Biden’s sinking ship
The greater the disarray, the greater the odds that Trump will return to the White House. Daniel Lazare charts the administration’s self-inflicted woes and the necessity of breaking with the Democrats
Joe Biden has 13 months to go until next year’s presidential election, but already his administration is beginning to capsize.
Last week was particularly brutal. The action started on October 3, when Matt Gaetz, the rightwing firebrand from the Florida panhandle, filed a motion to “vacate” the House of Representatives speakership and boot out Kevin McCarthy as Republican leader. In other circumstances, a motion leading to weeks of Republican infighting might be good news for Democrats, but this time it was the opposite - for the simple reason that Republicans are in the majority.
If they are paralysed, consequently so too is the House. The same goes for Congress and the administration - they are paralysed too. The White House has no choice but to sit and stew, as Republicans struggle to find a replacement.
Bad as this might be, a number of factors make it even worse. One is Nato’s proxy war in Ukraine. The 45‑day stopgap spending measure that McCarthy manoeuvred through the House on September 30 - at the cost of his own speakership - failed to include military and financial aid for Ukraine: an omission that Biden hoped to remedy when a new spending measure became due. But, with McCarthy now out of the picture, the Republican sorting-out process could drag on for weeks, making the mid-November deadline for a successor bill harder and harder to meet.
Moreover, Jim Jordan, one of two top contenders for the post, is an Ohio isolationist who has vowed to shut down aid altogether. If he wins, US money will eventually dry up, meaning that Ukraine will have to scramble to find a replacement for roughly half its military aid.1 Since the task is all but impossible, Biden could conceivably wind up presiding over a second military disaster equal to, if not greater than, the chaotic evacuation of Afghanistan in August 2021.
Finally, there is a third factor. In introducing his motion to vacate, Gaetz tossed in a real zinger: a call for McCarthy’s replacement to be none other than Trump. Electing an outsider would be unprecedented, but, since the US constitution merely states that “[t]he House of Representatives shall choose their speaker and other officers”, it is not out of the question.
The liberal response was to laugh it off as a bad joke. The Nation, the venerable old weekly (founded 1865) that serves as a left-liberal flagship, assured readers that a Trump speakership cannot happen due to an internal Republican rule requiring party leaders to “step aside if indicted for a felony for which a sentence of two or more years imprisonment may be imposed”. Since Trump is facing 91 criminal indictments, most providing for two years or more, he would seem to be ineligible. So there was nothing to worry about. The magazine concluded that the threat does not exist.2
But it does. Any such rule is non-binding, meaning that House Republicans are free to repeal or ignore it, as they see fit. As a result, absolutely nothing stands in the way of a Trump speakership - nada, zilch. Given the party’s razor-thin majority, moreover, anyone wishing to become speaker must win the support of 218 out of 222 House Republicans - just over 98%. Thanks to the deep divisions in Republican ranks, no sitting member can come close. But Trump can. He is the man Republicans obey without question - a Führer who is on his way to nomination by acclaim. He is the only one who can garner every last Republican vote. The greater the disarray, the greater the odds that he will wind up stepping into the breach.
But even if he does not, the mere fact that Trump is emerging as a Capitol Hill kingmaker is disturbing enough from a Democratic perspective. As The New York Times put it at the end of Biden’s week from hell, “That a twice-impeached, quadruply indicted former president is exercising this much influence is baffling to historians far more used to defeated or disgraced politicians fading into obscurity.”3
Indeed, the more charges Democratic prosecutors throw at Trump, the stronger he grows - and the more the Biden administration seems to sink beneath the waves.
October 3 saw another blow: a 1.3% drop on Wall Street amid a startling rise in interest rates. Suddenly, the financial press was filled with hand-wringing over America’s growing federal debt, currently at $33.5 trillion (or 119.5% of GDP) - nearly double the level prior to the 2008 meltdown. Then came an announcement on October 5 that the administration would resume building the Mexican border wall that Trump initiated in 2017 and which Democrats railed against as racist and exclusionary during the 2020 campaign. “There will not be another foot of wall constructed on my administration,” Biden vowed. “End. Stop. Done. Over. Not going to do it. Withdraw the lawsuits. We’re out,” he added.4
But with illegal crossings surging to 233,000 per month, the administration has had a change of heart: “There is presently an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the border of the United States in order to prevent unlawful entries into the United States,” secretary of homeland security Alejandro Mayorkas announced.
Trump was triumphant. Noting that the administration was waiving environmental regulations so construction could resume, he wrote on Truth Social, his personal social-media platform: “So interesting to watch Crooked Joe Biden break every environmental law in the book to prove that I was right when I built 560 miles (they incorrectly state 450 in story!) of brand new, beautiful border wall.”
“A wall does nothing to deter people who are fleeing poverty and violence from coming to the United States,” countered Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “You do not risk your life or your children’s lives going through the Darién Gap or traversing hundreds of miles of desert if you have any other options.”5 Quite right. But AOC gave no indication as to whether she would take back the endorsement of Biden’s re-election bid that she issued in July (short answer: she won’t).
Finally, there was Hamas’s massive assault on October 7, which opened the floodgates of reaction. Republicans took turns bashing Biden for his “six billion dollar hostage deal” with Iran, as Trump described it. This was an agreement, announced in August, to free five American-Iranian prisoners in exchange for the unfreezing of Iranian oil assets. Never mind that the deal stipulates that the money can only be used for humanitarian purposes or that the funds are rightfully Iran’s to begin with. For Republicans, the only thing that matters is that it bolsters Iran at a time when The Wall Street Journal was reporting that the Islamic republic gave Hamas the green light for the assault at an October 2 meeting in Beirut (a report, by the way, that was quickly disputed by other news agencies).6
It was left to Trump to tie the various strands together. He wrote:
The same people that raided Israel are pouring into our once beautiful USA, through our totally open southern border, at record numbers. Are they planning an attack within our country? Crooked Joe Biden and his boss, Barack Hussein Obama, did this to us!7
A young Ecuadorean mother peddling candy on the New York City subways with two or three children in tow because the federal government refuses to give her working papers is apparently the same as a heavily armed Hamas militant. Support Israel, attack Iran, impeach Biden, deport the migrants - such was the message that Republicans pounded home again and again.
The administration’s response was to delete a couple of tweets calling for a ceasefire and an end to “violence and retaliatory attacks”, and to send an aircraft carrier to Israel as a sign of support.8 Biden thinks he will win because his ships are bigger than anyone else’s.
What does it all mean? Simply that the SS Biden is sinking and taking the neoliberal world order down with it. Secretary of state Antony Blinken’s Middle East peace offensive - in reality an attempt to enlist Saudi Arabia in a US-Israeli alliance against Iran and China9 - is dead in the water. While Israel certainly welcomes US military assistance, the Saudis are keeping their distance due to the Arab roar of approval for Hamas. Hence, they are resisting US entreaties to issue a clear statement in support of Israel and against the Palestinians.
“It’s a good opportunity for the Biden team to reflect on their utterly failed approach to wheeling and dealing with autocrats as a road to stability in the Middle East,” Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now - an advocacy group founded by Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi prior to his murder by Saudi agents in 2018 - told The New York Times.10 Whitson is right to a degree. Biden does like dealing with super-rich oil monarchs, which is why, after vowing to ostracise Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman for his role in the Khashoggi killing, he is now wooing him in yet another about-face.
It is not stability that Biden is concerned about, but the battle for control of the Persian Gulf and its vast energy resources, regardless of the consequences for the larger region. In return for Saudi diplomatic recognition, all he asked of Benjamin Netanyahu was a few face-saving concessions, so that the farcical two-state Palestinian-Israeli peace process could stagger on for a few years longer. Of the Palestinians, similarly, all he asked was mute deference, while Israeli pogromists raged through their communities like members of the tsarist Black Hundreds. But mute deference is not in Hamas’s vocabulary, and so the entire affair has blown up in Washington’s face.
This is Biden’s method of operation: bottle up social pressures and then stare blankly when they finally explode. He wonders why Latin American migrants will not stay home, even as US drug policies turn Ecuador and other countries into gang-ravaged, free-fire zones and US sanctions impose economic hardship on Venezuela and Nicaragua. He wonders why the bourgeoisie will not continue lending him money after expanding national debt by 24% since taking office. And he wonders why Trump will not sit meekly in the dock and plead guilty to the charges that Democratic prosecutors bring against him. “Rejoice, America: these trials should bring Donald Trump to ruin,” the liberal New Republic proclaimed early last week.11 But it is not Trump who is facing defeat, but Biden.
As difficult as it is to avoid feelings of Schadenfreude over Biden’s self-inflicted wounds, it goes without saying that a Republican victory will pitch US society off the edge of a cliff. Amid vows to pardon January 6 insurrectionists, to expel “six or seven million” illegal immigrants and to bomb everything from Iranian oil facilities to Mexican drug labs,12 a second Trump presidency will see a dramatic rise in war, oppression and authoritarianism.
But leftists who think the answer is to hold one’s nose and vote Democrat should think again. The problem with a corrupt liberal establishment is its growing weakness and instability. The more Biden self-destructs, the more he paves the way for Trump, even as he pretends to fight him - and the more socialists end up supporting a bourgeois liberal who grows feebler by the day. Instead of relying on one wing of the ruling class to fend off another, the working class must mobilise independently to save itself - and society along with it.
See ‘Opening up yet another front’ Weekly Worker September 28 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1460/opening-up-yet-another-front).↩︎