Grinning from ear to ear

Coming apart at the seams

With Biden’s senility all too obvious and Trump looking likely to win a second term, Daniel Lazare sees this as part of a long-term shift to the far right

Growing old is not for sissies, as Bette Davis once said. But it is especially painful if you are a US president up for re-election at the age of 81!

Joe Biden is in trouble these days for two reasons. One is that his all-too-visible deterioration is now front-page news from coast to coast. The other is that he is too pig-headed to admit that he is in no shape for a second term - a refusal to face reality that spells disaster for Democrats in November.

Reason number two flows inexorably from reason number one, because increasing stubbornness is often a by-product of the aging process - as are crankiness, memory loss and an ossified world view. These are qualities that America’s over-the-hill commander-in-chief has long displayed in abundance. But they only became official when a federal prosecutor named Robert K Hur issued a 400-page report explaining why he had decided not to charge Biden with unlawful possession of classified documents.

It is not that Biden did not do it. On the contrary, investigators found a box of top-secret documents in his Delaware garage, prima facie evidence that he is guilty of the crime. Rather, it is because he is too old to persuade a jury that he is mentally capable. As Hur put it, jurors would likely see Biden “as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” and would therefore not be inclined to convict him of “a serious felony that requires a mental state of wilfulness”.

The president, in other words, could not knowingly commit a crime because he does not know what he is doing. This is something that Donald Trump has been saying for months, to mounting Democratic fury. But denialism is now wearing thin - not only because of what Hur says, but because voters can see it with their own two eyes. The more Democrats insist that Biden is fine, that he is as sharp as ever, that he is fully up to the job, etc, the more voters suspect a cover-up. The result is irritation, impatience and a falling standing in the polls.

Caving in

But it is not just Biden who is coming apart at the seams - rather, the entire enterprise is. Last week was particularly hellish for Democrats, because it saw the roof cave in on multiple fronts. The process started on February 5, when Donald Trump effectively vetoed a $118-billion bill combining Ukrainian military aid with stepped-up border controls. “It takes the horrible job the Democrats have done on immigration and the border, absolves them, and puts it all squarely on the shoulders of Republicans,” he said on Truth Social, his personal social-media platform. “Don’t be stupid!!!”

Although Biden urged Republicans to “show some spine” by standing up to Trump, they had no choice but to go along. After all, Trump is the party’s lider maximo, so who are they to say no? On Tuesday February 6, the disarray on Capitol Hill deepened when a $17.6 billion Israeli aid package went down in defeat due to opposition from both conservatives, who want budget cuts in return, and Democrats, who fear that passage would reduce pressure on Republicans to vote for Ukrainian military assistance.

February 7 was relatively uneventful, but Thursday February 8 was even worse. The day dawned with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz warning on the Wall Street Journal editorial page that a Russian victory in the Ukraine “would deal a severe blow to the liberal world order” and urging that Nato members “move in a strategic lockstep on both sides of the Atlantic” - something Biden would dearly like to see happen, but which he is increasingly incapable of bringing about. A few hours later came the release of the Hur report with its devastating description of the president’s mental deficiency.

Finally, there was a disastrous White House press conference, in which Biden denounced Hur for reporting that he could not even remember when his own son died. (Beau Biden passed away from a brain tumour in 2015.) “How the hell dare he raise that?” a visibly upset Biden declared. “Frankly, when I was asked the question, I thought to myself, it wasn’t any of their damn business.”

Although Biden’s subsequent mix-up of Egypt and Mexico - he thought Abdel el-Sisi was the president of the latter (!) - got more press, the earlier comments were more revealing, since they showed that he is unable to comprehend what the prosecutor is saying on even the simplest level. Hur was not disparaging the president or suggesting he did not love his son. Instead, he was merely explaining why he was reluctant to charge someone whose mind is obviously defective.

“Mr Biden’s memory … appeared to have significant limitations,” Hur’s report states. Recorded conversations with a ghost writer helping with his memoirs in 2017 “are often painfully slow, with Mr Biden struggling to remember events and straining at times to read and relay his own notebook entries.” A 2023 interview was even worse:

He did not remember when he was vice-president, forgetting on the first day of the interview when his term ended (“If it was 2013 - when did I stop being vice president?”), and forgetting on the second day of the interview when his term began (“In 2009, am I still vice-president?”). He did not remember, even within several years, when his son, Beau, died.

The report went on:

In a case where the government must prove that Mr Biden … chose to keep those documents, knowing he was violating the law … we expect that, at trial, his attorneys would emphasise these limitations in his recall.

A prosecutor would have a hard time countering such arguments for the simple reason that they are true.1

As if all this was not bad enough, Thursday February 8 brought another zinger in the form of a long-awaited Supreme Court hearing on whether Colorado can bar Trump from the state ballot on the grounds that the US constitution’s 14th amendment, adopted in 1868, forbids anyone who has “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” from holding office. A long list of Democratic luminaries had come out in favour of the ban on the grounds that insurrection was exactly what Trump engaged in when he sent a rightwing mob rampaging through Congress on January 6 2021. They included Yale historian Timothy Snyder, Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe, plus 25 top US historians, including such academic stars as James McPherson and David Roediger.

With a line-up like that, one would have thought the justices would at least give the Colorado case a respectful hearing. But, while no-one quite laughed out loud, the reception could not have been more sceptical. Based on the questions they posed, it appears that not only will the conservative majority vote no, but at least two of the court’s three remaining liberals will too. If so, it marks an ignominious end to a last-ditch Democratic effort to short-circuit the election before Americans get a chance to vote.

How humiliating! Marxists, of course, view such events with a jaundiced eye. They will hardly object that Congress is balking at aid for Israel or Ukraine or that it is saying no to a reactionary border bill that could forcibly return thousands of migrants per day without so much as a chance of applying for asylum.

If they have any sense, Marxists will cheer on the judiciary for upholding the right of Americans to vote for the candidate of their choice even if it is someone as odious as Trump. As for a special prosecutor concluding that Biden is too senile to stand trial, even gray-haired veterans of the 1960s will see nothing to complain about in that regard either. Whether or not they are too old to make a revolution, Biden is certainly too old to run an empire.


But what matters is not Biden as an individual, but as a symptom of a mounting political crisis. When the Soviet bureaucracy chose Konstantin Chernenko - an aging alcoholic who could barely hold himself upright - as the fifth general secretary of the Communist Party in 1984, it was a sign of a late-Stalinist structure entering into the final stages of decay. And, when Barack Obama anointed Biden as his successor during the 2020 Democratic primaries, it was more or less the same - an indication that the US was also sliding downhill with growing rapidity.

Biden’s performance on the 2020 campaign trail was stunning - and not in a good way. “Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids,” he declared in Des Moines, Iowa.2 A question about lagging educational performance at a Democratic debate brought forth a verbal torrent:

We bring social workers into homes of parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It’s not that they don’t want to help: they don’t want … they don’t know what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television, excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the-the-the phone - make sure the kids hear words, a kid coming from a very poor school, uh, a v-v-very poor background, will hear four million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.3

What it meant was anybody’s guess. But it did not matter. Biden was respectable, a member of the Democratic establishment, and a household name. Most important of all, he was not Bernie Sanders. So he got the nod.

Which is why it is now all falling apart, just as it did in the USSR. Democrats have been in a growing panic ever since Trump’s smashing victory in last month’s Iowa caucuses. The latest polls show him up five points over Biden despite 91 felony counts hanging over his head, yet everything they do in response only makes matters worse. An election-interference case against Trump in Georgia is on hold thanks to outrageous misconduct on the part of local Democratic prosecutors. While an appellate court has turned thumbs down on Trump’s claim that he is immune from prosecution, even if he commits murder, the decision means that a January 6 federal case could conceivably go to trial in May or June, just as electioneering switches into high gear. Even hardened anti-Trumpers quail at the prospect.

Vice-president Kamala Harris’s statement that she is “ready to serve - there’s no question about that,” if Biden withdraws adds to the Democratic jitters. Harris is so unpopular that she had to withdraw from the 2020 presidential primaries when her poll numbers plunged into the low single digits. As bad as Biden’s prospects are, a Democratic ticket with her at the head would be even worse. As much as Democrats might like to edge her out, there is apparently no way of doing so without a bruising political fight. So they are staring down the barrel of a loaded gun, whether Biden pulls out or not.

Shock waves are spreading. With Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky on increasingly shaky ground, Kyiv is beginning to resemble Saigon in 1973, as the realisation sinks in that American largesse is at an end now, as Trump says no to more military aid. His statement at a recent campaign rally that he would encourage Russians to do “whatever the hell they want” to any European country that doesn’t increase military spending means that Nato must now face up to the very real possibility of an American pullout.

Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, France’s Marine Le Pen and a host of others are aquiver over the prospect of a fellow ultra-rightist once again sitting in the Oval Office. Where Democrats once thought they had seen the last of Trump, it is now looking more and more likely that the Biden administration will go down in history as a brief interregnum in America’s long journey to the radical right.

Nothing is certain, of course. But, the more embarrassing Biden’s performance grows, the likelier a second Trump administration becomes, with all the chaos that goes with it.

  1. www.justice.gov/storage/report-from-special-counsel-robert-k-hur-february-2024.pdf (pp207-08).↩︎

  2. www.youtube.com/watch?v=7qYckI0YV-0.↩︎

  3. www.axios.com/2019/09/13/joe-biden-record-player-democratic-debate.↩︎