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Villains of History
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Villains of History

A hostage crisis, with the president as captor-in-chief.

Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden make their way to the podium during a campaign event at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, North Carolina, on June 28, 2024. (Photo by Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

A useful way to think about the presidential election is in terms of the three I’s—inflation, immigration, and infirmity.

All three are momentous political problems for Joe Biden. Against a strong Republican candidate, each one in isolation might be fatal.

Against a mediocre Republican, one might be survivable but perhaps not two. Incumbency is a powerful advantage, yet not so powerful that it can’t be overcome by a minimally competent challenger with solid material to work with. That was the lesson of 2020.

Against Donald Trump, any two of the three might be survivable. Swing voters will look for excuses not to restore a maniac to power, after all. They might have credited an aged Joe Biden who had lost control of the border for the roaring economy and low cost of living, or for securing the border if the economy were sluggish and inflation high. Or, with a double whammy of rising inflation and immigration weighing him down, they might have pointed to the president’s comparative good health and cogency as reasons to give him the benefit of the doubt over whatever the hell this is.

But when all three of the three I’s are weighing him down?

The irony of the three I’s is that the one that’s least under Biden’s control as a practical matter is the only one that remained somewhat under his control as a political matter as of last week. He’s never been able to do much about inflation; he could have done something about immigration but allowed that ship to sail long ago. So he was left trying to manage public perceptions of his infirmity, which made Thursday’s debate crucial. Voters dislike Trump enough that they might have accepted a 90-minute simulacrum of vigor by the president as proof that he’s not as infirm as he sometimes appears.


He can’t win anymore. Not even against Trump.

Rather than face that fact and do what little they can to avert the looming civic catastrophe they helped engineer, Joe Biden and his entourage of relatives, cronies, and parasites seem prepared to try to brazen it out until Election Day. I’ve written about the Republican hostage crisis many times; four days removed from last week’s debate, America is now trapped in a Democratic hostage crisis. With the president himself as the captor-in-chief.

Through their vanity, hubris, and lust for power, he and his team are going to bring about a second Trump administration and the sustained constitutional crisis that will inevitably follow.

In time, they’ll be seen as villains of history.

Frankly, at this point, they’ll be seen as villains of history even if Biden drops out tomorrow.

Only his inner circle knows how long he’s resembled the man we saw onstage on Thursday more so than the man who does a serviceable job reading the State of the Union teleprompter every February, but leaks have started to spring since the debate. This weekend Axios reported that Jill Biden and several top aides “took steps early in his term to essentially rope off the president” from the White House’s residential staff.

A separate Axios story cited sources who claim that Biden is reliably present and engaged each day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. but that he’s more likely to become “fatigued” outside those hours. Which sounds suspiciously like sundowning.

Foreign diplomats and Democratic donors also have begun whispering to the press about episodes that concerned them, with one donor left “shaken” at a fundraiser last September after the president told the same anecdote twice.

“This was all predictable, and it pisses me off that everyone is acting shocked now,” one Democratic operative told the Wall Street Journal about the uproar over Biden’s debate performance. “The shocking thing is that people engaged in this deception, or delusion, or both, for so long.”

Why so many went on engaging in that deception/delusion long after much of the public had already lost faith in Biden’s mental wherewithal is a fascinating psychological question, but one partial explanation is that the White House browbeat those who refused. “Biden’s allies worked behind the scenes to stave off a potential primary challenge, making clear that politicians and operatives who contemplated one would be summarily blackballed,” the Journal reported. “Reporters and commentators who pointed out the obvious got similar treatment, berated in public and private and accused of helping Trump return to the White House.”

By early 2023 it was clear that Biden’s predecessor as president would be a formidable candidate for the office again. After Trump’s lead in the Republican primary soared following his first indictment in Manhattan in late March, Biden and his team had every reason to take seriously the possibility of a second MAGA administration. If they knew the president was in serious decline—more so even than was obvious from his public appearances—that was the moment for them to do something good for their party and for their country by revealing the truth and clearing the way for a more competitive nominee.

They didn’t. In the end, “our democracy” meant less to them than Joe Biden’s vanity and their own job security. For the second time in this era, the solemnly held principles of a political party’s leadership turned out to be a lie. We all already suspected it, but now we know for sure.

We’re left today with a hostage crisis and an election in which the outcome can only be terrible to greater or lesser degrees.

The least bad outcome is one in which Biden is replaced and his replacement defeats Trump. But that replacement is likely to be Kamala Harris, a vice president who isn’t well liked and in whom no one has much confidence. Thanks to the White House’s villainy, she’ll now have all of four months—at most—to try to rally a leery electorate around her. Her presidency would be haunted by perceptions that she was a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency nominee by a party that didn’t really want her.

The next best outcome is Biden hanging in there and winning somehow, giving us a second term in which an already enfeebled president will grow increasingly incapacitated and quite possibly be unable to complete his term. Having seen his true condition on display at the debate, America’s enemies will seek to take full advantage.

The worst outcome is, well, you know. It also happens to be the most likely outcome.

Joe Biden controls enough delegates to ensure his party’s nomination and so, unless and until he withdraws, Democrats and the broader anti-Trump coalition are a hostage to his whims. Even if there were a way to force him off the ticket, there’d be no non-divisive way to do so and not enough time before November for the party to repair the divisions it had created. So Biden can and probably will insist on fighting on to Election Day as the Democratic nominee even as his polling disintegrates and he suffers further humiliating “senior moments” in public, which he will certainly do.

If instead he chose to withdraw, he’d throw his party into the unprecedented chaos of a nominee dropping out shortly before the election. Desperate liberals would scramble to try to find a plausible last-second alternative to Harris before inevitably concluding that they can’t, achieving nothing in the process except to further undermine her publicly. Already, in fact, Biden officials are warning donors that Harris would control most of the campaign’s war chest if he drops out, which sounds less like a statement of fact than a warning about the dire consequences if they abandon him.

But it doesn’t look like he intends to drop out. The president discussed the state of the campaign with his family this weekend at Camp David and, wouldn’t you know it, the same people who have been using him as a gravy train for all their lives want him to hang in there and roll the dice on one more term. “One of the strongest voices imploring Mr. Biden to resist pressure to drop out was his son Hunter Biden,” the New York Times reported, which is true to the spirit of this wretched era in politics. At this point, why wouldn’t the fate of American democracy hinge on the selfish interests of a grifting crackhead?

The logic of hostage-taking has suffused Biden’s operation so entirely in the last 72 hours that the campaign is allegedly gaming out how to force the party to unify behind him. “They know Biden just needs to make it to the Democratic convention in Chicago, which opens eight weeks from today,” Axios wrote of the president’s advisers. “After that, unity is the only choice.”

And what if he faints at a campaign appearance in October or lapses into a fugue state during his September debate with Trump? You just read the answer: Unity is the only choice.

Except it isn’t. It might be for strong Democratic partisans and for diehard anti-Trumpers like me but there aren’t enough of us to drag the old man over the finish line. Biden needs swing voters too. And each time another “senior moment” happens, and they will, he’ll lose more of them.

The president can’t win with three I’s hanging around his neck. But Jill Biden might get another Vogue cover or two before he leaves office if he stays on the ticket, which I guess is what’s really important.

Biden’s operatives let greed, pride, and fear of irrelevance steer them into a campaign they had every reason to know would implode, and by so doing they’re going to end up midwifing a fascist succession in the White House. They’re not villains of history to the degree that Republican voters, the supreme political villains of this era, are.

But they’re villains all the same. And realistically there’s not enough time left for them to do anything about it.

This tweet from Dartmouth College political science professor Brendan Nyhan caught my attention.

Nyhan’s analogy isn’t perfect, as Biden is a sitting president whose views on policy are in line with those of his party’s establishment and Trump in 2016 very much was not. The difference between Republican officials failing to stop him then and Democratic officials failing to stop Biden in 2024 is the difference between not putting down an insurrection and starting one.

But if it isn’t perfect, it’s uncomfortably close to being true for those of us who ditched the GOP in order to align with liberals in what we thought was common cause against a mutual illiberal enemy. The Democratic hostage crisis that the Biden campaign has created resembles the Republican hostage crisis that alienated conservatives like me in more ways than one.

In both cases, extreme media malpractice helped bring it about. In 2016 that malpractice took the form of too much coverage for Donald Trump during the Republican primary, making him the “main character” of the race and gifting him with earned media worth literally billions of dollars. In 2024 the press had the opposite problem: Whether because of self-delusion, partisan bias, or bullying by the White House, the media failed to expose the extent of Biden’s decline until it was laid shockingly bare at the debate.

The cowardice of party chieftains is another common denominator. In 2016, establishment Republicans knew that their populist base despised them and that the party would fracture if they moved in unison to try to quash a Trump nomination. They opted to bite their tongues and play along with him instead, believing that he’d lose to Hillary Clinton and that the grassroots would learn a hard lesson about electability before everything got back to normal. And now here we are.

Establishment Democrats are biting their tongues after last week’s debate too but not (mostly) because they fear a revolt from below. They fear retribution from above. Biden is the leader of the party and its nominee for president until he chooses not to be; calling on him to drop out will offend him, invite reprisals, draw accusations that the critic isn’t a “team player,” and require an embarrassing reversal if he decides to stick it out such that “unity is the only choice” come November.

There’s a third way that the two crises are similar. Both demonstrate the pathologically toxic psychology of devout partisanship.

In the case of Republicans, that toxicity is a daily preoccupation of this newsletter. For the sake of maintaining populist control of the GOP and encouraging unity behind its leader, the grassroots right has resolved to excuse or defend literally anything Donald Trump does, no matter how malign. As I said: The supreme political villains of this era.

But many Democrats spent the last few days enabling Biden’s hostage-taking by descending into nasty “join or die” partisanship of their own. Few former Republicans have endeared themselves to liberals more completely since 2016 than Tim Miller of The Bulwark, who wrote a bestselling book of regrets describing how he and his former party paved the way for Trump’s ascendance. Yet Miller was attacked repeatedly from the left on social media this weekend for finding Biden’s debate performance mortifying and demanding that Democrats stop gaslighting Americans (not to mention their own donors) about the president’s condition.

As a result, for the first time since 2016, a rift is forming in the anti-Trump coalition between the left and center-right that boils down to tribalism. People like Miller, yours truly, and many members of The Dispatch staff shed our partisan loyalties years ago and have since grown to despise political tribalism as it turns uglier and more idiotic. Despite my rooting interest in the election, my judgment about what’s politically useful for the candidate I intend to support—Joe Biden just had a bad night!—will not influence my belief in what’s true. There’s already a party that specializes in that and I’ll never be part of it again.

But many partisan Democrats feel differently. They’re on a team, now and always. And they resent it terribly when some of the players take to undermining the coach in public, even if the coach is drooling on himself—especially if the coach is drooling on himself. If you’re not willing to engage in a bit of calculated emperor’s-new-clothes denial about Biden’s cognitive wherewithal at a fraught moment, what are you doing on this team in the first place?

What a political coup it’ll be for the villains of history if, by foolishly persisting with this doomed candidacy, they manage to set the pro-democracy movement at each other’s throats and lead it to splinter into camps of those who think Joe Biden can’t win, that he can win but is in no condition to govern for five more years, and that he can win and will muddle through a second term somehow, magically.

That’ll be a productive use of the next four months of the campaign. And all because the president has convinced himself that he’s an indispensable man, of whom the graveyards are full.

When I was younger and heard references to “the stupid party and the evil party,” I didn’t know which was which. Or maybe I did know and, being a conservative, resented the suggestion that I was evil for voting Republican.

Now that I’m older and have lived through this era, I understand how evil the evil party is. And this past week has reminded me how stupid the stupid party is.

It’s indescribably stupid as a political matter for Democrats to persist with Biden as their nominee after that debate. Their strategy for winning was to try to turn the race into a referendum on Trump’s fitness for office. Instead they’ve turned it into a referendum on Biden’s fitness, with every nail-biting verbal hiccup on the campaign trail for the next four months destined to reignite the “how far gone is he?” debate.

He and his operation might move heaven and earth for weeks to come in order to convince reluctant liberals to circle the wagons around him—only for him to trip and fall at a rally or wander around during a public appearance or what have you.

Every bit of goodwill they might regain through sheer partisan exertion can be lost in an instant. And, at some point, almost assuredly will.

Then, after it happens and Trump is handed a second term on a silver platter, the president’s party will engage in the most ferociously bitter political recriminations of our lifetimes. As vicious as I thought those would be before Biden’s horrific debate, it’ll be an order of magnitude worse now. The president, his family, his advisers, Democratic leaders, the media—no one will be spared from accountability for their role in maneuvering America into an election in which reelecting a demagogic coup-plotting felon became the “responsible” thing to do. They could have stopped this candidacy months or years ago. They knew the stakes. They refused.

Everyone will recognize them as the villains of history that they are.

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.