Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Biden Needs to Play the Nationalism Card Right Now

| Sep. 25, 2020

The 2020 election is veering into dangerous territory—and liberalism won’t be enough to win.

What does former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden have to do to get elected? Some observers say as little as possible: Just let President Donald Trump keep talking, tweeting, and blundering, and Biden can coast to the White House without doing much on his own. I disagree, in part because the Electoral College helps Trump, but also because Trump has an important asset that the Democrats ignore at their peril: the power of nationalism. It is the same power that U.S. leaders have relied upon and nurtured since the country was founded, although the coming of the unipolar moment led elites to think that nationalism was a fading force. Many believed that was all for the good, as it was widely considered a malign feature of both domestic and international politics.

This view is wrong. Nationalism remains a remarkably powerful ideology, and the United States cannot survive without it. Indeed, much of Trump's appeal to voters is due to his advocacy of U.S. nationalism. If Biden wants to win in November, he should embrace nationalism while reaffirming liberal values. They are an election-winning combination. In essence, he needs to talk less about "partnership" and "leadership" on the global stage, and more about patriotism and national unity. In addition to building a rainbow coalition, Biden should wrap himself in the red, white, and blue. These are mutually reinforcing goals.

The objective case for replacing Trump is overwhelming. As president, he has bungled the most important task he faced—the COVID-19 pandemic—which is why the United States has only 4 percent of the world's population but accounts for more than 20 percent of all fatalities, a total of more than 200,000 dead and counting. This failure wasn't just the result of Trump's incompetence, though there was plenty of that; it was also the result of a cynical act of deception. We now know that Trump knew the virus was a deadly danger early in 2020 but refused to tell the American people the truth or encourage them to take preventive measures. Instead, he helped turn the simple and painless act of wearing a cloth mask into a source of political controversy.

Trump has also mishandled the strong economy he inherited from former President Barack Obama. Instead of seizing the opportunity of historically low interest rates to launch the infrastructure program he'd promised during his campaign, he gave himself and his rich friends a big tax cut. The country's richest 1 percent got richer and the middle and lower classes got the crumbs. When the pandemic hit, the necessary emergency measures blew up the federal deficit even more. Vigorous action by the Federal Reserve helped the stock market recover, but most Americans don't own stock, and unemployment now stands at 8.4 percent....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Biden Needs to Play the Nationalism Card Right Now.” Foreign Policy, September 25, 2020.

The Author

Stephen Walt