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Trump Is Attacking Biden With Lies—and Getting Away With It

When will the Democrats learn to fight back?

Jim Vondruska/Getty Images

Donald Trump reassured his adoring supporters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, over the weekend that he will assume a new role: democracy’s defender.

“If Joe Biden wants to make this race a question of which candidate will defend our democracy and protect our freedoms, and I say to crooked Joe—and he is crooked, the most corrupt president we’ve ever had—we will win that fight and we’re going to win it very big,” Trump said on Saturday. “Joe Biden is not the defender of American democracy. Joe Biden is the destroyer of American democracy.”

Well. The first thing to say, which almost goes without saying, is that this is outrageous and Orwellian. Trump and his people have spent months speaking openly about how they’re going to destroy democracy. They don’t say it quite that way, of course. But that’s what it all amounts to. The New York Times has broken a lot of the news along these lines—not, by the way, by having to ferret it out like Woodward and Bernstein. Quite often, the Trump people have leaked their plans to the Times. They’re bragging about it.

And just this past weekend, the Times ran another such piece under the headline “How Trump and His Allies Plan to Wield Power in 2025.” Among the specifics: Use the Justice Department for revenge; carry out an extreme immigration crackdown (which earlier reports have said would include detention camps on a scale massively beyond anything ever seen in this country); use the military against Mexico and at the border, and maybe in American cities to fight crime; fill executive agencies with loyalists and lackeys; hire lawyers “who will not restrain him” (and these will be a new breed of humans. Federalist Society–approved lawyers are, to Trump, a bunch of squishes).

So that’s the reality. But Trump has known for years, since long before he got into politics, that you can tie the press up in knots by asserting the opposite of reality. Under the normal rules of the game, they have to report what you say, and they’re not allowed to say, “Actually, what he just said is a lie,” because that would break the rules of journalism.

Those rules are changing—because of Trump. But meanwhile there is a parallel media, led by Fox News, that amplifies and exaggerates his lies, continually finding new and creative ways to drill them into the brains of confused citizens. And this media will take Trump’s claim, for example, that Biden is “the most corrupt president we’ve ever had”—a totally preposterous nonsequitur that doesn’t even qualify as an argument—and run with it.

Will it work? Only if the Democrats let it.

Biden has stepped up his attacks on Trump in the last two or three weeks. But too much of the time, he’s still playing by old rules that don’t apply anymore. He rarely mentions Trump’s name—an old convention of incumbent politics based on the idea that mentioning the name just builds the foe up. Well, Trump’s a former president, and everybody knows his name anyway. Besides which, Trump mentions Biden’s name 30 times a speech. If Trump is going to be talking directly about him, saying things that are the exact opposite of the truth, Biden might as well talk directly about Trump, saying things that are true.

This tendency to hang back and shadowbox instead of throwing direct punches isn’t restricted to Biden; it’s party-wide, and it goes way back. The most famous instance dates to 2004, when nominee John Kerry and his team decided not to respond at first to the disingenuous Swift Boat attacks.

And this tendency persists. Just last Friday, Mark Hosenball reported at that Senate Democrats were sitting on 400 pages of evidence about the financial dealings of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump while both were working in the White House. Maybe, you might think, some hearings in the Democratic-controlled Senate on these matters would make an interesting counterpoint to the House’s Hunter Biden zealotry.

So what were the Senate Democrats doing with that evidence? For now—nothing. Sources explained to Hosenball that the House’s Biden probes were sufficiently self-discrediting to your average swing voter that they didn’t even require a response.

Who knows. They could be right. But I’ll just say two things here.

First, I’ve been covering these people for a long, long time, and this is always, always, their first reflex: not to go toe-to-toe with the Republicans. Not to mix it up. I remember the days after September 11, when it was revealed that the Bush administration received a number of warnings about a possible terrorist strike on the U.S. mainland. I remember saying to some Democrats, why don’t you go after them? Bush was too popular, I was told, or it wasn’t the time to play politics. There’s always an excuse for not acting. Always.

Second, imagine the Republicans in a similar situation. You think they’d say, No, we don’t need to attack? Of course they wouldn’t. And we can debate until the cows come home whether, say, all those Benghazi hearings and investigations were effective. I don’t know. But I do know that Hillary Clinton didn’t become president, and I feel certain that just dragging her up there for hearings, even though she largely ate their lunch, still created in swing voters’ minds a picture of a woman always on the defensive, always having to answer for something (again, every single allegation was false, but that didn’t matter).

We are in a new and different time. In fact it’s not even new anymore. It’s been obvious for at least eight years, if not going back to the Bush years, when a senior White House adviser anonymously snarked to Ron Suskind in The New York Times Magazine about liberals being captives of “the reality-based community.” It’s still not clear that Democrats get that the times have changed. They have 11 months to get it before this democracy ends, on their watch.