Why Conservatives Should Vote For Joe Biden

In 2023, the United States had one of the sharpest drops in the murder rate on record, according to FBI statistics, and early data shows the trend continuing into 2024. Republicans have persistently denied this, continuing to insist on the campaign trail that the wave of violent crime that began under Donald Trump is rising rather than falling.

Earlier this spring, after USA Today reported on the plunge in violent crime, Republican National Committee spokesperson Anna Kelly provided an interesting response. The newspaper, she sneered, was “trying to gaslight Americans into believing that their lived experiences are wrong.”

Here the Republican Party, through its official channels, was not only denying plain facts, it was using the terminology and intellectual style of the postmodern academic left. “Lived experience” is a trope used by progressives to claim a person’s standing, usually as an oppressed minority, entitles them to defend a factual claim regardless of its merit. “Gaslight” is another progressive buzzword, used to dismiss any challenge to a deeply held view.

These terms are ways of privileging feelings over facts. Republicans feel that murder is spinning out of control, and they are entitled to say so, even if it is, in cold reality, falling sharply.

There is obviously an element of trolling in this response, and you can view the whole story as nothing more than the usual campaign spin contest. But I want to suggest that it emblematizes a deeper reality about the contest between Trump and Joe Biden. On one side is a campaign that stands for catastrophism about American society, arrived at via post-truth moral relativism. On the other side is the quiet, unappreciated success of a president who has presided over a steep drop in violent crime. Why aren’t more conservatives supporting the latter campaign, rather than the former?

In 2020, American conservatives believed, correctly, that American society was undergoing a wave of crime, chaos, and dangerous radicalism. I am a liberal, not a conservative, though I have sympathy for at least some conservative goals, such as social stability and maintaining law and order.

Of course, not every faction of the American right values stability and the rule of law. Some conservatives oppose democracy or social equality, or otherwise wish to heighten the contradictions in a polarized system and hasten some cataclysmic rendering of American politics and society. For those factions of the right, the upheaval of 2020 brought their desired social conditions thrillingly closer at hand, and they have good reason to believe restoring Trump to office would do so again.

But many conservatives instead believe in maintaining social peace and the rule of law. And for those conservatives, a second Biden term is by far the superior choice.

Joe Biden campaigned in part on a promise to cool the tensions that were fueling this wave of anger. Of course, Biden, didn’t only run as a calming unifier. He also promised transformative change on a Rooseveltian scale that would create new social benefits and dramatically reconfigure the contours of the economy.

The left-wing aspects of Biden’s platform mostly fizzled out. Opposition from moderate Democrats in Congress forced Biden to abandon almost all his proposed safety-net expansions: a public option for health care, a lower eligibility age for Medicare, permanent Medicaid expansion, universal prekindergarten and child care, and a more generous child tax credit and Earned Income Tax Credit.

As a liberal, I found the failure to pass these items disappointing. Conservatives ought to have met this failure with relief. After all, in 2020, the ambition of Biden’s domestic agenda was a major argument against crossover Republican support for him: rejecting Trump meant having to swallow a permanent Bernie Sanders-style expansion of government. That prospect did not come to pass, which is to say, the conservative case for Biden is much stronger now than four years ago.

In stark contrast, Biden did succeed in reviving bipartisanship. The frequency and magnitude of bipartisan legislation under Biden has surpassed anybody’s expectations: legislation on infrastructure, microchip onshoring, gun safety, nuclear energy, and many others. Looking back four years, Biden’s most progressive backers have the greatest cause for disappointment, and his most conservative supporters have the least.

When conservatives think about the excesses of 2020, they mostly have in mind events that occurred beyond the federal government’s direct control: the homicide spike in American cities and the wave of cancellations and groupthink sweeping through campuses and other progressive spaces.

Conservatives consider it self-evident that putting Democrats in power could only worsen these trends. They often respond with mocking incredulity when faced with evidence that those trends have attenuated under Biden. Yet there is actually a serious case to credit Biden with tempering the left-wing excesses that flared up under Trump.

Consider the upheaval that followed George Floyd’s murder. Obviously, the social isolation caused by the pandemic (the fault for which can be debated, but does not rest entirely on Trump) was an important aggravating factor behind the explosion of anger and crime.

But the direct reason the streets exploded is that America watched a police officer in broad daylight murder a Black man who posed no violent threat. Why did Derek Chauvin murder George Floyd? A critic on the left would say that police have always brutalized Black people, generally with impunity, and I would tend to agree. Because this ghastly murder dramatized the deeper sickness in the policing system, progressives preferred to emphasize the wider systemic evils that caused it.

This paradoxically served to obscure the more direct culpability of Trump himself. The left wished to use the George Floyd case to press the broadest possible indictment and had no incentive to concede that the crisis could have been averted if we simply had a different guy in the Oval Office.

But the facts suggest a different guy in the Oval Office very well may have averted the crisis. In 2016, Trump campaigned on the theme that a wave of rising crime (which had not yet materialized) needed to be put down by unshackling the cops. He took office and immediately dismantled the slow, patient campaign by his predecessor’s Justice Department to identify and correct excessively brutal or ineffective policing. Seven months before the George Floyd murder, Minneapolis Police Union president Bob Kroll appeared with Trump at a rally and gloated, “The Obama administration and the handcuffing and oppression of police was despicable. The first thing President Trump did when he took office was turn that around, got rid of the Holder–Loretta Lynch regime and decided to start taking — letting the cops do their job, put the handcuffs on the criminals instead of us.”

Trump’s encouragement, through both word and deed, led directly to the tragic murder that was the spark for the George Floyd protests. Of course, it’s impossible to prove that Derek Chauvin would not have killed George Floyd in a hypothetical world in which Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election. But if Biden gets the blame for inflation — a global phenomenon mostly caused by events that preceded his tenure in office — doesn’t Trump get blame for the crime that spiked on his watch?

At minimum, there is nothing in the record to suggest Trump’s approach to crime worked. To the contrary, crime spiked during his tenure and receded under the tenure of his successor, who has resumed the slow, patient work of identifying pattern-or-practice failures.

Indeed, there is very little in Trump’s history to suggest he even wants to tamp down violent crime. Since at least the Central Park Five episode, when he shelled out for an ad demanding the execution of five innocent young men, he has always grasped the demagogic potential for violent crime to excite passions that he can marshal in his favor. Reducing crime requires bureaucratic reform and cultivating the trust of low-income communities. None of these things fit Trump’s style or serve his interests.

Or consider illiberalism on campus and elsewhere. Trump did not cause this phenomenon — it began to spread at the end of the Obama era. (I wrote the first treatment in the media identifying the trend). But almost any observer who follows these trends would agree that it got much worse during Trump’s tenure in office and has gotten much better under Biden.

It was under Trump that illiberal norms, with their social-media mobs and cancellations, began to spread from academia into places like the media, Hollywood, and nonprofits. These practices have not disappeared completely. But the liberals at all these institutions have found their footing. The New York Times has repeatedly defended free-speech principles and resisted pressure campaigns by activists to stop reporting that upends progressive dogma. SNL recently brought in a previously cancelled cast member to guest host. Universities like Harvard are bringing back SAT scores, endorsing institutional neutrality, and ending mandatory DEI statements in hiring.

As a liberal who has been witnessing (and in some sense waging) these fights against the illiberal left, I feel very confident in saying it has been much easier going under Biden than Trump. While Biden has not given pro-free-speech liberals the same encouragement Barack Obama did, he has at least tried to tamp down the culture wars on the calculation that broad social peace gives him the most advantageous terrain.

Trump’s habit of constantly provoking his enemies with racist taunts had the opposite effect. In the Trump era, many progressives who might have felt uneasy about left-wing excess nonetheless hesitated to call it out, believing they couldn’t divide their ranks in the face of a threat. The tailwinds that have allowed liberals to correct the excesses in progressive institutions would revert to howling headwinds during a second Trump term.

It is true, obviously, that campuses (and other progressive institutions) have seen a resurgence of radical and often ugly demonstrations since October 7. Similar demonstrations have occurred throughout the West. If you want to understand the cause of the demonstrators’ popularity with young voters, you should start with Israeli policy, which has closed off the possibility of a state for the Palestinians while inflicting mass destruction on their people. You don’t have to share the demonstrators’ goals or beliefs to see that their behavior confirms the general rule that radicalism begets more radicalism.

To the extent that these demonstrators reveal anything particular about the effect of the presidency on campus protests, it is how firmly campus administrators and other institutional leaders have responded. While tolerating free speech, they have generally refused to endorse divestment or otherwise cooperate in the activist goal of turning Zionism into a pariah ideology. University administrators in Europe have often yielded to these demands. And so, while having Biden in the White House has not prevented American demonstrators from protesting the war in Gaza, it has helped dissuade university administrators from abandoning institutional neutrality.

Now imagine President Trump fulminating against encampments from the White House and sending in troops, or threatening to do so. Administrators would face overwhelming pressure to actively defend student protesters against a hostile (and frequently openly racist) president. This helps explain why the protesters’ view on the election ranges from sullen indifference to actively hoping Trump defeats Biden. Their goal is to radicalize the left and progressive institutions, and they grasp that Biden stands in the way.

Some two dozen former Trump officials — his former vice-president, chief of staff, multiple cabinet secretaries — have publicly called him unfit for office. They paint a picture of him as vindictive, ignorant, and hostile to the rule of law. Republicans have tried to even out this issue by painting Joe Biden as too feeble to handle his job. But not a single former Biden staffer has called him unfit.

Republicans in Washington, who are the conservatives who know Biden best, consider him a decent, reasonable man with whom they can do business. Here is Lindsey Graham in 2016 choking back tears while expressing his admiration for Biden as a person. There is not a single example of a Democrat in Washington who would say the same about Trump. Hell, there probably isn’t even a Republican who would, unless they were performing for an audience.

Conservatives believe Donald Trump’s legal travails are unfair, a point on which I don’t think they’re entirely wrong, even if they dramatically understate his own culpability. Nonetheless, they should not let this feeling blind them to the risks of returning him to the world’s most powerful office. They will have empowered a desperate man who has no stake in maintaining the legitimacy of the system he will command.

Deciding to take a gamble of this magnitude requires believing you are desperate yourself. The bulk of conservative propaganda has accordingly pressed the theme that America faces imminent destruction if Republicans do not return to power. Conservative polemicist Niall Ferguson, writing in the Free Press, likens the United States to the late-stage Soviet Union. An op-ed comparing the United States to the Soviet Union is inherently self-refuting, since an important characteristic of the USSR was that Soviet professors couldn’t publish an op-ed denouncing their country’s leadership in such vitriolic terms. Propaganda collapsing the cavernous gap between America and the USSR is a staple of communist rhetoric. It is revealing that Trump’s apologists have resorted to this trick, too.

But really. Just turn off the television, open your front door, and look around. The stock market is way up. Unemployment is rock bottom. We have problems, but they are all open to being solved through democratic contestation. The president’s opposition enjoys a thriving, uncensored media ecosystem and a gigantic fundraising base. We live in a free, prosperous country.

Why would you risk handing its future to the whims of a man consumed with resentment and rage, even if you share some of the same enemies? A man who refuses to recognize any limits to his power, the necessity of compromise, or the legitimacy of defeat in any situation, and thrills at violence and chaos? His final act as president was to summon a paramilitary mob into the streets, and he is promising to set that mob free from prison.

Trump’s advisers are investigating how he can use the Insurrection Act to suppress protests. Aren’t you better off in a country where the president is not invoking the Insurrection Act? Or even thinking about it?

History is littered with men who believed they would benefit from these kinds of wild gambles — that the passions and violence unleashed would resettle the game board with themselves resting on top. Such calculations usually fail. The most important insight conservative thought can bring to bear on this election is that we have far more to lose than to gain by entrusting the system to a man who wishes to burn it all down.

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