The past week’s protests, and Donald Trump’s and other Republicans’ despotic response to them, make electoral defeat for the president and his party a more urgent priority than ever. But there is a real danger that well-meaning liberals — taught by cable news and other Democratic Party authorities that Trump is the fountainhead of all that is wrong with the country and that Joe Biden his antithesis — will end up pulling the lever for Democrats, then will promptly go to brunch for four years, laying the groundwork for something even more dangerous to come.
As Trump careened between threats and obscene photo ops, Biden gave a well-written speech on Tuesday about the president’s behavior, the protests, racism, and what he plans to do in his first year, earning him plaudits and a flood of donations.
“As unrest grips the U.S., Trump fuels a fire Biden pledges to extinguish,” wrote NBC news.
“Trump just threatened to have looters shot. Biden urged calm. That says it all,” said the Washington Post.
If only it did.
US political commentary tends to obsess over speeches and symbolic gestures, so these headlines are not surprising. Nor is it exceptional in the scope of the last four years, where much of the press has used the subterranean lows of Trump as a benchmark by which to judge every other political figure, no matter how repugnant. And let’s give Biden credit for still ably playing the calm, measured TV president, at least when relegated to a teleprompter, and so long as it doesn’t malfunction.
But look past the compassionate words and well-staged, solemn imagery, and there are good reasons to believe passing the baton from Trump to Biden isn’t going to result in any profound change when the next uprising comes — which, between the pandemic, a historic depression, looming food shortages, and the ongoing ravages of climate change, it will certainly do. In fact, if tens of millions of liberals simply switch off and fail to resist the next presidency with the fervor they brought to Trump’s four years, it could end up much worse.
Into the Fire
Let’s look at what Biden plans to do in response to the past week’s orgy of police violence. In Tuesday’s speech, Biden singled out a plan to create a national police oversight commission, and specifically pointed to the concept of community policing, to “comprehensive” reviews of officers’ hiring and training, and to swift, severe punishment for bad cops.
If this feels underwhelming, rest assured that it is. To get a sense of just how unserious Biden’s proposal is, consider that the Minneapolis Police Department, responsible for setting off this week of unprecedented unrest, implemented precisely these kinds of Obama-era measures. The protests and rioting we’re seeing is a real-world case study in the limits of such reforms, to the point that Minneapolis Public Schools have now ended their contract with the local police department and a veto-proof majority of the city’s council just vowed to disband it altogether. As usual, in an era demanding radical solutions, Biden is left playing catch-up.
The same goes for the issue of police militarization, for which Biden holds no small amount of responsibility. Biden’s criminal justice platform promises only to “establish a panel to scrutinize what equipment is used by law enforcement,” which can’t even be called a half-measure. He seemed to go further in last week’s speech, briefly mentioning a call to “stop transferring weapons of war to police forces.” This suggests a Biden administration would leave in place the weapons they already have, and it remains to be seen if such a ban would even be made to be effective. A similar, much ballyhooed effort by Biden’s former boss didn’t actually do anything.
But it’s actually much worse than this, because other proposals Biden has floated would not just do nothing, but would make the problem even worse.
Perhaps most alarming is Biden’s promise, outlined in his plan for “the Jewish community,” to “work for a domestic terrorism law that respects free speech and civil liberties, while making the same commitment to root out domestic terrorism as we have to stopping international terrorism.” If you’ve watched the events of the past week, this idea should chill you to the bone.
As with any legislation, the devil will be in the details. But given the way in which anti-terrorism measures that were launched in panic after September 11 were quickly turned on political dissidents, drug dealers, and even ordinary, law-abiding Muslims, you don’t need a final drafted bill to predict such a law won’t be limited to white supremacist and other hate groups for long — particularly when the people enforcing it will be the same ones we’re now watching attack protesters, journalists, and bystanders without a care in the world.
And just as hate speech has been used around the world to crack down on everything from anti-capitalist websites and opponents of Israeli apartheid to critics of police violence, it’s all but assured that the Blue Lives Matter crowd would use a domestic terrorism law against those who they view as hate groups — groups like the ones the FBI has designated “black identity extremists.”
This isn’t theoretical. Just this week, there was widespread alarm at Trump’s vow to declare “antifa” a terrorist organization, leading various right-wingers to publicly fantasize about hunting down its adherents — or, more accurately, anyone they decide is an adherent — and throwing them into Guantanamo Bay. As many have pointed out, these threats are largely toothless because the United States has no specific domestic terrorism law — at least not until Joe Biden enters the Oval Office.
There is every chance that such a law would pass. Ever since the prevailing image of a generic terrorist switched from an Islamic fundamentalist to a white supremacist, the trope of terrorism has flipped from being a right-wing obsession to one increasingly held by liberals and even parts of the Left. Consequently, it was Biden’s party, together with their allies in the FBI, that pushed such legislation after a series of high-profile white-supremacist terrorist acts not long ago. They did so in the face of criticism from civil liberties advocates, one of whom said it was “both unnecessary and creates serious risks of abuse” — and even from the Justice Department.
Biden’s promise to respect civil liberties is little reassurance. Biden eagerly voted, even claimed to have authored, the post–September 11 Patriot Act that has been routinely abused by authorities. In fact, he tried to make it even more extreme. Before that, in the 1980s, he was responsible for an anti-terrorism law whose chief accomplishment was gutting habeas corpus. Who knows how many innocent people were executed because of this change?
And that’s all before we get to his pledge to make “the same commitment to root out domestic terrorism as we have to stopping international terrorism.” That Biden would cite the US “war on terror” — with its rampant abuse, unthinkable body count, and decades-long waste and failure — as a model to be emulated on the domestic front speaks not just to how profoundly out of touch the Democratic nominee continues to be, but to the kind of careless and ignorant liberal authoritarianism not seen since Jar Jar Binks accidentally ushered in fascism to the Star Wars universe.
Not content with having played a leading role in crafting the last two decades of disastrous foreign policy, Biden apparently now plans to bring those wars home.
Unfortunately, that’s not all. As part of his criminal justice platform, Biden plans to “reinvigorate community-oriented policing.” How? By pumping $300 million into the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program.
This is fitting, because COPS was originally a Joe Biden joint, launched by the 1994 crime bill he authored for craven electoral reasons (it would “maintain crime as a Democratic initiative” and “control the agenda” through the 1994 midterms, as an unearthed memo put it). It put tens of thousands of new police on the streets at the cost of nearly $9 billion over five years. According to one comprehensive study, not only did it fail to meaningfully change police practices on the whole, but it “had little to no effect on crime” — though it did succeed in putting more people into prisons and putting such pressure on municipal budgets in the long term that cities and towns resorted to heavy ticketing to cover the new officers’ salaries.
It was Biden who worked again and again in the decade after launching COPS to put more money into the program, often against the wishes of Republicans who tried to defund it. Speaking at the National Sheriffs’ Association conference in 2005, Biden criticized George W. Bush’s former attorney general, John Ashcroft, for calling for the program’s elimination.
“You hear anybody say, any serious person say, that our investment in local law enforcement at a federal level over the last decade has been a failure?” Biden asked sarcastically. “Heard anybody make the case that giving you more shields has not helped your effort?”
“There is never a time, absent a decrease in population, where you can justify spending less money on crime than you spent the year before,” Biden told the assembled sheriffs. His 1994 crime bill, he boasted, was the way it was because he had given them carte blanche to craft it. “Your counterparts, your predecessors, [were] sitting at that table in my conference room for days upon days upon days to draft that legislation,” he told them. “And that is not hyperbole . . . That bill was written by cops and sheriffs.”
As his words suggest, Biden viewed mollifying police as key to his political career. After Los Angeles officers viciously beat Rodney King in 1991, Biden quickly introduced a Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights act to restrict investigations into police misconduct.
He objected to a provision in an anti-terrorism bill for a commission to study the actions of federal law enforcement, drafted in the wake of high-profile cases of law enforcement misconduct like Waco, calling it “pandering to this concern of some Americans that the bad guys are the cops,” and “a forum for those who believe that federal law enforcement is the enemy of the American people and not the protectors.” A year after his crime bill passed, Biden did the rounds of local police departments to talk up the bill in advance of his reelection campaign, as delighted police chiefs gushed to him how they now only needed to fill out a one-page form to get more federal money for their departments.
Little has changed. Biden has continued to vehemently defend his crime bill, claiming it “restored American cities” and that people have merely “been conditioned to say” it was bad. He spent much of his train-wreck interview with Charlamagne tha God defending the bill, just days before the world watched its miserable legacy take over American streets. As out-of-control police waylaid protesters and journalists, Biden, unshackled from a teleprompter, shared one of his reform ideas: train police to shoot people in the legs, an idea so untethered to reality that even the National Review chided its danger.
“More police officers meet the higher standards of their procession [sic],” Biden urged on Tuesday. “Most of them do it.”
Forget for a moment Biden’s typically weird syntax and the fact that he said “procession” when he meant “profession.” His quick insistence that “most of them do it” is a signal that we’re not dealing with someone fundamentally different than he was in the bad old days of the ’90s.
Not that it matters. The police are already furious with Biden, charging him with moving too far left. We’ll see if he holds out or buckles as the race goes on. But currently, he’s in no man’s land: angering both conservatives and the police, and doing so with inadequate measures that will leave the most vocal parts of his left flank unsatisfied.
Don’t Stop Resisting
Many will react angrily to the idea of telling the truth about who Biden is and what he plans to do. But you can’t drag anyone left by coddling them. And if you’re going to elect someone president, you have to know who you’re dealing with.
There are important distinctions between Biden and Trump, of course, as the president’s unhinged response to the latest unrest has shown. But those distinctions aren’t nearly as large as they should be. The shocking state violence we’ve been witnessing has, after all, been mostly the work of Democrat-led governments. And Joe Biden is a man who, at least twice before, has suggested deploying troops for law-enforcement purposes in times of national panic.
The most dangerous thing liberal voters could do is vote in November and then simply check out. Like his predecessors, a President Biden will be inclined to do both nothing, and something terrible. If you want him to do the opposite, be prepared to resist him like you’re resisting Trump.