US’s 2024 presidential election – a most imperfect election you can think of

  • 2024-06-26
  • Kestutis Girnius

It is hard to disagree with former New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s assertion that “if the American people are stupid enough to nominate these two guys, doesn’t mean I have to be stupid, too.” Christie does not intend to vote for either candidate, as Donald Trump is wholly „unfit to be president of the United States in every way you think,“ while Joe Biden “is past the sell-by date.”

There has been no presidential election in the last century in which both candidates are flawed, vain and self-centered old men, facing the challenge of leading the US when its global dominance is being challenged. Claims by chauvinistic patriots that the US is the ‘greatest country in the world” are palpably and demonstratively false, but it is the case that the US is the most powerful and influential state, whose actions often affect the rest of the world. So consequential are many of Washington‘s decisions that some political theorists have suggested that citizens of other countries be given some say in choosing America‘s leader.

Trump’s many failings are an open book, endlessly discussed and parsed. I will not reprise his election denials and actions on the sixth of January, for even if these had not occurred he would be unfit for the office. Trump is mean, vindicative, chauvinistic with a touch of racism, so confident in his gut instincts that he feels little need to read books or even position papers. He seems less interested in policy making than the pomp and circumstances of office, would prefer to reign like a monarch rather than rule as a statesman. He does not seriously attempt to hide his indifference not only to the finer details but also to the broader consequences of law-making. Inattentive to governing during his first term in office in 2017, he will be more cavalier if he embarks on a second in 2025.

Biden’s age and decreasing mental acuity are the daily fare of Fox News and other right of center media, but the concerted emphasis on his frailty has meant that other shortcomings receive little attention. Like Trump, Biden is a peddler of untruths, mostly about himself, done with a smile, in contrast to Trump’s scowl, so more tolerable. His recent claim that his uncle might have been eaten by cannibals after being shot down during World War II, elicits a smile. Other claims are more consequential. Running for the presidency in 1987, Biden said he “went to law school on a full academic scholarship,” “ended up in the top half” of his law school class, and “graduated with three degrees from undergraduate school.” But he had only a partial scholarship, was 76th out of 85 in law school and graduated with just one bachelor's degree. After it was discovered that he plagiarized parts of a speech of a British politician, Biden dropped out of the presidential contest. He was also an unsuccessful candidate in 2008, while in 2016 Obama chose Hilary Clinton as his potential successor bypassing his vice-president.

In 2016 Trump prevailed over the Republican establishment that sought to deny him the nomination. But after he consolidated his base of MAGA (Make America great again) republicans that became the dominant force in Republican primaries, most of his opponents buried their previous doubts and objections and became timid followers and apologists. Many soon forgot Trump’s election denial escapades and acquiesced to his narrative of lies.

If Trump was a self-made politician, Biden rose to preeminence in 2020 because party leaders were convinced that leading progressives, such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders could not win the general election. Biden won the nomination not for what he was, but for what was not. It was also assumed that after one term he would pass the baton to a younger leader.

The leaders of the Democratic party bear major responsibility for making this election a contest between two unpalatable choices. Poll after poll showed that a majority of Democratic voters preferred a candidate other than Biden and that some other Democratic candidate would easily prevail over Trump. They did not try to convince Biden not to seek another term or find and support candidates that would contest him in the primaries basing their decision on the questionable supposition that any challenge to Biden would greatly enhance Trump’s chances of victory.

Biden is a more predictable and conventionally responsible politician than Trump, thus a less threatening candidate. He has genuine accomplishments. Yet he has adopted many of Trump’s policies and tactics. He has become a ruthless populist, offering blandishments to union members, holders of student loans, China bashers, industrialists eager for subsidies and others, even as payments on government bonds exceed the Pentagon’s budget. Nonetheless, the price of misplaced loyalty to Biden could be a second Trump presidency and all that it may entail.

Kęstutis Girnius is associate professor at Vilnius University's Institute of International Relations and Political Science