As if on cue, the morning of Biden’s remarks, Trump “kidded” on Twitter about remaining in office well past his two terms and retweeted a far-right commentator praising the fact that Trump and like-minded strongmen such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán are now leading “proud nations.”
“You could never say in the last eight decades that an American president wasn’t standing up for the democratic world,” the former diplomat Nicholas Burns, who is currently serving as a member of Biden’s foreign-policy advisory team, told me shortly after Biden’s speech. Until now, that is.
Read: I helped Obama win in 2012. Now Trump is using the same playbook.
For a party seeking a concise, coherent rebuttal to America First, the critique has surfaced as a kind of Theory of Everything: an organizing principle for conveying what’s wrong with Trump’s foreign policy, what to make of the world today, and what a Democratic president would do differently.
The challenge for Democrats will be in demonstrating to voters that the scourge they’ve singled out is real and really affecting Americans’ daily lives, as well as in fending off the inevitable counterargument from Trump and his supporters.
The claims made by Biden and others are “typical partisan cherry-picking,” James Jay Carafano of the conservative Heritage Foundation, who is mostly supportive of the Trump administration’s foreign-policy record, told me. They “ignore things that countervail the narrative”—such as Barack Obama’s resistance to supporting pro-democracy protests in Iran as he pursued a nuclear deal with Tehran, or Trump’s efforts to push for a democratic transition in Venezuela.
Trump is not going to act like Ronald Reagan confronting the Evil Empire or Obama praising multilateralism, Carafano allowed. But Trump is trying to balance American interests and values in foreign policy more or less like his predecessors did, just through his “very unconventional” form of statecraft.
The president’s “great strength, as he sees it,” is “not painting the grand strategic narrative. It’s, like, How do I move the ball down the field?” Carafano said. Trump’s bet is that “at the end of the day, people will like the sausage. And they’re going to forgive me because they don’t like how the sausage gets made.” (Or, as Trump put it last week, “President Xi, Putin, all of these guys go to bed at night and they pray that Joe Biden or somebody like him becomes president so they can continue to rip off our country.”)
For the Democrats, spotlighting the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism is a way of highlighting the links between domestic and foreign policy—as Trump did to powerful effect in 2016. It’s additional justification for their ambitious domestic agendas of reducing economic inequality, investing in education and infrastructure, reforming the campaign-finance system, and restoring voting rights. If the United States wants to spread freedom abroad and compete with authoritarian rivals such as China, they reason, that must start by strengthening democracy at home. Democrats’ denunciations of Trump’s attacks on the media and the rule of law, his refusal to take Russian interference in the 2016 election seriously, and his harsh immigration policies are all slotted under the rubric of ways in which the president is imperiling U.S. democracy.