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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The ‘blood bath’ battle and the electric car war



An American flag is reflected in a side view mirror of a new Jeep SUV with Plug-In Hybrid Technology during an Environmental Protection Agency event in Washington, on March 20, 2024. The Biden camp elevated Trump’s ‘bloodbath’ rant against their car-industry policies and then set up the ripest possible policy target for his next round of attacks, Ross Douthat writes. (Pete Kiehart/The New York Times)

By Ross Douthat


If you believe President Joe Biden’s aides and allies, he intends to fight the 2024 election primarily on the threat that Donald Trump poses to American democracy. In their view, this worked in 2020, when Biden promised to protect the “soul of the nation” from Trump’s depredations, and again in the 2022 midterms, when Biden made the threat to democracy his closing argument and Democrats then overperformed. So there’s no reason it can’t work just one more time.


By the time November rolls around, Biden’s longtime adviser Mike Donilon told The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos recently, “the focus will become overwhelming on democracy. I think the biggest images in people’s minds are going to be of Jan. 6.”


I have been unsure how seriously we should take this kind of talk. Biden’s argument about democratic norms did seem to pay off in some key races in 2022, but I’m less convinced that it made the difference in 2020, at least relative to Biden’s promise to be a steady hand and his reputation for ideological moderation. And either way, 2024 is a different context still, in which Biden appears to be struggling most with disaffected working-class voters, a constituency that you would expect to respond more strongly to material appeals than to high-minded arguments about civics.


To the extent that the White House knows this, we should probably take quotes like Donilon’s with a grain of salt. Maybe he was just dispatched to manage Biden’s liberal base, to preach the gospel of anti-Trumpism to a liberal publication’s readers while someone else gets to work on the more traditional economic appeals to swing voters.


But the past week has given us a good illustration of what it would look like if the White House fully believed in Donilon’s argument, and regarded its invocations of Jan. 6 as a potent alternative to the usual forms of outreach and moderation.


First you had the zeal with which the president’s campaign latched onto Trump’s comments, at an Ohio rally, about the “blood bath” that would supposedly follow Biden’s reelection. In context, the term “blood bath” definitely referred to a predicted collapse of the U.S. auto industry if Biden gets another term, and arguably predicted some form of general chaos or disaster. But it was immediately elevated and interpreted by Biden (or his social media ghostwriter) as proof that Trump “wants another Jan. 6.”


Then, just as the great “blood bath” debate began dying down, Biden’s EPA announced sweeping new emissions rules intended to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles, taking their sales from around 8% of the U.S. market today to 56% in 2032.


These rules have been in the works for some time, and from the point of view of climate activists and internal Democratic Party politics, their substance represents a political compromise, wherein the biggest shift is pushed off by a few years and hybrids as well as fully electric cars count toward the target.


From the point of view of swing-voter outreach in a presidential election year, however, the new rules seem like a pretty reckless bet. Explicitly seeking the rapid disappearance of the kinds of automobiles used by the vast majority of Americans would be politically fraught under any circumstances. It’s even more fraught in an election where states like Michigan hold the key to an Electoral College victory.


And it is especially fraught at a time when higher interest rates have made automobile loans more expensive for the American consumer — who is in effect now being told by an unpopular incumbent president: “If you like your car, I don’t want you to keep it.”


To summarize: First, Trump made an apocalyptic statement about the effects of Biden’s policies on the auto industry. Then the Biden team eagerly overhyped that statement as proof of Trump’s unfitness. Then the Biden administration rolled out a plan to radically transform the auto industry, which even if it worked as intended would, as a newsroom colleague reported, “require enormous changes in manufacturing, infrastructure, technology, labor, global trade and consumer habits.”


In other words, the Biden camp elevated Trump’s rant against its car industry policies and then set up the ripest possible policy target for his next round of attacks.


This is probably just an instance of an administration’s political arm and its policy shop operating without any especially savvy coordination. But it’s a good case study of how a “Jan. 6 trumps everything” theory of 2024 could go badly wrong — by encouraging a fatal insouciance about the material concerns of working-class Americans on the theory that any Trumpian attempt to exploit those concerns can be preemptively defused by casting the former president as a fascist.


The path to a Biden victory involves making the case against Trump on anti-authoritarian grounds and material grounds at the same time. Whereas imagining that the anti-authoritarian card is powerful enough to let you get away with unpopular liberal activism on other issues seems like the likeliest path to a Biden defeat.say: Torture is not normal,” he tweeted Sunday. “Torture as a phenomenon should not exist. The cops and the state today torture a terrorist, they see approval of this method, and tomorrow they will torture an activist, journalist, anyone else. They don’t know any other way.”

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