Home » Opinion | Don’t Think of It as a Contest Between Biden and Trump

Opinion | Don’t Think of It as a Contest Between Biden and Trump

by Marko Florentino
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It’s official — we have a rematch.

This week, both Joe Biden and Donald Trump officially secured the delegates needed to win renomination in their respective primaries. This will be the first contest since the 1892 race between Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland where a former challenger, now incumbent, faces off against a former incumbent, now challenger, for a second term in the White House. Cleveland won his challenge, but this does not tell us anything about our situation.

Truth be told, there is a pervasive sense floating around this election that there is nothing new to discuss — that there’s nothing new to learn about Biden and certainly nothing new to learn about Trump.

But while it’s fair to say that we already know quite a bit about the two men — their strengths and weaknesses, their perspectives and views, the character of their administrations and their records while in office — there is still a great deal to say about what they intend to do with another four years in the White House.

Both Trump and Biden have far-reaching plans for the country, either one of which would transform the United States. Of course, one of those transformations would be for the worst, the other for the better.

Let’s start with the worst. We already know that Donald Trump’s main targets for his second term are American democracy and the American constitutional order. For Trump, the basics of American governance — separation of powers, an independent civil service and the popular selection of elected officials — are a direct obstacle to his desire to protect himself, enrich himself and extend his personalized rule as far over the country as possible.

My colleague Carlos Lozada has already taken a deep dive into Project 2025, the conservative Heritage Foundation’s blueprint for a second Trump term. The overall thrust of the “Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise” is an authoritarian remodeling of the executive branch, designed around Trump. “It calls for a relentless politicizing of the federal government, with presidential appointees overpowering career officials at every turn and agencies and offices abolished on overtly ideological grounds,” writes Lozada, who also notes that the Heritage vision “portrays the president as the personal embodiment of popular will and treats the law as an impediment to conservative governance.”

In practice, one of the things this would mean is that Trump would be empowered to use the Department of Justice to investigate his political enemies, or use the Internal Revenue Service to harass them with audits and other forms of heightened scrutiny.

But a second Trump term wouldn’t just be about the abuse of power, the erosion of checks and balances and the elevation of assorted hacks and apparatchiks into positions of real authority. It would also be about the concerted effort to make the federal government a vehicle for the upward distribution of wealth.

Both Trump and Republicans in Congress want to extend his 2017 tax cuts at a cost of $3.3 trillion, the large majority of which would benefit the highest income earners. Trump also hopes to slash the corporate tax rate, reducing the government’s revenue by an additional $522 billion. To pay for this, both Trump and Republicans would almost certainly take an ax to the social safety net, targeting Medicaid, food stamps and other programs for low-income and working Americans. Trump has even said he is open to cutting Medicare and Social Security, a move that might be necessary if Republicans manage to starve the federal government of nearly $4 trillion in taxes.

We should also expect a second Trump administration to resume the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, as well as try to unravel as much of the climate spending in the Inflation Reduction Act as possible.

Biden wants something very different for the country. His first goal, to start, is to preserve and defend the American constitutional order. He would not subvert American democracy to make himself a strongman along the lines of Viktor Orban, who recently met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago.

What Biden would try to do, if his proposed budget is any indication, is reinvigorate the social insurance state. His proposal, released on Monday, calls for about $5 trillion in new taxes on corporations and the wealthy over the next decade. This would pay for, among other things: a plan to extend the fiscal solvency of Medicare, a plan to restore the expanded child tax credit enacted in the American Rescue Plan at the start of his administration, a plan to guarantee low-cost, early child care to most families, and a plan to expand health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act. In short, Biden hopes to make good on longstanding Democratic priorities.

There is a larger point that flows from this capsule summary of each candidate’s priorities. Americans are accustomed to thinking of their presidential elections as a battle of personalities, a framework that is only encouraged by the candidate-centric nature of the American political system as well as the way that our media reports on elections. Even the way that most Americans think about their country’s history, always focused so intently on whoever occupies the White House in a given moment, works to reinforce this notion that presidential elections are mostly about the people and personalities involved.

Personality certainly matters. But it might be more useful, in terms of the actual stakes of a contest, to think about the presidential election as a race between competing coalitions of Americans. Different groups, and different communities, who want very different — sometimes mutually incompatible — things for the country.

The coalition behind Joe Biden wants what Democratic coalitions have wanted since at least the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt: government assistance for working people, federal support for the inclusion of more marginal Americans.

As for the coalition behind Trump? Beyond the insatiable desire for lower taxes on the nation’s monied interests, there appears to be an even deeper desire for a politics of domination. Trump speaks less about policy, in any sense, than he does about getting revenge on his critics. He’s only concerned with the mechanisms of government to the extent that they are tools for punishing his enemies.

And if what Trump wants tells us anything, it’s that the actual goal of the Trump coalition is not to govern the country, but to rule over others.

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