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The State of Our Union

A response to the new Dispatch editorial.

President Joe Biden delivers the annual State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on March 7, 2024, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images)

The State of the Union should be an easy topic for a writer. It’s a televised event; you watch it; you react. 

But it’s actually quite challenging to find anything non-obvious to say about it, especially in 2024. Suspense around the address used to derive from what the president might say. Now, given his age, it derives from whether he might expire before the speech ends.

Joe Biden did not expire last night. Read any analysis today and that’s the top-line takeaway.

Not only did he survive, he was “fiery and confident” in his delivery—which, as it happens, also precisely describes his demeanor during the last State of the Union. American voters were so impressed by his performance at the time that, in the 13 months since that speech, his job approval has declined from 44.3 percent to 39.6 percent.

Perhaps a fiery, confident address in an election year is worth more than a fiery, confident address halfway through a president’s term. Biden did well enough that MAGA Republicans committed to the narrative that he’s frequently catatonic were left scrambling for an explanation afterward and settled, predictably, on “drugs.” Certainly, nervous Democrats who tuned in felt reassured that their nominee can still rise to the occasion when he and his team are given months to prepare. Public opinion about his fitness for a second term might tick up a few points.

And then, after his next bad moment on camera in an unscripted appearance, it’ll tick right back down. The State of the Union is always quickly forgotten; to undo the public’s impression of his fitness, Biden will need to rise to the occasion on every occasion until November.

And no one rises to the occasion every time.

Punditry following the evening’s festivities coalesced around a few main points. Biden’s address was unusually punchy and partisan, it was agreed, even for an election year. He opened with the most divisive material too, attacking the GOP over Ukraine and January 6 knowing that many receptive voters—in particular, Nikki Haley Republicans—might watch only the first few minutes before tuning out.

Visible in-frame over Biden’s left shoulder, House Speaker Mike Johnson struggled all evening to find facial expressions that conveyed disagreement without seeming off-puttingly disrespectful. The extended, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger choreography of exaggerated grimaces and head-shakes he settled on was familiar to me instantly as a longtime fan of the New York Jets.

Then came Sen. Katie Britt to deliver the Republican rebuttal to Biden’s speech. Of her performance, the less said, the better. Watching it, I found myself wondering whether she had seized the opportunity to deliberately sabotage her chances of becoming Donald Trump’s running mate, mindful of how close the last guy who held that position came to being murdered.

There isn’t much else to say about Thursday night. Biden is plainly too old to serve competently for another four years, one “fiery and confident” address notwithstanding, and his agenda is too liberal to make any conservative happy.

I’ll be at the polls early on Election Day to vote for him.

The real political news in America on Friday isn’t the State of the Union, it’s the publication of a rare new Dispatch editorial.

It’s very good, as you’d expect, with all the receipts one could want to explain why neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump should be president again. And it bears an unusual (too unusual) hallmark of analytic excellence: It quotes me, by name.

But it also ends up agnostic about the choice the country faces in November.

We understand and respect that Americans will respond to the dismal choice in front of them in different ways—for different reasons—but we encourage them to weigh their options carefully, clear-eyed about the potential ramifications of either man securing a second term and on guard against the natural impulse to justify their vote by turning a blind eye to the candidates’ obvious flaws. No matter who wins, we will desperately need as many people as possible who can still tell the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and lie. In a democracy, such people are the only guardrail against tyranny.

I sympathize with that agnosticism—to a point.

It’s hard for conservatives to endorse a Democrat for president, as the nature of coalition politics will inevitably require any Democratic leader to make policy concessions to progressives. Even with an issue like Israel’s conflict with Hamas in which Biden is clearly superior to the average leftist, political reality will inevitably require him to be worse than he should be.

“It’s just for four years” doesn’t work either as a rationalization. Judicial appointments made by a Democratic president aren’t “just for four years.” And, as those who read yesterday’s newsletter were reminded, left-wing initiatives that make it into federal law can be quite difficult to dislodge once the public has come to rely on them. One can’t even point to Biden as an exemplar of good government. The man isn’t above bribing important constituencies with hundreds of billions of dollars of your money when he believes doing so will help him get reelected.

To me, an “endorsement” requires a certain amount of earnest enthusiasm for a candidate and their program. I endorse Nikki Haley for president. I don’t endorse Joe Biden.

But who the next president is matters less to me than who the next president isn’t. Reelecting a man who tried once before to smash the constitutional order and who shows all indications of trying again would mean the end of America as we’ve known it, without exaggeration. Whether or not it would “destroy” the country in the sense that civil order would break down, it would amount to a popular repudiation of the classical liberalism on which the constitutional scheme is based. To absolve him for January 6 by restoring him to power would be to condone Caesarism as a model for American government, inescapably. 

You can’t elect an authoritarian demagogue vowing “retribution” against his enemies and scheming to co-opt arms of the state to his own vindictive ends and still credibly posture as “the last best hope of earth.” The disillusionment felt afterward by those of us who imagined we lived in a country nobler than that will be unfathomable.

Americans will never recover from it. No amount of wheezing about the genius of the Founders or the majesty of the Constitution after the Trump era ends will obscure the painful truth about what this country has become once that truth has been unmasked.

In a democracy, a country is whatever its people wish it to be. The institutions in which those people take, or used to take, such pride are a bequest from earlier generations, and bequests can be disclaimed. A vote for Trump is a vote to disgorge the American inheritance.

The “tell” that even some partisan conservatives recognize the stakes of this election is the frequency with which some of them attack Biden on social media as an “existential threat.” It’s a laughable idea, especially in light of the president’s senescence: Sometimes it seems like he has trouble ending a sentence, never mind ending the American experiment. And insofar as his policy agenda threatens anything, the great likelihood of a Republican majority in the Senate next year means the Democrats’ chances of moving ambitious legislation will soon approach zero.

But “Biden is an existential threat” is the sort of nonsense you need to promote in order to persuade wary undecideds to vote Republican. If Trump is the only true threat on the ballot, then the choice for voters is clear; if both candidates are a threat, however, then those voters might as well stick with the party whose policies they prefer, as America is doomed either way.

I trust that partisan conservatives would rather argue that neither candidate is an existential threat, as that’s another scenario in which policy should and probably would decide the election in their favor. But they can’t plausibly argue that in 2024. They know better, and they know that you know better.

We’ve all seen the videos.

Appealing to patriotism to oppose Trump won’t work on many diehard Republican partisans, as they can’t conceive that helping the other party—even once—could be better for America on balance than helping their own.

So our editorial shrewdly engages them on their own terms by asking a good question: Why should a principled conservative prefer to be governed by a Trump-led Republican Party at this point? “What good are ‘conservative’ gains,” it asks, “if ‘conservatism’ is defined today by loyalty to Donald Trump and tomorrow by the febrile musings of Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller?”

What’s the answer? How much civic and moral corruption are partisan conservatives prepared to tolerate for the sake of better border enforcement or originalist judges?

And for how long? The party of the right will always be preferable on some issues. If compromises with illiberalism must be made for the sake of enacting, say, a 15-week abortion ban, can we assume that an overtly fascist GOP would also be worth supporting so long as it promised to uphold that ban? Or would a stricter six-week ban be necessary before “good” conservatives were willing to reconcile themselves to fascism?

If conservatism, broadly speaking, is a belief in ordered liberty secured by the rule of law and limited government power, those who support Trump because some of his policies will be better than Biden’s are signing conservatism’s death warrant. They’re trading the proverbial forest for a few trees: For the sake of discrete policy gains in some areas, they’re handing over the American right to malicious authoritarians whose highest goal is to use state power to favor their friends and harass their enemies.

Instead of ordered liberty, they’ll get rule by whim. Case in point: On Friday, the leader of the Republican Party announced that he now opposes a ban on Chinese spyware platform TikTok, possibly because he’s getting paid by investors in the company to take that position or possibly because he’s just that vindictive toward TikTok’s chief competition. No one knows in which capricious direction Trump might steer the right going forward, or even why he might steer that way.

But whichever lousy direction he chooses, partisan conservatives will be expected to commit to it because, after all, the party of the right will always be preferable on some issues.

“None of this explains why we should support Biden in November,” they might reply, “only why we shouldn’t support Trump.” Which is true, technically: You can withhold your vote from the Republican without giving it to the Democrat. I’m sure there are plenty of Dispatch subscribers reading this right now who are planning to do just that.

But it’s awfully late in the game for impotent gestures like writing in Ronald Reagan, isn’t it?

That was defensible in 2016, when the contours of a Trump presidency were still hypothetical and the alternative was Hillary Clinton. It’s entirely unserious in 2024 after two impeachments, four indictments, a coup attempt, and an insurrection. If, against all odds, we get a third-party candidate this year who’s fit for office and stands a real chance of winning 270 electoral votes, there will be a fair argument that preventing a second Trump term does not require supporting a second Biden term.

But if we don’t get that candidate, and we almost certainly will not, there’s no alternative. An earnest effort to avert a Trump disaster has no room for writing in the Gipper.

And so, with respect and affection for my editors, I would say that agnosticism about the choice before us doesn’t cut it. Both candidates are unfit for office, but only one leads a movement that exalts boorish authoritarians keen to midwife a terrible form of politics in America. Empower them and they’ll make the state and the culture meaner, dumber, more corrupt, and more intrusive than it already is.

I don’t endorse Biden but I emphatically endorse stopping Trump. So Biden it is.

Let me end with a word to moderate Republicans or “Haley Republicans” or whatever term one wishes to use to describe the sort of person who would nod along to what I’ve written above.

You’re not nearly as angry as you should be.

I want to stress that because I know many conservatives who are toying with voting for Biden will eventually bump up against their partisan affiliation, a powerful element of identity for those who are politically engaged. Asking someone to betray their party by voting for the other party’s candidate isn’t quite the same as asking them to betray their faith, but it’s getting there. No one wants to betray their tribe. 

But your tribe has already betrayed you. Numerous times.

Everything Republicans said about smaller government in the Tea Party era has gone out the window under Trump, from getting serious about federal deficits to reining in runaway executive power. The sort of foreign policy to which most traditional conservatives subscribe is unquestionably better served nowadays by Democrats than by Trump’s GOP. All of the tributes paid to “constitutionalism” by right-wing admirers of the Founding Fathers went down the toilet after the 2020 election when most of the party lined up behind a coup plot.

Then, when Republican primary voters were given a chance this year to make amends and compromise with traditional conservatives by nominating Haley or Ron DeSantis, they opted instead to triple down on Trump—and did so in greater numbers after he was criminally indicted.

You should be furious. So angry that you can’t see straight.

These people don’t respect you and don’t pretend to. At every turn, when an opportunity arises for them to be conciliatory in the name of forging a winning coalition, they scoff and hoot at conservatives to quit the party if they don’t like its new direction.

You owe these miscreants precisely nothing. Not your friendship, not your respect, certainly not your vote. If you owe them anything, it’s contempt for what they’ve done to the party. They’re a civic menace.

Accept them for what they are and make peace with the fact that there’s no relationship left to “betray.”

You should be furious at them, and yet the anger on the modern right seems to run only one way. It’s forever Trump bellowing at a simpering Mitch McConnell or Nikki Haley taking the high road while MAGA supporters call her a traitor who’s been bought by the deep state.

There needs to be much more anger from the center-right toward the populist right. That project starts with making sure Trump loses this fall.

His defeat would be good for America by reestablishing respect for the constitutional order as a baseline requirement to holding higher office. It would be good for the GOP by showing populists in the starkest way that they can’t win elections by taking the party hostage. And it would be good for conservatism by proving that the “conservative party” needs a meaningfully conservative agenda if it wants to earn conservative votes.

But if those high-minded strategic reasons aren’t enough, you should want payback against the people who betrayed you and what you believe. Withholding your vote from Trump might not do it, unfortunately; to maximize the chances of defeating him, that vote should go to the one candidate on the ballot who might plausibly defeat him. He and his supporters need a reckoning and it’s within our power to deliver it. We should.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.