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There can be no doubt that in rejecting Donald Trump, voters in the United States removed one of the most cold-hearted, openly racist, and bigoted administrations to govern the U.S. in modern history. There are tangible Trump policies, including on immigration, that Joe Biden can, and almost certainly will, change that will have a direct, significant impact, particularly on some of the most vulnerable people in society. Biden has promised to swiftly roll back scores of Trump’s dangerous edicts. Extreme right-wing forces in the U.S. will lose their unprecedented kinship with a sitting president who has constantly used his office to embolden, encourage, and defend them. All of this is welcome news.
At the same time, the nomination and election of Joe Biden should not be construed as a major leap forward. The Democrats’ victory in the general election was made possible by the horrifying death toll of the Covid-19 pandemic and the criminal recklessness of the Trump administration, rather than an enthusiastic embrace of Biden’s policies, ideas, or his nearly half-centurylong record in public office. For millions of voters, this was not a choice between Biden and Trump — it was a referendum on Trump, and Biden’s name on the ballot was a stand-in for “No!”
For millions of voters, this was not a choice between Biden and Trump — it was a referendum on Trump, and Biden’s name on the ballot was a stand-in for “No!”
Trump was very good for the business of the Democratic Party power brokers. Biden’s win was not a decisive victory born of the politics of the party establishment, no matter how hard that establishment wants to claim it. If anything, it showed that millions of Americans, including large numbers of progressives and young voters, were willing to put their own political principles and preferences aside in an effort to ensure Trump would be defeated. That is hardly a conservative Democratic mandate delivered by the people.
Throughout the past two electoral cycles in particular, Democratic Party elites have openly embraced the principle that waging war against the left is crucial to maintaining their grip on power. They engaged in systematic red-baiting against Bernie Sanders in both 2016 and 2020. They railed against Medicare for All, supported massive corporate bailouts and giveaways, and backed bloated Pentagon budgets. While attacking the left, Democratic Party leaders have steadily embraced George W. Bush and other imperial Republicans as part of their imagined coalition of adults in the room. The past four years of Trump have brought remarkable public clarity to one of the most pernicious aspects of the two-party system: The traditional elites of the Democratic and Republican parties have more affection for each other than they do for the ordinary people whose fates they love to wield as rhetorical ornaments in their campaign speeches.
There have been a number of transparent realities clarified by the Trump era. We know that there are more than 73 million people who watched the open corruption, gross incompetence, spiteful and dangerous policymaking, and the constant encouragement of racist violence and hatred overseen by this administration and chose to endorse it with their votes for four more years of Trump. The whole world can see how the Republican Party morphed almost overnight into one gigantic campaign rally celebrating the most insane directives and lies of a notorious charlatan who boasts of his mastery of bankruptcies. But Trump did not alter the ideological core of the Republican Party, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has frequently lamented while nostalgically dreaming of the golden era of Bush’s murderous eight years. If anything, Trump’s reign has quite dramatically exposed the GOP for what it really is and has always been. Trump has forced the Republicans to cast aside any feigned principles Pelosi erroneously continues to portray as sincerely held.
We have also seen a great unmasking of the institutional Democratic Party. More than any administration in modern history, Trump’s tenure presented a clear opportunity for the Democrats to show the strength of their collective spine and serve as a moral alternative to the horrors of Trump and the Republican Party. Overwhelmingly, this did not happen. Instead, we watched the Democratic leadership spend more than three years prioritizing the investigation into Trump’s alleged dealings with Russia and Russians over all else. We heard time and again the very Democratic Party politicians who warned us that Trump had been compromised by a hostile foreign power and represented the gravest danger to our Democratic system in history vote to give expanded and sweeping military and surveillance powers to that very president. On occasions when Trump has sought to end or scale back U.S. wars, the Democratic foreign policy elite has at times stepped up to defend militarism or push for more hawkish paths.
It is in the context of these dynamics that Biden was presented to the electorate as the only viable electoral alternative to Trump. While Biden’s path to the Democratic nomination in 2020 involved a variety of factors, including the backing of older African American voters in the crucial South Carolina primary and subsequent Super Tuesday contests, that was not the only story. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s brief stint as a candidate mostly consisted of spending enormous amounts of money smearing Sanders in a relentless campaign of paid advertising and the peddling of scurrilous “oppo research.” Hillary Clinton continued to relitigate the 2016 primaries, including through a strategically timed release of a hagiography of her masquerading as a Hulu documentary. Biden and other candidates, prominently Pete Buttigieg, deployed red-baiting and frequently invoked decades-old comments Sanders made about the Cuban revolution and Fidel Castro, just as Clinton had used the Nicaraguan Sandinistas of the 1980s and Cuba of the 1960s in her attacks against Sanders in 2016.
Liberal media outlets, most prominently media personalities at MSNBC, joined in the effort, featuring regular, sweeping characterizations of Sanders supporters as sexist and privileged “Bernie Bros,” while discounting, ignoring, or mischaracterizing Sanders’s widespread support among an incredibly diverse range of voters. After Sanders won the Nevada caucus with overwhelming union worker, youth, immigrant, and Latino backing, MSNBC host Chris Matthews compared the victory to the Nazi invasion of France. Chuck Todd quoted a conservative writer who compared the online supporters of Sanders, a Jewish descendant of Holocaust survivors, to Nazi “Brownshirts.” The campaign to push Biden on the electorate also included high stakes, behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Barack Obama, Clinton, and other elite Democratic figures, and the simultaneous withdrawal of other establishment candidates who issued hurried endorsements of Biden on the eve of Super Tuesday.
The true utility of courting neoconservatives and Never Trump right-wingers was to use it as a scaremongering cudgel against progressive values and candidates.
Perhaps the most fictitious narrative in this story was that of the importance of the so-called Never Trump Republicans. For the past four years, people like Bill Kristol, David Frum, Rick Wilson, Max Boot, and Jennifer Rubin basked in their cozy seats in cable news green rooms in between on-air fluffing sessions from liberal hosts and countless retweets from the #Resistance crowd on Twitter. Pelosi and Michelle Obama, as well as celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres, prominently sought to rehabilitate Bush’s image, and scores of Democratic establishment figures heaped praise on the horrid records of war criminals John McCain and the late George H.W. Bush. The establishment camp of the Democratic Party and its online minions projected the myth that securing the votes of Republicans was a crucial necessity to beat Trump. They amplified the message that choosing Sanders would lose this vital demographic and ensure a Trump victory. It was always a fraud. Trump actually increased his share of Republican voters in the election versus 2016. The much-hyped Never Trump Lincoln Project did not play a crucial role in shifting anything except large sums of money, including from liberals, into coffers controlled by its conservative founders. The true utility of courting neoconservatives and Never Trump right-wingers was to use it as a scaremongering cudgel against progressive values and candidates.
The dirty truth is that neoconservatives felt at home with the establishment Democratic Party, particularly on matters of national security policy, long before Trump came to power. More than a decade ago, as President-elect Obama and Biden built their national security and foreign policy teams from 2008 to 2009, they stacked their administration with Democratic hawks and cruise missile liberals and kept George W. Bush’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates in charge of the Pentagon. Conservative Republicans heaped praise on their appointments. Karl Rove called their Cabinet “reassuring,” and Boot, a neoconservative writer and former McCain campaign staffer, beamed about the foreign policy team: “I am gobsmacked by these appointments, most of which could just as easily have come from a President McCain.” He added that Clinton would be a “powerful” voice “for ‘neoliberalism’ which is not so different in many respects from ‘neoconservativism.’” Boot’s colleague Michael Goldfarb wrote in the neoconservative Weekly Standard that he saw “certainly nothing that represents a drastic change in how Washington does business. The expectation is that Obama is set to continue the course set by Bush in his second term.” When it came to national security policy, Goldfarb was largely correct.
Obama and Biden dramatically expanded U.S. drone strikes, including systematic strikes in new countries. They initiated a secret bombing campaign in Yemen in late 2009 that eventually metastasized into the genocidal Saudi-led scorched-earth war that continues to this day. They facilitated regime change in Libya, surged troops in Afghanistan, and imposed or tightened deadly economic sanctions in a variety of nations. The Obama-Biden administration developed an almost clinical process for compiling kill lists and then sentencing people to death through a Frankenstein extralegal system of unofficial judges, juries, and executioners. Among their kills were several U.S. citizens, including a teenager who was never accused of any crime. Obama openly rejected calls to hold CIA torturers accountable and failed to close Guantánamo. No, Biden and the institutional Democratic Party didn’t need to convince these Never Trump Republicans to join their cause in 2020. They were already there.
What the Obama presidency revealed about national security policy is that the institutional elites of the Democratic Party don’t even believably pretend to embrace progressive values or priorities, particularly on foreign policy and national security. Rhetoric is cheap, but who you choose in your Cabinet speaks to your actual principles. Under Obama-Biden, all of the political capital was used on courting the right by dismissing or attacking the left. There is a consensus among the old establishment Democrats and Republicans that militarism and the myths of American exceptionalism are eternal, nonpartisan truths. In their eyes, a team of rivals doesn’t include leftists. It is a tactical or strategic rivalry among a handful of camps within the same war party about how best to conduct imperial policy.
Rhetoric is cheap, but who you choose in your Cabinet speaks to your actual principles.
Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is a well-known interventionist who backed the disastrous regime-change war in Libya, advocated for more military action in Syria, and, while serving in the Obama administration, supported the criminally brutal war in Yemen and arming Saudi Arabia. In 2015, it was Blinken who announced that the Obama-Biden administration was bolstering its support to the Saudis specifically for their war in Yemen. “We have expedited weapons deliveries, we have increased our intelligence-sharing, and we have established a joint coordination planning cell in the Saudi operation center,” Blinken said during a visit to Riyadh in April 2015. He praised the Saudis for “sending a strong message” through their war. As the political winds on Saudi Arabia shifted in 2018, particularly after the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Blinken joined in criticisms of the Trump administration’s support for Saudi Arabia and the mounting civilian death toll in Yemen and signed onto a letter from former Obama officials that stated, “It is past time for America’s role in this disastrous war in Yemen to end.”
The nominee for director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, was a key player in developing the Obama administration’s global assassination program. She was a prominent defender of Gina Haspel, a central player in the CIA’s kidnap and torture program, and supported her nomination by Trump to serve as CIA director. Haines was reportedly so central to the drone assassination program that she would at times be awoken in the middle of the night to help decide whether to kill someone on the other side of the world with a Reaper or Predator drone. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s pick for national security adviser, is a Clinton acolyte who was a central player in the Obama-Biden Libya regime-change war and a well-known proponent of U.S. militarism. As Obama’s deputy national security adviser recalled about Sullivan, “On the spectrum of people in our administration, he tended to favor more assertive U.S. engagement on issues,” advocating “responses that would incorporate some military element.”
Among the reported frontrunners to take the helm of the CIA is Bush’s former national security briefer Michael Morell. Like Haspel, Morell is career CIA and has defended the post-9/11 use of kidnapping and torture. He was also a major proponent of drone strikes and defended Haspel’s role in the destruction of CIA torture tapes. In the aftermath of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, Morell sought to place some of the blame on internet and communications companies “building encryption without keys” following Edward Snowden’s revelations about National Security Agency spying. “That is all, at the end of the day, back in Snowden’s lap, in my view,” Morell said.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden has already come out forcefully against Morell, saying that appointing another “torture apologist” as CIA director was a “nonstarter.” But remember, when Obama and Biden failed to get John Brennan’s nomination as CIA director off the ground due to similar concerns from Wyden and his Senate allies, they just gave Brennan a non-Senate confirmed position as the drone czar and then waited a few years before successfully ramming his nomination through.
Biden has yet to name a nominee for defense secretary, but former Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy has been repeatedly floated as a top candidate and enthusiastically promoted in D.C. foreign policy circles as the perfect candidate to become the first woman to serve in the post. Flournoy, a Clinton supporter, was a foreign policy adviser to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign. After leaving the Obama administration in 2012, Flournoy — a notorious hawk who backed the wars in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen and pushed for Obama to intervene in Libya — has worked for a variety of military consulting ventures. Among them was WestExec Advisors, a consulting firm she co-founded with Blinken to assist corporations in winning lucrative government contracts. Politico labeled WestExec as “Biden’s cabinet in waiting” and pointed out the firm’s own promotional material: “It is, quite literally, the road to the Situation Room, and it is the road everyone associated with WestExec Advisors has crossed many times en route to meetings of the highest national security consequences.”
Flournoy also serves on the board of military and intelligence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. Among other unsavory projects, Booz has provided services to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman since 2015 when it aided him in his brutal campaign to consolidate his power. It also trained the Saudi navy, which enforced a catastrophic blockade of Yemen. The firm insists that it is not aiding the war in Yemen. Flournoy began her government career in Bill Clinton’s administration, serving at the Pentagon. In 2005, at the height of the Bush-Cheney global war, Flournoy joined a gaggle of mostly neocons at the notorious Project for the New American Century in criticizing the Bush administration for not being militaristic enough in its foreign policy and arguing for an increase in ground troops in the Middle East. She is a strong proponent of economic sanctions and a disciple of the military humanism doctrine — where bombings and other acts of war are draped in the language of humanitarian intervention — that was refined under Clinton in the 1990s. Flournoy has long had fans among the neoconservative camp, and Paul Wolfowitz and Kristol publicly campaigned for her to take over as defense secretary under Obama in 2012.
Biden is the epitome of the bipartisan D.C. foreign policy establishment.
Biden is still in the midst of compiling his Cabinet, but on national security, it is shaping up to be a replay of the Obama-Biden militarist coterie. There are undoubtedly foreign policy areas in which the Biden administration will correct Trump’s egregious actions, particularly in the case of the Iran nuclear deal, which Sullivan played a key role in crafting. But there are also areas in which Biden could prove more hawkish than Trump, particularly on North Korea, Afghanistan, and the question of troop deployments. In all the beltway scuttlebutt around Biden’s Cabinet, there is no mention of open critics of U.S. war-making being considered for any key national security positions. This is not an oversight. This is how the business of protecting the militarized myth of American exceptionalism is performed by the establishment Democratic Party.
When Obama emerged as a serious contender in the 2008 Democratic primary, he was a largely unknown entity nationally, and he carefully encouraged a false perception that he was an anti-war candidate. Close observers of Obama’s career knew that was an oversimplified fallacy, but it is difficult to blame ordinary voters for believing it, at least during the 2008 campaign. It was in choosing Biden as his running mate that Obama sent a clear message to the war party in the U.S. that its interests were secure. That’s because Biden is a Washington creature with a multidecade record of hawkish policymaking and support for wars and militarism. He voted for the Iraq War and actively aided and abetted the Bush administration’s lie-filled drive to make it a reality. He is the epitome of the bipartisan D.C. foreign policy establishment.
The prospect of four more years of Trump was what decided this election. It was the overriding imperative of those who cast their votes for Biden. Corporate and establishment Democrats expect their left-wing critics to vote for them every four years without question or negotiation. This expectation is almost always delivered as more of a threat than an ask. And when Democrats lose, they blame the left. Yet election after election shows that when they do win, elite Democrats do not believe that they have to offer any meaningful national security appointments or policy changes to these voters. History shows us that they are much more interested in finding common ground with the violent imperial visions of right-wingers and neoconservatives. And Joe Biden is indeed the perfect figure to drive that reality home.