Summer, 2015. Breaking every rule and shattering every established convention of electoral politics, the former host of TV’s The Apprentice launched a novelty campaign for president and soon found himself atop the polls. With growing desperation, conservative power brokers and media elites did everything they could to arrest his momentum, only to fall flat on their faces like a pack of yokels trying to tackle a greased-up hog. Against all odds, an increasingly demented Donald Trump breezily glided through the mud — passing by the entire clown car of consultancy-hatched Beltway clones assembled against him — and handily secured the Republican nomination for president.
Reality was supposed to reassert itself then and there. Overconfident and utterly convinced a general election victory was inevitable, irritated Democratic elites narrowly fended off an internal insurgency of their own and coronated Hillary Clinton as their tribune. No matter that Trump had effortlessly squashed each and every one of his establishment-friendly adversaries; no matter that he’d seemed impervious to conventional tactics at every turn; no matter that the country was visibly sliding into oligarchy and that populist rage was palpably in the air. Running explicitly as a proxy for the Beltway itself, Clinton opted to campaign as an ally of normalcy and continuity.
All three would go down in defeat on the eighth of November.
In a world where anything still made sense, this experience might have prompted a wholesale reexamination of the beliefs and assumptions it had so thoroughly ground into dust — Trump’s victory, after all, seemed to tear through the fabric of reality itself, rendering every hitherto-established law or norm of politics instantaneously moot. For those nearest the center of the 2016 cataclysm, however, it fast became the opposite: a moment to reaffirm and double down on every strategy and reflex that had preceded the disaster — and so began an endless feedback loop that has recurred since 2016 without interruption.
It’s now nearly three years later, but the thinking of America’s liberal class doesn’t seem to have shifted one iota. Amid anguished condemnations of the president and his administration, conflict-averse Democratic leaders have proven unwilling to offer meaningful resistance or embrace the populist energy visibly sweeping the country. Hoping, as they’ve done from the outset, for a procedural remedy to a political problem, institutional liberals instead bet all their chips on a Republican cop handing them the next Watergate — only to see it nosedive as spectacularly as Rachel Maddow’s ratings. And just as they did in the months leading up to November 2016, liberal politicians and thinkfluencers have continued to coddle a tiny cadre of conservative grifters and Bush administration alumni who’ve decided to maintain their brands through limp denunciations of Donald Trump — all the while punching those to their left with more gusto than they ever muster against the president.
Parsing these threads, it soon becomes clear that the unifying theme has less to do with moral outrage at the evils of Trump’s America than it does with a hunger to see the old Washington restored along with the comforting sense of normalcy it once provided. There’s no grand rethink in the works, no questioning of liberalism’s guiding ideals or analyses, no attempt to carry out a realignment, build a new electoral coalition, or offer as an alternative to Trump anything other than the same hollow platitudes about inclusive capitalism that Democrats have peddled since a smirking Bill Clinton gleefully informed Wall Street that the party was now fully open for business. Institutional liberalism’s plan to defeat Trump, in other words, amounts to applying the same old formulas again and again and hope in vain they will suddenly and magically produce a different result.
That’s close to the popular definition of insanity, and it also happens to be the logic propelling the current front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.
A few new characters have been added, and the mise-en-scène has been slightly rearranged, but as Democratic presidential candidates descended on Iowa last weekend, the whole thing seemed a giant exercise in déjà vu. Despite a larger field, the basic dynamic is uncannily similar to that of 2016: on the one hand, a populist insurgency; on the other, an ossified party machinery determined to keep the base in line and preclude any changes beyond the strictly aesthetic. While the Democratic HR department has been reviewing several résumés ahead of next year’s primary votes, their candidate of choice overwhelmingly remains former vice president Joe Biden.
As Clinton did four years ago, Biden has to this point enjoyed an aura of front-runner inevitability, despite being dogged from the outset by pesky questions about his record that he seems thoroughly unprepared and ill-equipped to answer. Evasive on ideological questions and vague on policy specifics, his candidacy is also premised on a return to the normal and the familiar: Biden’s crusade, if it can be called that, is nominally about recovering “the soul of America,” which in practice means winding back the clock to the moment before the Trumpian virus first infected Camelot. The former vice president said as much himself when — in a scene reminiscent of Clinton’s now infamous speeches to various banks and financial interests — he earnestly reassured attendees at a gilded New York fundraiser that, should he become president, “No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change.”
The ace up Biden’s sleeve is his supposed “electability” and, while recent polling has indeed suggested he might defeat Trump in a general election, his candidacy thus far has been more like a trainwreck in slow motion than something seemingly on the cusp of victory. Having entered the race soon after allegations of inappropriate physical contact by Nevada lawmaker Lucy Flores, Biden prompted more negative press by waxing nostalgic about his relationship with avowed segregationist James Eastland. Both Democratic debates have seen him stumble, the second memorably coming to a close as he robotically recited a sequence of random numbers plucked from the ether. Building on a historic legacy of gaffes and flubs, the week surrounding the Iowa State Fair saw the campaign’s would-be front-runner add a record number to his cumulative tally, with highlights including confusing Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, incorrectly stating he was vice president during last year’s Parkland shooting while getting the locations of two other mass shootings wrong, and telling a room full of supporters that “Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.”
If Biden’s slew of missteps finally got some people asking questions about the fragility of his lead in the polls, they also prompted a wave of defensive apologia from pundits and media elites — the worst of which was found in a lengthy CNN puff piece that from start to finish reads like it could have been a press release from the Biden campaign. (Excerpt: “It was one of the many times Biden displayed that air of confidence that only comes after decades in politics — the knowledge that there will be ups and downs, and the occasional reminder to aides and reporters that this isn’t his first rodeo”).
How much weight one ultimately assigns to Biden’s gaffes is largely a semantic question, given that the real issue is the inadequacy of his politics. From its wistful invocations of Washington’s bygone era of bipartisanship to its maudlin calls for a return to decency, the Biden campaign is palpably about seeking conservative restoration rather than progress; hell-bent on challenging Trump, as Clinton did to little avail, with yet another avatar for Wall Street and the Beltway at the helm. Biden’s age is less the issue than the Precambrian conception of liberalism his campaign represents: one pathologically intent on repeating past errors and expecting a different result; the political equivalent of blowing into a video game cartridge before ramming it back into a busted console and frantically tapping the reset button.
Fittingly enough, while some members of the press were busy shrugging off the establishment front-runner’s cringeworthy faux pas, a pearl-clutching chorus of Beltway elites was closing ranks to denounce Bernie Sanders for highlighting Jeff Bezos’s ownership of the Washington Post, a newspaper that once ran sixteen consecutive hit pieces against him in as many hours. Only in DC could one of the country’s most popular politicians denouncing corporate media bias be considered more of an onslaught against the free press than billionaires controlling the fourth estate.
As in 2016, much of the media is so openly contemptuous of Sanders that it sometimes feels trite to complain. Then again, the concurrent Biden/Sanders news cycles are part of the same endless feedback loop that’s run largely uninterrupted since Trump announced his candidacy in the summer of 2015. Then, as now, an establishment front-runner carrying decades of political baggage invoked bipartisanship and appealed to the nation’s better angels while reassuring its most powerful interests that their wealth and status were sacrosanct; then, as now, Democratic leaders and their allies in the media scrambled to anoint the heir apparent while glibly shrugging off populist anger.
It’s the opening credits of a movie we’ve seen before. And unless a wrench is thrown into the projector, we’re in for exactly the same ending.