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Richard Ford: I’d vote for a chimp before I’d vote for Trump. But I think Biden is going to lose

I just don’t like how it feels in America today, writes the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist

Joe Biden an dDonald Trump montage

Four hundred years ago – that is, back in 2016 – the political drolerie of the moment had it that Donald Trump was the only opponent Hillary Clinton could possibly beat; though Hillary Clinton (my dismal choice) was the only opponent Donald Trump could beat. It was a two-person circular firing squad, in which the last one standing gets to be the leader of the free world.

It shouldn’t end that way in this year’s presidential sweepstakes. Neither of these gibbering, teetering old grandpas should be able to beat anybody. Voters openly dislike both candidates – for demonstrable reasons. Both are far too old to predictably live out a term. Neither one makes sense more than half the time. One’s a little fancy with the truth, while the other never bothers with it. Both have relentlessly suppressed younger, better opponents. In personal, ideological, temperamental, moral and behavioural terms they couldn’t be more unalike. Yet here we find ourselves again. The banjaxed American political machinery has worked its will so that only these two seem best to represent our city on a hill.

I hear more and more, as the this-can’t-be-happening angst ratchets up, that no matter who wins the presidency, civil war is likely the outcome. Citizens on both sides admit to being “scared”. But I don’t take it seriously. Americans – never very articulate about our feelings – tend to express unease inexpertly, and these days especially are attracted to verbal extremes. Plus, war requires sacrifice. And Americans are really not good at that. We consider unbroken domestic tranquillity to be our birthright.

In my view, if people are scared, it’s the kind of scared we feel in a scary movie or playing Resident Evil 4. It’s just drawing devils on the wall to gin up some semblance of real concern. Even for the “lost generation” of laid-off rust-belt steelworkers, it’s hard to imagine neighbour-to-neighbour combat across the patios of Youngstown.


Joe Biden, of course, should be running away with this election, in spite of his demerits. If there was any justice ... well, okay, we don’t have to go there. But even with a goofily hostile Congress and Supreme Court, Biden’s done a much more than creditable job in his three years. Employment’s way up and inflation’s coming down. He’s eased the future-stifling burden of student debt. He’s reduced the pollution from coal-burning power plants. He’s passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which caps out-of-pocket drug costs for older citizens. He got Ukraine aid funded. He coped with the pandemic as well as anyone could. He even had a bipartisan immigration Bill teed up for passage until Trump scuttled it.

And maybe most significant for anybody trying to work out his or her life in the US, based on what Biden has done you pretty well know what he’s going to do.He’s a known entity – which used to mean something. Only now, half of us think that’s kinda boring.

What you plainly see, Biden promises, is what you’re going to get. Trump’s strategy is much the same, only Trump lies about everything in full view of everybody and expects no one to care.

Which isn’t to say everything’s been comin’ up roses. Biden’s protracted and befuddling inability to leverage the Israelis into a ceasefire and to stop the humanitarian calamity in Gaza threatens to stand for all his presidency’s shortcomings – which do not, by the way, include the Dobbs abortion decision, the absence of effective gun legislation, the stand-down in Afghanistan. The origin of all these disasters predate him.

Spoiler alert here. I’m voting for President Biden, assuming he’s still upright and talking when election day gets here. I’d vote for a chimp before I’d vote for Trump. Though with the election just five months away, and Trump possibly an orange hair follicle out in front, it’s worth five minutes to observe why Biden, in spite of his achievements, is now having a hard time keeping his campaign vital.

Most speculation about the success or failure of aspirants for elected office leads us ultimately to clear-eyed and sobering conclusions about the electorate. This is even more the case in the US, where on-the-ground governance, the prosecution of policies based on history, ideology, attention to consequence and a positivist view of what’s possibly good for everybody, gets derailed by cloying conceptions of branding, which turn living, breathing human candidates into cloying cartoon figures.

Biden’s problem – for those who don’t like him and even for some who do – is that he purports to portray himself and his candidacy as representing the sum of his well-archived life experience. What you plainly see, he promises, is what you’re going to get. This is supposedly a virtue. Trump’s strategy is much the same, only Trump lies about everything in full view of everybody and expects no one to care.

Biden seems to want us to care – a risky gambit on its face, since caring leaves us vulnerable to the cynical among us who don’t care, and presumes the carer knows where caring always leads – to the good – and that we all want to be better than we are: to be forgiving, to balance complex issues fairly and complexly, to see others as ourselves, and to do little harm with the understanding that no one’s perfect and there will always be bumps along the way. This doesn’t precisely argue that Biden’s brand is based on probity. But it comes close.

Conversations about the election all seem to devolve into Trump talk. Trump gets so much more ink. Weedy Joe doesn’t apparently make great copy. But there’s no margin for error this time around. And if they’re not talking about you, they’re probably not thinking about you

Only the other side’s view is: “Yeah, sure. But probity, balancing stuff, complexity – they all take too long.” Biden’s rather pleading speech to the country about recent campus protests across American universities is a fair case in point. The president was all about carefully, patiently balancing (that word, again) citizens’ freedom of speech against the demands of a civil society to not permit other citizens to be demonised because of their religious faith. So much easier and quicker just to take Trump’s view – start arresting and deporting people, then sort out the finicky details later. Or never. Likewise, Biden’s approach to the vicious Israeli–Palestinian Gaza impasse: aching, gradualist diplomacy balancing Israel’s justifiable grievance and outrage versus the graves of innocent Gazan babies. Trump’s foreshortened view? “Just get ‘er done.” The quick and the dead. It plays better on TV, which is where Trump is staging his campaign – even from the courtroom.

By now, the right wing’s pretty sure it knows ole Joe, has seen his all too human ilk before. He’s a muddler, always in the weeds. Mushy. Fact-bound. Slow. The consoler-in-chief. Weak. A phoney. Didn’t he promise he wouldn’t run again? Only here he is, as power hungry as the rest of us. Once he opposed women’s reproductive rights, now we guess he’s “evolved”. And what about his reprobate son’s love child, which Joe and Jill couldn’t quite acknowledge until they had to? Doesn’t he lie about stuff, too? Okay, he’s human. But do we really want just another human no better than we are? Plus, he isn’t funny – at least on purpose. Trump’s funny. If Biden’s going to run on who he is, it’s a brand the right doesn’t trust. They don’t even like themselves that much.

It’s widely said among Democrat savants – in their hand-wringing way – that Biden isn’t getting his message out. He can’t seem to get on top of his own accomplishments, can’t get his shambles of a party to wake up out of its navel-gazing doze and see what it’s up against. And truth is, it’s much more diverting, more fun, to talk about Trump than to talk about Biden. Conversations about the election all seem to devolve into Trump talk. Trump gets so much more ink. Weedy Joe doesn’t apparently make great copy. But there’s no margin for error this time around. And if they’re not talking about you, they’re probably not thinking about you.

It seems axiomatic that if you can’t get your message out, and your message is good – if complicated – the problem is either the messenger or the audience. I’ve said my piece about the messenger, and we’ve still got him. We’ve still got both of these old doozies.

And their American audience? Well, yeah. Something there is in a large segment of American election consumers which doesn’t find it at all weird for former attorney general William Barr to announce that Trump ought not be allowed near the Oval Office, and that he (the same mercurial Barr) intends to vote for Trump in November. Something there is in the American electorate that says the civil war – the real one – wasn’t about slavery; that a violent, public attack on the US Capitol was really just a guided tour; and that a woman who’s raped and made pregnant by her twin brother should be forced by law to have the baby.

If nothing else gets disclosed by the presidential election of 2024, it’s that we’re all going to see that a good number of our fellow Americans are eager to be unharnessed from reality. It’s intoxicating to them. You can almost feel it yourself. And not because they believe anything particularly important, but just because they think it’s their right to go nuts. Every time there’s a mass shooting in the United States some earnest citizen on a street corner steps forward and says: “This is not who we are.” Except, you know, for a lot of Americans, it is who we are.

I wish I didn’t think Biden’s going to lose. I’ll be joyous if I’m wrong. But there are signs. It’s a bad sign that this election is a rematch and we don’t have any better ideas or candidates; it’s worrisome that our neighbour to the south is already preparing for a Trump presidency; that the rather silly House Speaker Mike Johnson is showing up at Trump’s New York fraud trial to “support” him. I just don’t like how it feels in America today; when my guy’s only way to prove he’s any good is for the other guy to keep displaying how godawful he is.

That’s not good, is it? That’s not appealing to our better angels. That’s not how democracy’s supposed to work. Or am I just wrong all over again?

Richard Ford is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and short story writer