February 20, 2024 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

If Biden is risky for Democrats, Trump is far riskier for the GOP

Trump and the Republicans are one. If he goes down, they all go down.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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There isn’t much difference, in terms of age, between Joe Biden (81) and Donald Trump (77). However, there is a lot of difference in the way each side talks about their respective candidate’s age. For Democrats, there’s a range of discussion, anywhere from “age is just a number” to “we ignore this problem at our peril!” Whatever they think about Biden’s age, fact is, they are thinking about it. Republicans, however, don’t. Trump will be their man. They don’t spend time wringing their hands.

I think this fundamental difference accounts for the lopsidedness of public discourse on this tedious subject. No one on the Republican side – neither congresspeople, newspeople, nor regular voters – thinks about Trump’s age. Meanwhile, just enough on the Democratic side, particularly influential members of the pundit corps, do think about Biden’s age, and when they do, they give credence to rightwing attacks on the president and help fix the issue to our limited attention spans. They open a space that the Republican side doesn’t allow to be opened.

The result has been an imbalance, with an extraordinary amount of focus on whether Biden is too risky for the Democrats and virtually no focus on whether Trump is too risky for the Republicans. Indeed, the focus on Biden’s age – and age alone – obscures the larger question of risk-exposure to the GOP and the obvious answer to it, to wit: are the Republicans really going to gamble their immediate and perhaps long-term futures on the weakest candidate of our lifetimes? Yes, they are.

Not only has Trump purged the GOP of free speech and thought; not only has he undermined future recruitment; not only has he chased away Americans who vote habitually; and not only has he made potential voters lose faith in voting. He has made everything about GOP politics begin and end with him. If he collapses, so does the party.

As I said, there’s an imbalance. But I think that’s going to change. We won’t see stories about the risk the party is taking until it’s clear to most Americans most of the time that the party really is going to field a candidate who has been proven to be a fraud and rapist, not to mention one who’s standing trial for stealing government secrets and leading an attempted paramilitary takeover of the US government. We are not seeing those stories quite yet, I think, because there are still so many people who still can’t quite believe the GOP would be that stupid.

When those stories come, however, they won’t be exclusive to the obvious, eg, the nearly 100 criminal counts against the presumptive nominee. They will also include the less obvious, chiefly that Donald Trump has “purified” the GOP to its essence. He has consolidated power such that he’s no longer running a campaign. He’s leading a vengeance movement. In doing so, he has made the 2024 election about him and him alone, not his policies, not his “principles” — just him. 

But the risk is not just to him. Trump has become synonymous with his party in ways none of us has seen in this country in our lifetimes. He has assimilated virtually the entire GOP machine so that individuals are no longer free to speak for themselves. These days, the Republicans say the same thing at the same time for the same reasons. They conform to a totalizing groupthink, according to which Trump is not only immune to politics but morally infallible. To them, he’s already America’s god-emperor. November’s election is merely confirmation after the fact. 

Because Trump and the GOP are one, every GOP candidate down the ballot is exposed to a degree of risk that no Democrat is exposed to. Biden, though president, isn’t synonymous with his party. It operates separately from him, a fact that’s illustrated by the tedious debate on the Democratic side over his age. Democrats are not watched by the thought police. Republicans are. If Trump goes down, they all go down. 

They might continue going down after this year’s election. As Claire Potter wrote recently, the Republicans have a recruitment problem. While the Democrats have a deep bench, on account of being a diverse party that functions separately from its current leader, the GOP “is dangerously thin on plausible national candidates,” she said. Why? “Because Trump, Trumpism and Trump partisans have sucked down all the political oxygen, bullied talented conservatives into retirement, and terrified the remainder of his party into a cowed silence.”

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They have a base problem, too. As Claire wrote, in a different piece, Trump has chased out of the Republican Party many educated white middle-class suburban voters (sometimes called independents or swing voters) who can tell a fact from a lie. They are finding a place for themselves in the Democratic Party and they are unlikely to return as long as the Republican Party remains as Trumpy as it is, and as weird.

As GOP strategist Ryan Girdusky said after last week’s special election in New York, in which swing voters elected a Democrat by eight points: 

“We lost high propensity (mostly college-educated white voters). We gained lots of low-propensity voters who don’t show up. And the weirdness around conservative culture (Taylor Swift is a CIA plant, election was stolen, arrest women for having abortions) is only making these people run away more. It’s hurting up and down the ballot almost everywhere we go. The fact that low-propensity voters won’t vote early, because they believe in nonsensical conspiracies about voting machines, means we can’t make up for it with election day turnout. It’s happening everywhere and could happen in November.”

To replace them, Trump and the Republicans have been courting white working-class Americans, or “low-propensity voters.” The problem is, Claire said, many of them are not in the habit of voting. If they do vote, it can be a hardship that many of them can’t overcome. (“Working class lives … are difficult, stressful and ask adults to stretch their resources, finances and energy beyond capacity,” Claire wrote.) On top of all that, Trump has encouraged these people to believe that policies that would make voting for him easier, like mail-in balloting, are fraudulent. 

“Republicans may have a bigger problem in November 2024 than we previously understood,” Claire wrote. “By championing policies that limit the franchise, breed distrust in the electoral system, and devalue voting – and at the same time, building their electoral strategy around a base that is least likely to show up on voting day – they have created a problem that will only intensify as Trump and his allies chase conservative voters who care about democracy from the GOP.”

So not only has Trump purged the GOP of free speech and thought; not only has he undermined future recruitment; not only has he chased away Americans who vote habitually; and not only has he made potential voters lose faith in voting. He has made everything about GOP politics begin and end with him. If he collapses, so does the party.

There’s no equivalence on the Democratic side. The party privileges free speech and thought. Its bench is deeper than it’s been in decades. It values making voting easier – for everyone. And Biden never acts like he and the Democratic Party are one. Indeed, he regularly refers to his administration as the Biden-Harris administration, a nod to the vice president but also to the belief that his achievements are not his alone. 

Sure, there’s risk. Biden is old. Very old. That might matter to a lot of people. But other than that, there’s little about Biden that screams “too risky.” Actually, it’s the opposite. Biden is the incumbent. He has an era-defining record of accomplishment. He’s popular with his own party. Plus, he hasn’t been proven to be a fraud and rapist, and he isn’t on trial for insurrection. Indeed, as he was in 2020, Biden is probably going to be the consensus candidate. All things considered, he’s a good bet. 

Trump, on the other hand, is not. 

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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