The Dreaded Trump-Biden Rematch is Here. Or Is It?

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The dreaded Trump-Biden rematch is here. Or is it? We’ve been discussing all this over at the Issue, my new little publication. Come on over, have a read, click around — there’s tons to read there already, and I’d be delighted to see you there. For now, here are some thoughts about…

If you watched the State of the Union — and if you didn’t, give it a few minutes of your time — someone very different appears to have entered the building. Biden, they said, was old, frail, confused, an elderly man with one foot in the grave.

But the figure who showed up to give the State of the Union was anything but. Razor-sharp, whip-smart, lightning-fast. Angry, vocal, funny, humorous, sinking the knife into the GOP, and then twisting it, again and again. Taking no prisoners. His ratings soared, and for good reason. This Joe Biden? People loved him. Embraced him. Cheered him on, like they didn’t for that other guy also named Joe Biden, lately — because this time, they were electrified.

Who was this guy? Where has he been? You won’t often see a figure like Ezra Klein eat his words — but just a few weeks ago, he loudly called for Biden to step down, using his New York Times pulpit, or maybe misusing it. Now he’s walking it back. Joe Biden made them all eat, crow, in other words, which is sort of delicious, even if you’re not a die-hard Biden fan. I’m not — I question him on everything from Gaza to debt, but I do have to give credit where it’s due.

Here’s a secret. It isn’t a Trump-Biden rematch. Not really. It’s something very, very different. Let’s begin with Trump, and then we’ll come back to Biden — or who this new persona is, this Joe Biden, the one who showed at the State of the Union, electrifying people, pundits, and frightening the opposition into bewildered silence.

The Trump part of the Trump-Biden rematch…isn’t quite right. This isn’t yesterday’s Trump. This is Turbo Trump. Next level Trump. Put it however you like. This figure is one aspiring openly to dictatorship. Vowing vengeance, using the machinery of government, on anyone who pursued or opposed him. Who’s staring down a hundred criminal charges, and needs to win, to continue being a free man. Someone who’s led a coup, inspired and united fanatics and lunatics in the cause of treason and violence, and still touts insurrection. A figure whose contempt for democracy is up there with the worst demagogues of history.

This Trump is different from last time around. He’s hardened. More sophisticated. Not the veritable rube he was before. And his side has evolved and matured, too. Last time around, they blundered into power, they knew it, and didn’t have a plan, even for what to do with the vast machinery of government they inherited. This time? There’s a 1000 page plan to install a totalitarian state, from day one.

All of that matters, and it matters intensely and intently. In leadership terms, there are thresholds that are to be passed, for leaders to become more and more effective. You try to turn around an organization, you fail. You try to build coalitions and unite people, you fail. You attempt a vision and agenda, only to find limited buy-in. From all those, you learn. And in this “crucible,” as the great leadership scholar Warren Bennis called it, a true leader is born.

Or, perhaps, a true demagogue. The last few years have been something like Trump’s dark night of the soul, which was Bennis’s great insight into leadership. He didn’t win again. The Big Lie began to flop. Justice pursued him. He slid into irrelevance. And then, astonishingly, he pulled it all back from the brink.

How did he do that? Trump honed his message. It became more severe, overt, constricted, inflammatory, and vengeful. Where before there were hints of the tyrant’s aspiration, now it’s in the open. Where before there was a tinge of vengeance, now it’s explicit. Before, there was demonization, but now, the fascist appeal is blunt and brutal, wrapping itself in a totalitarian vision for a society in which modern notions of freedom have ceased to exist, not just for those who aren’t “real Americans,” but for plenty of “real Americans,” too, from women to minorities to the LGBTQ to non-traditional families and relationships to anyone in the opposition and on and on.

Trump’s message now? It’s incredibly bleak, not just “apocalyptic,” as pundits will say, but more to the point, cloaked in the pretense of the inevitability of a cleansing apocalypse. That is how the pure and true are revealed to be the chosen ones, and the rest discarded as subhuman, not people, liabilities, contaminations. It’s indistinguishable, in its outlines, from all those demagogues who wished destruction on their own societies, in the name of saving them.

But that’s not the only reason this message was so effective that it brought Trump back from the brink of irrelevance. There was another reason, too, and that was…the old Joe Biden. That’s unfair, so let’s say: the ham-fisted Democratic machine that…seemed to have…as we know now…constricted him…was afraid to let the real one out of the carefully constructed, climate-controlled box they kept him in like some kind of prize.

Is it any wonder, then, that people basically thought he was a mummy? They’d barely let him out for air, give him room to say a few words, and then back into the tomb he’d go, like he was a pharaoh already preparing for the afterlife, or something.

That created a vacuum. And a vacuum is a terrible thing, when it’s a political contest you’re trying to win. Who was Joe Biden? Why, he was old, elderly, frail, doddering, said the opposition, in far unkinder terms. If all you had to see was a picture, why, you might have even believed it. What did Joe Biden want, stand for, believe in, anyways? They’d let him to say the same old foolish lines — “the economy’s great!” Hand-wave, fist-bump, bye bye — and back into the box he’d go. Then everyone’d roll their eyes, because unless you’re Elon Musk, the last few years in human history have been many things, but “economically great” is emphatically not one of them. Why else is it that living standards are falling for the majority of people in the world now? So all that cost Biden seriously, and then some.

Nobody should have been losing to Donald Trump, the figure slinking into irrelevance — but amazingly, Joe Biden was succeeding at that task.

But now, things look — suddenly, and pretty happily — different. Can this Joe Biden beat Trump? Biden somehow seems to have fought his way out of the box that the Dems have kept him locked up on for the last year and more. He ripped off the mummy bandages that kept him sealed up tight and barely able to move a muscle.

This guy? He’s a serious politician, who gave a masterclass on how to roast the fascists, and make them run for cover, and more to the point, which is the Big One, because of that, he’s finally crossed a Rubicon: he’s at last being accepted as a leader. By more and more people. That’s what those soaring ratings are beginning to say. No, that’s not fan-boyism — it’s just reality. There’s a long, long way to go, yet. One good speech by a Guy That Isn’t a Mummy anymore is a striking beginning — or rebirth, maybe — and yet these are still early days, as far as these things go.

So who is this Joe Biden? He’s equal parts Dark Brandon, with a dash of great Presidents before him, who wanted to reinvent America — and didn’t quite succeed. He’s also himself, too, which is somebody who’s learned. From the failures of the paradigms he once embraced, like neoliberalism, striking out in a new direction, plowing new ground, in which to plant democracy’s seeds. The world’s democratic leaders — those few left — are taking notes, intently, I guarantee you, awestruck by this Joe Biden.

So. The question isn’t: can Trump beat Biden all over again? It’s different, now, if you really want to understand it. Can this Joe Biden beat this Donald Trump? This Joe Biden, who’s still learning, maturing, growing, which is remarkable for a man his age, and puts us younger ones who aren’t to shame, really — fierce, defiant, loud, electrifying. That Donald Trump — the one whose sneer has become a snarl, and who’s holding not a switchblade, this time, but history’s flamethrower in his hand. This time’s different, though it looks the same. The candidates aren’t the same men. Nor are we, as much as we’ve gone through in these last few years, a decade and more stuffed into them, the same people.

So you tell me: what have we, collectively, learned, and which choice will we make?

Come on down to the Issue, have a read, peruse the many reads, join the conversation. I’ll see you there.

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