Whoever wins on November 3, writes Daniel Lazare, the downhill slide looks set to continue
The great debate over whether the American left should vote for Joe Biden, because he is the lesser evil compared to the odious Donald Trump, is at bottom very simple. While the candidates may look like they are locked in a fierce competition, what they are really engaged in is a game of ‘good cop, bad cop’, whose purpose is political control. Everyone knows how it goes. One cop screams at the accused, threatens him and gives him a good hard slap or two, while the other places a comforting hand on his shoulder and tells him that all he has to do is confess for everything to be all right - whereupon the suspect breaks down and tells him what he wants to hear.
If you substitute the US electorate for the accused lawbreaker, then it is clear that it is a routine that the American two-party system has been engaged in for generations - and to good effect, one might add, since the upshot has been a high degree of capitalist stability. But now imagine that the two cops’ world is breaking apart, that the chief of police is pleading guilty to bribery, that the mayor is going to jail, and so forth. The cops still want a confession. But the situation is so desperate that they are in danger of collapsing into one another’s arms before the defendant opens his mouth.
This is the new reality in America, as the marathon 2020 presidential election enters its final week. One candidate is an incompetent who has all but given up trying to rein in Covid-19 - a disease that is triggering the greatest socio-economic crisis since the 1930s. The other is an exhausted, old political hack, caught in corruption charges that are looking more and more serious. Lesser-evilists argue that ‘Sleepy Joe’ is still the only one who can save the working class from Trump. But, as the economy weakens and constitutional breakdown looms, the big question now is whether Biden will even be able to save himself.
So far, the polls still show him ahead despite signs of strengthening in the Republican camp. But there are grounds for scepticism. One is the presidential debates. The first, on September 29, was a “train wreck”, as one Democratic strategist put it, with Trump badgering, interrupting and in general behaving like a crazy uncle at Thanksgiving.1 But the second, on October 22, went better. Trump still lied through his teeth, turned black into white, and lobbed comments that were off the wall. But, thanks to a mute button designed to prevent interruptions, he was otherwise calm and collected and at times seemed almost sane.
Biden, by contrast, was weak and evasive. He tried to outflank Trump on the right by accusing him of going soft on Russia and China and failing “to take on Putin when he’s actually paying bounties to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan” - a reference to an absurd scare story that has been repeatedly debunked since the New York Times floated it in June. Instead of requiring Americans to don protective gear to prevent contagion, all Biden could come up with was a promise to “make sure we have everyone encouraged to wear a mask all the time”. A profile in courage it was not.
Hunter and Joe
But another reason for scepticism has to do with sensational new evidence concerning Biden’s son, Hunter, and his increasingly questionable business practices. The story broke on October 14, with the news that a laptop that Hunter dropped off at a Wilmington, Delaware, repair shop in April 2019, but failed to pick up, contained “a treasure trove of Republican oppo [ie, oppositional research], including videos of the younger Biden smoking crack and having sex, and emails from a Ukrainian businessman pleading with Hunter to use connections to help the corrupt energy firm, Burisma, escape a shakedown,” as the independent journalist, Matt Taibbi, put it.2
The laptop also contained an April 2015 email from a Burisma advisor named Vadym Pozharskyi, saying in imperfect English: “Dear Hunter, thank you for inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent [sic] some time together. It’s realty [sic] an honour and pleasure.”
This was big news, due to Joe Biden’s steadfast insistence that he has never spoken with Hunter about his business affairs, including his decision to sign on with Burisma Holdings - a Ukrainian natural-gas firm, owned by a corrupt oligarch named Mykola Zlochevsky. Zlochevsky had used his position as minister of ecology and natural resources under disgraced ex-president Viktor Yanukovych to award himself lucrative drilling rights. But just weeks after the US-backed Euromaidan uprising sent Yanukovych packing in February 2014, he had hired Hunter to the tune of $50,000 a month in a clear effort to curry favour in Washington - where Papa Joe was now in charge of a Ukrainian anti-corruption effort, in which Burisma would be an obvious target.
But not only had Burisma enlisted the vice-president’s son to help fend off an investigation: the laptop emails revealed that it had snared a meeting with “the big guy”, as Hunter himself referred to his father.
This was a coup for Zlochevsky, as well as a setback for anti-Trump journalists, who continued to insist that the only corruption worthy of mention was that of president Trump. But then another shoe dropped in the form of a hefty ex-college wrestler named Tony Bobulinski, who had partnered Hunter in an attempt to drum up business with a Shanghai conglomerate known as CEFC China Energy.3 Anxious to clear himself after his name popped up in one of Hunter’s laptop emails, Bobulinski - a US navy veteran and a Democrat - issued a seven-minute statement in Nashville, Tennessee, just hours before the second debate: “I’ve heard Joe Biden say that he’s never discussed business with Hunter,” Bobulinski told the assembled reporters. “That is false. I have first-hand knowledge about this, because I directly dealt with the Biden family, including Joe Biden.”
The dealings, he said, included an “approximately hour-long meeting with Joe” three months after he stepped down as vice-president in 2017, during which “we discussed the Bidens’ history [and] the Bidens’ family business plans with the Chinese, with which he was plainly familiar, at least at a high level”.4
He added that Hunter had specified in one communication that 10% of the equity in the joint venture with CEFC was to be “held by H for the big guy” (ie, the ex-vice president); that Hunter was “paranoid about keeping Joe Biden’s involvement secret” and that, as Hunter put it, “CEFC was really investing in the Biden family … and that he was the one putting his family legacy on the line”.
So if Bobulinski is to be believed - and there is no doubt he is a highly credible source - Hunter was engaged in the time-honoured Washington practice of influence-peddling, while his father was guilty of misleading Americans about what he and his family were up to. Like every successful US politician, Joe Biden was doing his best to monetise his official position and, fearful of the political reaction, was doing so on the sly.
The Democratic response was predictable: it was all Russia’s fault. CNN brought on Adam Schiff - the fearless Democratic Russia-basher, who heads the House intelligence committee - to say the whole story was Russian disinformation: “Clearly, the origins of this whole smear are from the Kremlin and the president is only too happy in having Kremlin help in order to amplify it,” he said.5 Biden said the same, when Trump brought it up on October 22: “There are 50 former national intelligence folks who said that what he’s accusing me of is a Russian plant,” he sputtered. “... five former heads of the CIA - both parties - say what he’s saying is a bunch of garbage.”
Indeed, 50 top former intelligence officials had stated a few days earlier in an open letter that the emails had “all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation”. But they were careful to add:
We want to emphasise that we do not know if the emails, provided to the New York Post by president Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, are genuine or not and that we do not have evidence of Russian involvement - just that our experience makes us deeply suspicious that the Russian government played a significant role in this case.6
So Biden’s attempt to debunk the story fell flat, no matter how much the anti-Trump press continues to insist otherwise.
As for Covid-19, Trump and co give every sign of regarding it as a fait accompli: “We’re not going to control the pandemic,” White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told CNN a few days ago, after five members of vice-president Mike Pence’s inner circle came down with the virus and new cases were topping 85,000 a day - a 12% increase over the record set in mid-July. Although Trump insisted during the second debate that “we’re rounding the turn, we’re rounding the corner, it’s going away”, he was more revealing a couple of days later. “That’s all I hear about now,” he told a rally in North Carolina. “Turn on TV, ‘Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid.’ A plane goes down, 500 people dead, they don’t talk about it.”7
In other words, Covid is merely the latest anti-Trump talking point. But, while ‘Russia, Russia, Russia’ was indeed fake news, which the corporate media cooked up in collaboration with the Democrats and the ‘intelligence community’, Covid-19 is all too real. It has caused more than 230,000 deaths in the US alone, it is destroying the American economy and, if Trump goes down in defeat, it will be because it has destroyed his presidency as well.
As columnist Paul Krugman recently observed, White House denial goes very deep. Since August, it has brought onto its Covid task force a radiologist named Scott Atlas who has no experience in epidemiology, yet has tweeted against face masks and in favour of ‘herd immunity’ - the belief that the pandemic should be left alone to burn itself out, once enough people are infected and gain immunity.8 The theory is nonsense. Not only would it be a death sentence for the elderly and chronically ill, but it would lead to a rash of serious side effects that are also caused by the coronavirus; it would have a devastating impact on workers and the poor, and it would cause hospitals to be overwhelmed.
Nonetheless, as Krugman noted, the American Institute for Economic Research - an Austrian-school think tank with links to the rightwing Charles Koch Institute - continues to push the theory, while also arguing against face masks. Last month, the AIER lauded Kristi Noem, South Dakota’s rightwing Republican governor, for turning her state into “a fortress of liberty and hope” by opposing face masks too.9
The result: South Dakota has since emerged as a coronavirus hotspot, with infections tripling from 395 a day to nearly 1,200. The idea that Covid-19 should be given free rein is therefore bankrupt, yet it is one the Trump administration cannot resist, because it is too bumbling to do otherwise.
The upshot is the current ‘good party, bad party’ routine that is now presenting Americans with a Hobson’s choice between a candidate who is unable to do anything about a runaway epidemic and another who personifies the rampant political corruption he pretends to oppose. Regardless of which one they opt for, US society’s downhill slide can only accelerate.
The statement is available at c-span.org/video/?477307-1/tony-bobulinski-statement-hunter-biden.↩︎
The quote starts at 3:07 at youtube.com/watch?v=oEdeHwzzM-g.↩︎
‘Public statement on the Hunter Biden emails’: politico.com/f/?id=00000175-4393-d7aa-af77-579f9b330000.↩︎