes Jacobin now for some reason and the New Republic is worried that Pete Buttigieg will be too overcome by gay lust to perform the responsibilities of the presidency.

More importantly, flying over the soup in the dark means that you can’t trust your instincts. The first instinct for progressives is to view the crisis of the Trump presidency as an opportunity—or “crisitunity,” as Homer Simpson would say—to elect a champion for our highest goals and ideals. Against the crucible of the Trump administration, we naturally believe that the correct course of action is to go 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Yet herein lies the existential problem: the country is adrift in an endless ocean of darkness. We can’t tell which way home is. And in the age of alternative facts, getting people to even agree on where home is, will be tough. The best we can hope for is some kind of beacon to lead us back into the light.

Which brings me to Joe Biden.

When my father flew reconnaissance missions for the Navy after Vietnam, his team was tasked with tracking Soviet submarines over the Pacific at low altitudes without their targets becoming aware of their position. That often meant the crew went radio silent, turned off the headlamps, flood lights, and interior equipment and navigated using the celestial bodies and a sextant. In the northern hemisphere, a single bright star remains fixed above the North Celestial Pole while the heavens rotate around it. This is the North Star, and upon finding it, navigation is surprisingly uncomplicated.

And though most Democrats might not yet realize it, Joe Biden is the North Star in this election.

This is not to imply that the former vice president is the party’s moral compass, or even a paragon of liberal virtue. He is neither of those things. But for a majority of the electorate, he is . . . who he is.

He is a rock—a flawed, funny (intentionally or not), often bumbling, exceedingly empathetic, pragmatic, glad-handing, tragic, statesmanlike rock. Whether you love him or loathe him, he is, if nothing else, a known quantity, fixed in our collective consciousness.

And what this ultimately means is that Trump won’t be able to define Biden on his terms—a distinct advantage the president would have over everyone else running for the Democratic nomination.

To be sure, Trump would try. As Buttigieg noted during the Detroit debate, “If [Democrats] embrace a far-left agenda, [Republicans are] going to say that we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda . . . they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists.” It’s a time-honored tradition in Republican politics to paint left-of-center domestic policies as “socialist.” But does anybody really think that steelworkers in Pennsylvania or union members in Wisconsin are going to mistake good ol’ Uncle Joe with that other Uncle Joe?

I am not a Biden Super Partisan. During the early stages of the primary race, I’ve drifted from candidate to candidate for reasons ranging from the frivolous (Beto’s and my affection for Memphis garage rock legends Reigning Sound) to the inspiring (Pete’s kiss) to the practical (Kamala’s ability to recreate the Obama coalition).

A few months ago I decided that Elizabeth Warren—with her unparalleled policy chops—was my choice to take on Trump. Sure, I knew the arguments about her electability, but I believe in Medicare For All, and I think her 2 percent wealth tax on estates over $50 million is the smartest redistributive policy any presidential candidate has proposed in a generation. Damn the torpedoes, I thought.

My view changed again on July 24 when I read a piece by Will Saletan titled, “Republicans Embrace Fake News to Cover for Trump.”

I’d thought that I’d lost my ability to be outraged, but when I read about the coordinated lies from the Trump administration, the Republican National Committee, and Congressional Republicans directed at Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and in particular, Ilahn Omar, my blood boiled over. The smear of Rep. Omar was particularly repulsive and hateful:

The most avid liar has been Vice President Mike Pence. In a CBS News interview that aired on Sunday, [he accused] Omar of vicious statements “about the Jewish people in this country”—specifically, a “reference to evil Jews.” Trump made the same allegation on July 19 at the White House: “They can’t talk about ‘evil Jews,’ which is what they say: ‘evil Jews.’”

That’s pure fiction. Omar has never used the phrase “evil Jews.” She has never said anything bad about Judaism or Jewish people. She has criticized some Israeli policies but has always taken care, in her words, “to distinguish between criticizing a military action by a government and attacking a particular people of faith.” She has consistently argued that no one should be targeted or disparaged on the basis of religion. Trump, Pence, and the RNC have ignored these statements. They have stuffed the words evil Jews in her mouth.

Saletan continued, “Trump has installed an authoritarian culture of raw disinformation, and his party has bought into it. Republicans are fabricating quotes, ignoring corrections, and disregarding the whole idea of truth.” This isn’t new, of course, but there’s a new level of perniciousness in the way that the GOP is dissembling and shielding this president as his behavior grows increasingly insidious. And the media, for all its perceived left-wing bias, is complicit in Trumpworld’s efforts to gaslight the American people, whether consciously or not.

The scale of the problem we’re trying to solve is new, enormous, and deeply unsettling, which is why I contend that Biden has some of the rare attributes that make a coordinated disinformation campaign against him less likely to succeed: universal name recognition, generally favorable approval ratings, and a connection to the white working class that makes up the wildcard component of Trump’s base. It’s not that Trump and Fox News won’t succeed in convincing their most dedicated followers that Biden paid a Ukrainian to murder Seth Rich, but it’ll be a much heavier lift. People know Joe. That doesn’t sound like Joe.

Of course, simply because Biden has the best chance to win against Trump doesn’t make the progressive case for selecting him as our nominee. Obviously, there are more progressive options available on the board. But in recent history, the progressive agenda has been moved forward primarily by pragmatists if not outright critics. In creating the Environmental Protection Agency and signing the Americans with Disabilities Act, respectively, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush inarguably accomplished more (legislatively, at least) than Jimmy Carter, one of the most passionately liberal presidents this century. And, of course, Lyndon Johnson, nobody’s idea of a passionate progressive, was able to marshal the Great Society legislation into law, the most significant progressive accomplishments since the New Deal. One reason to get excited for Biden is that he possesses some serious Big LBJ Energy.

No, Biden won’t break up the big banks or pass Medicare For All. But consider what might be possible in a Biden administration: finally achieving universal health care with a public option plan that’s both achievable and groundbreaking. Passing comprehensive immigration reform and common sense gun control once and for all. Putting us back on the road to a carbon-free energy future. Not only are these some of the highest aspirations of all progressives, but Biden would have a unique ability to enact his agenda. Kind of like Lyndon Johnson, actually.

Because not only is Biden a skilled and experienced legislator, he can also claim to be fulfilling the legacy of his more popular, younger predecessor after a national tragedy (which is how the Trump interregnum will be remembered). Moreover, Biden is the candidate with the best chance to fracture the Trump coalition and deliver a massive electoral repudiation to Trumpism—which is probably the most important outcome of the 2020 election regardless of who runs. He could seriously win Texas. Texas. 

As we look forward, it still feels like the dark waters stretch on for infinity in every direction and there’s no hope of escaping from this stasis of hopelessness. As the stars rotate across the night’s sky, only one, Polaris, remains stationary. If we recognize it, it can lead us out of Perdition. If we listen closely, we can hear Knight Ranger faintly over the speakers of an old Trans-Am. And beside it, a shirtless, 75-year-old white guy is offering us a can of Budweiser, an awkward shoulder rub, and a ride home.

Charlie Gerber

Charlie Gerber lives in Nashville. He worked in Democratic politics until 2009, but decided to change careers after Barack Obama’s election convinced him that everything would be okay. He tweets mostly about the Memphis Grizzlies @CGrrrrrbrrr.