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The Republicans’ Absurd Quest to Turn Biden Into Trump

The president’s reelection campaign is now an obsessive exercise in psychological projection.

Illustration by Matthieu Bourel. Getty (x2)

Earlier this week, Joe Biden spoke about the recent protests and violence in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The crux of his remarks—and an emerging theme of his campaign—was a simple question: “Does anyone believe there will be less violence in America if Donald Trump is reelected?” he asked. Conservative commentators leapt into action.

“The ‘blackmail Americans into voting for me by threatening more violence unless I win’ strategy is so impossibly evil and strategically unwise,” The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway opined. “Vote Biden or there’ll be more violence,” Erick Erickson, a Trump critic turned enthusiast, paraphrased. “He’s embracing the left’s extortion campaign.” (It’s unclear which extortion campaign he meant.) “If you’re willing to be blackmailed by Joe Biden, vote for him,” radio host Ben Shapiro added. National Review’s David Harsanyi claimed Biden’s comments were “despicable” and “essentially endorsing extortion.” None of them said Biden was wrong.

Biden obviously wasn’t trying to blackmail or extort anyone. Anarchists in Portland, Oregon, are hardly a core part of his political coalition, and it’s highly doubtful that he could exert any influence over them, Republicans’ efforts to paint him as the secretary-general of antifa notwithstanding. His comments were a fairly straightforward assessment of violent unrest in America over the last few years—and Trump’s eagerness to pour rhetorical fuel on the fire for partisan gain. Indeed, Trump proved Biden right soon thereafter by declining to condemn the 17-year-old right-wing gunman who shot and killed two protesters shortly after Biden’s remarks.

Ironically, if there is an extortionist in the race, it’s the candidate that Biden’s critics support. Trump became the third president in American history to be impeached after Congress discovered last year that he withheld military aid from Ukraine in a scheme to coerce the Ukrainian government into smearing Biden. Since his Senate acquittal, he’s applied the same strategy on the domestic front: threatening to deny federal funds to Michigan if it mailed absentee ballot applications to every registered voter, for example, and using moblike tactics to cajole praise from Democratic governors who sought federal pandemic aid. Extortion isn’t a crime or a sin for Trump: It’s a routine political strategy.

But the effort to paint Biden as some sort of criminal kingpin isn’t an isolated incident. Over the last month, Trumpworld has coalesced around a dark character sketch of Joe Biden. The Democratic nominee is, in their eyes, a man who does not feel bound by the rule of law, who tolerates political violence against perceived enemies, who regularly aligns himself with militant extremists, who can be easily manipulated by those around him, and who even shows public signs of cognitive deterioration. In trying to build a palatable case against Biden, conservatives are effectively running against a Bizarro version of Donald Trump.

Biden, for his part, unequivocally condemned riots and looting during his speech in Pittsburgh. “Rioting is not protesting,” he said. “Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting. It’s lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted. Violence will not bring change, it will only bring destruction. It’s wrong in every way. It divides instead of unites, destroys businesses, only hurts the working families that serve the community. It makes things worse across the board, not better.”

None of this was a stretch for Biden, who has spent a considerable portion of his political career championing tough-on-crime policies and taking credit for some of the major federal anti-crime laws of the 1980s and 1990s. During the primaries, these bare facts were no small political liability. Activists and organizers on the left lacerated him for his role in championing policies that contributed to mass incarceration, which had particularly dire consequences for communities of color. To the extent that the hard left of the Democratic Party (and beyond it) has rallied around Biden, it’s because they fear the existential consequences of his defeat far more than the frustrations they would experience under his presidency.

Those fears are well founded. Trump, as I’ve noted before, is more comfortable with political violence against his perceived foes than any other president in living memory. Multiple Trump supporters have already been arrested for plotting or attempting mass assassinations against top Democratic lawmakers and major news organizations. In recent years, the Republican Party has also embraced a grim vision of armed citizens who resist whatever they define as “tyranny,” whether it’s Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his opposition to Bureau of Land Management grazing fees or the St. Louis couple who brandished firearms at peaceful Black Lives Matters protesters from their front lawn.

Since Biden is too well-known to paint as some sort of far-left extremist himself, Trump and his allies have sought to portray him as easily manipulated by the left instead. Trump campaign ads have highlighted figures like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and “The Squad” as the true policy engine of a potential Biden administration. “Sleepy Joe Biden is just a Trojan Horse for the Radical Left Agenda,” Trump claimed on Twitter in July. “He will do whatever they want!” When he named Kamala Harris as his running mate last month, the Trump campaign called it “proof that Joe Biden is an empty shell being filled with the extreme agenda of the radicals on the left.”

I am skeptical, to say the least, that President Biden would help carry out the revolution when he can’t bring himself to call for abolishing the filibuster. But I’m more amused by the irony of anyone on the right complaining about an easily manipulated president. Trump’s presidency all but disproved the old adage that you can’t con a con man. He is reportedly prone to switching positions based on whoever spoke with him last, especially in matters where he has no firm stance, and largely dependent on Fox News and other conservative outlets to understand the world around him. His own allies and supporters have exploited this to secure pardons for family members and hawk policies and products for the federal government. The Trump campaign reserves ad space on Fox in the D.C. market to reportedly soothe his electoral anxieties.

For those who don’t think Biden is a secret Marxist or a complicit dupe, Trumpworld has a final line of defense: the Democratic nominee losing his mind. Trump and his allies routinely argue that Biden lacks the mental capacity or stability for the presidency, even doctoring footage to make it look like he slept through a local news interview. Even when Biden shows clear and unambiguous signs of his cognitive fitness, like delivering his live convention address last month, conservative figures like Rush Limbaugh baselessly claim that that footage must’ve been pre-taped or altered instead.

This line of attack bears an uncanny resemblance to widespread concerns raised about Trump’s mental and psychological fitness throughout his presidency. Those concerns aren’t unfamiliar to voters who have been closely following the news for the last four years. What’s more, Trump’s efforts to disprove those concerns often end up amplifying them. Bragging about passing a basic cognitive test for dementia patients and insisting that you didn’t have a series of mini-strokes last November when news outlets hadn’t reported otherwise does not exactly instill confidence.

Much of this can be chalked up to mere projection. Trump and his allies often describe Biden as hiding in a basement, for example, an apparent reference to his muted campaigning style during the height of the coronavirus pandemic this spring. But those descriptions only became a mainstay of conservative rhetoric after Trump himself was mocked for retreating to the White House’s subterranean bunker during the George Floyd protests in early June. The backlash among conservatives was brief but intense, and Trump’s heavy-handed treatment of protesters since then can be seen as an effort to wash away that indelible mental image of the president cowering underground.

It may also be a cynical attempt to ascribe Trump’s flaws to his opponent, hoping that voters will somehow dismiss them as the same. But it’s first and foremost a sign of failure on Trump’s part. With the economy in shambles and nearly 200,000 Americans dead from Covid-19, Trump and his allies now devote most of their energy toward stoking fear and resentment about their opponent. It doesn’t matter that Biden is a particularly hard man to fear or resent. Republicans will simply pretend that the Democratic nominee for president is someone the majority of Americans distrust and dislike: the Republican nominee for president.