I know Joe Biden. Not well, but well enough to have had a good chat when we ran into one another at the Irish embassy in Washington on St Patrick’s Day last year. I must also confess to rather liking Biden. In 2015 I argued that he would win if he ran the next year. He would certainly have been a more engaging candidate than Hillary Clinton, especially in those key states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — that carried Donald Trump to the White House.
A veteran professional politician of the homely, Irish-American, middle-class, press-the-flesh variety, Biden overcame personal tragedy (the 1972 car accident that killed his first wife and daughter and seriously injured his two sons) to become the reassuringly conventional vice-president to Barack Obama — not only the first black president but just 47 when elected. Because, folks, Biden is exactly what central casting used to think a US president should look like.
Yet in 2020 there has been something about his campaign that has been, well, off. I could give numerous examples of Biden losing his train of thought and stumbling over his words, but this is the one that has worried me the most.
Biden was speaking last Monday at a campaign event in Texas. The crowd was fired up; their man had been on a roll since winning South Carolina two days earlier. And this is what he said:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident. All men and women are . . . created by the . . . go . . . you know, you know, the thing.”
I hope you don’t need me to tell you that Thomas Jefferson’s preamble to the declaration of independence is a little more eloquent than that. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” wrote Jefferson, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” No mention of women. No “you know”s. And no “the thing”.
Earlier this year, The Atlantic ran a sympathetic story about Biden’s boyhood stutter, suggesting that this was the reason for his verbal stumbles — though Biden himself kept telling the author that this wasn’t the problem. Listening to him since he launched his campaign, I’ve frequently wondered if he’s suffered a stroke since I last saw him, but we’d surely have heard about that, as we heard about his rival Bernie Sanders’s heart attack.
Maybe one day they’ll make an Oscar-winning film called The Veep’s Speech. Alternatively, Biden is 77 years old and it really, really shows.
These days many people in America struggle with basic arithmetic. On Thursday’s edition of The 11th Hour with Brian Williams, the show’s host and Mara Gay, a member of The New York Times’s editorial board, both appeared to accept the claim that if Mike Bloomberg had distributed to his 327 million fellow Americans the amount he spent on his failed presidential campaign — more than $500m (£383m) — each of us would have received at least million dollars, as opposed to $1.53.
Well, here’s another one for Brian and Mara. What age would Biden be at the end of his time in the White House if he won this November, secured a second term in 2024 and did not kick the bucket along the way? That’s right: 86.
All of which only adds to the mystery of Biden’s political comeback. Prior to his victory in South Carolina on February 29, Biden appeared to be out of it in both senses. By last Wednesday morning he was back where he began last year: the frontrunner, with 627 delegates to Sanders’s 551. Not only did Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar drop out last week, but they promptly pledged their support to Biden. Bloomberg followed suit on Wednesday, while Elizabeth Warren declined to back Sanders, to whom she is closer on the issues but from whom she personally recoils.
There have been primary comebacks before; indeed, an election year is incomplete without at least one. I remember vividly, as one of John McCain’s advisers in 2008, glumly anticipating his exit from the race, only for his almost-broke campaign to turn around and propel him to the nomination after he won New Hampshire. It was that same state that made Bill Clinton “the comeback kid” in 1992.
But Biden lost New Hampshire, finishing in ignominious fifth place. To find a comeback this late in the game, you need to go back to the 1996 Republican nomination contest, when the veteran Kansas senator Bob Dole went into the South Carolina primary having lost three states to the conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan.
The kingmaker then was Carroll Campbell, the state’s popular Republican governor. Just as House majority whip and South Carolina representative Jim Clyburn did for Biden, Campbell went all-in for Dole, signalling to the voters in the state and nationally that he alone had a shot at beating the incumbent president. Dole won South Carolina easily, after which he won every remaining contest with the exception of the Missouri caucuses.
Of course, Dole went on to lose to Clinton, so this is an analogy Biden would probably prefer to have a senior moment about. Yet I am not so sure he would lose to Trump if nominated.
The other key takeaway from last week is that the majority of black voters backed Biden — and not just in South Carolina. As the brilliant young African-American writer Coleman Hughes noted: “The fact that black voters went overwhelming for Biden is only surprising if you’re unaware that black dem voters are way more conservative than white dem voters. The progressive activist class may feel itself to be channeling black America’s politics, but it’s not.”
Black voters matter: the sharp nationwide drop in black turnout between 2012 and 2016 was a decisive factor in Hillary Clinton’s defeat. But black voters don’t necessarily gravitate towards black candidates — otherwise Kamala Harris and Cory Booker would have got further with their nomination bids.
In the coming months, the virulence and lethality of Covid-19 will almost certainly matter more than Biden’s charm and incoherence. A large outbreak in an American state and/or a recession caused by the global shock of the potential pandemic could make Trump a one-term president.
St Patrick’s Day is nine days away. If the luck of the Irish holds, Trump is about to be hit by a cross between Hurricane Katrina and Lehman Brothers, and the man he derides as “Sleepy Joe” will duly oust him from the White House.
And if Covid-19 hits only the Democratic states of the coasts? If the economy stalls for a quarter but doesn’t crash? If the message sticks in the Midwest that the outbreak was a hoax?
Then I fear we are in for one of the least intelligible concession speeches in . . . you know, the thing.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” Gloucester’s despairing words in King Lear have been etched in my memory since I first heard them as a schoolboy. The gods also amuse themselves by sending natural disasters to humble vainglorious leaders.
The world has all four of the horsemen of the apocalypse these days: pestilence, war, famine and death. There is, of course, the pestilence now known as Covid-19, the new coronavirus. There is war in Syria and a nascent civil war in the streets of India. There may well be famine, too, if the locusts continue to ravage the crops of east Africa and south Asia. And there will surely be more death in 2020 than in a typical 21st-century year.
Fortunate is the American president who is not confronted by at least one devastating hurricane or terrorist attack or mass shooting. Fortunate is the president who does not have to console grieving survivors in at least one devastated city. But 2020 is a whole different divine sport.
We had all grown complacent about the threat posed to humanity by disease. I’m not sure quite why. The new diseases of our time did their best to remind us of nature’s supremacy over homo sapiens. From Aids to ebola, from Sars to Mers, we were given repeated warnings that we were just one mutant virus away from calamity.
Perhaps our growing preoccupation with climate change gave the lie to our outward insouciance. But the gods have a cruel sense of humour. Even as we were becoming obsessed by the dangers of carbon dioxide emissions and rising global temperatures in the decades ahead, they sent a virus almost perfectly designed to throw us into confusion right now, at this moment.
The great plague narratives of the past were concerned with diseases that were highly lethal. Read Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), which starkly depicts the last great plague outbreak in London in 1665. Or read Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), about a wartime romance cut cruelly short by the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. (I especially recommend the latter if illness has never brought you to the brink. Porter’s description of near-death is unforgettable.)
By comparison, Covid-19 is not especially life-threatening. According to the best available data at the time of writing, there have been about 85,000 confirmed cases worldwide, roughly 94% of them in China, and 78% of them in the province of Hubei. The implied global mortality rate is 3.4%, but that is surely an overestimate, because the denominator (total cases) is being underestimated by infected people who don’t feel sick or don’t check themselves in for medical care.
We also know that, unlike the “Spanish flu” of 1918-19, Covid-19 disproportionately kills the elderly and those with existing conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes or chronic respiratory disease. Worry about grandparents: the mortality rate for people in their eighties is above 14%, whereas it’s close to zero for those under 40.
Yet those who blithely say, “This is no worse than the flu” — which will likely cause between 16,000 and 41,000 deaths in America this season — are missing the point.
What makes Covid-19 dangerous is not so much the threat it poses to the average person’s life, but the threat it poses to economic growth. Uncertainty surrounds it because it is so difficult to detect in its early stages, when many carriers are both infectious and asymptomatic. We don’t know for sure how many people have it, so we don’t exactly know its reproduction number and its mortality rate. There’s no vaccine and there’s no cure. Last week this uncertainty, crystallised by a leap in the number of Italian cases, gave the US stock market its worst week since the great banking crisis of 2008-9.
I have often been asked in the past few years where the next financial crisis will come from. I have said, time and again, that it will come not from America but from China, now the second-largest economy in the world. Sure enough. A pandemic is very different from a bank run, to be sure, but in each case we witness the same phenomenon, which is characteristic of a networked world: a cascade of consequences driven by fear of the unknown.
Though old enough to be in the vulnerable part of the population, Donald Trump, 73, is well known for his high standards of personal hygiene (“Germaphobia”). Yet it is his presidency, more than his life, that is in mortal danger from Covid-19.
Although his administration did indeed take the right decision, early in the Chinese outbreak, to limit travel from China to America, it did little to prepare for the eventuality of a large US outbreak. Worse, last week Trump made the mistake of playing down the risk. “This is a flu,” he said at his press conference on Wednesday evening. “It’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for . . . We’ve done a great job keeping it down to a minimum. Tremendous success at keeping the virus away.”
Maybe. But it seems likely that there will soon be an outbreak in California. (Fact: the number of confirmed cases outside China continues to grow exponentially.) No one knows for sure because, we learnt last week, there are just 200 functioning diagnostic kits in the entire state.
As president, George W Bush had at least four brushes with the horsemen of the apocalypse. The first, the September 11 terrorist attacks, dealt a severe but temporary blow to an economy that was already in recession. Newly elected and initially blindsided, Bush struck the right notes of defiance and vengeance and experienced a surge in popularity. The second was the war of choice he launched against Saddam Hussein. Fortunately for Bush, he got re-elected before the public mood had truly soured on the Iraq War.
Then, in 2005, came Hurricane Katrina, which would have made him a one-term president if it had happened a year before. Finally, there was the financial crisis, which drove his popularity down to its nadir and doomed John McCain’s attempt to keep the White House in Republican hands.
A Covid-19 outbreak in one or more large American cities would inflict a September 11-level hit on the US economy and a Hurricane Katrina-level hit on Trump’s popular approval. The fact that the principal beneficiary in that scenario would be a lifelong democratic socialist committed to universal public healthcare must be the kind of thing the gods find entertaining.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that strongmen now rule the world. The days are long gone when The Economist fawned over Angela Merkel as the “indispensable European” and the Financial Times hailed her as “the leader of the free world”. In Washington, as the recently honoured chat radio star Rush Limbaugh observed, Donald Trump is “Mr Man”, he of the three wives, in contrast to his potential rival for the presidency, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, whose only marriage is to a man. Fans of the British author Roger Hargreaves’s Mr Men series will have enjoyed this, for in many ways the president is an almost perfect Mr Man.
In London, Boris Johnson has just purged his cabinet, losing — perhaps rather earlier than intended — his chancellor of the exchequer and several other independent-minded ministers. Meanwhile, in Beijing, Xi Jinping has already begun pinning the blame for the coronavirus epidemic on provincial officials in Hubei, instead of on the excessively centralised, repressive and compulsively mendacious political system over which he presides.
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman still rules the roost in Riyadh, despite having apparently ordered the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and Nicolas Maduro shows no sign of fleeing Caracas, despite having caused the Venezuelan economy to implode so disastrously that more than four million people have fled the country.
The strongmen are all around: from Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia and Rodrigo Duterte in Manila to Narendra Modi in Delhi and Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang — and not forgetting Viktor Orban in Budapest.
At the top of the authoritarian guild sits Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, who (I am told) lives the private life of one of the more lascivious Roman emperors. Wealthy beyond the dreams of Croesus (some say the wealthiest man on the planet), the master of all he surveys in Russia and far and away the most skilled player of the great game we call geopolitics, Putin is the capo dei capi. Only the other day he almost mockingly announced a reshuffle that makes Boris’s recent effort look like tinkering with the placement at a smart London dinner party. The Russian president forced his entire government to resign.
There are three problems with being a strongman. First, the stronger you become, the more paranoid you must become, as your rivals can hope to supplant you only through dark conspiracies. Second, the more paranoid you become, the less reliable the information that you receive. Who really dares to tell the boss the truth? Third, at some point you are quite likely to die a violent death, because only when you are dead as a doornail can your enemies feel safe. As the Dutch historian Frank Dikotter makes clear in his brilliant new book, How to Be a Dictator, a peaceful retirement tending to a rose garden is seldom an option for the strongman.
Benito Mussolini found this out the hard way. In April 1945, he and his mistress Clara Petacci were summarily shot and their bodies later hung upside down from a girder in Milan. Two days on, Hitler died by his own hand as the vengeful Red Army closed in on his Berlin bunker. To avoid ending up dangling from a girder, he ordered that his body be cremated, along with that of Eva Braun, his long-term mistress, whom he had married a day earlier. (Being a dictator’s girlfriend is also extremely hazardous.)
Joseph Stalin won the war but died in March 1953, at the age of 74, partly because members of his own entourage were too terrified to order prompt medical action after he suffered a stroke.
It is sometimes said that a majority of dictators die in their beds. That may have been true in the 1970s. François “Papa Doc” Duvalier died peacefully in 1971. Francisco Franco’s death in 1975 was from natural causes. So was Mao Tse-tung’s in 1976. “There is no [personality] cult without fear,” writes Dikotter, an authority on the tyranny of Mao. The Chinese strongman succeeded in terrifying a fifth of humanity.
However, bad things nearly always happen to strongmen who lose or relinquish power, as many dictators did in the 1980s and 1990s. Nicolae Ceausescu fell before a firing squad in 1989. Saddam Hussein went to the gallows in December 2006. Colonel Muammar Gadaffi was shot in 2011 while trying to escape the revolutionary wave we misname the Arab Spring.
To see just how hazardous absolute power can be, consider the causes of death for Roman emperors and British monarchs. Of the 18 emperors who ruled the early Roman Empire (27BC to AD193), according to a fascinating article on the subject, 10 died of natural causes, six were murdered and two committed suicide. The top job did not get safer; quite the reverse. Of the 59 emperors of the late Roman empire (193-476), 15 died of natural causes, 32 were murdered or executed, five committed suicide, five died in battle or from wounds sustained in battle, one died in captivity and another drowned while fleeing the scene of a military defeat.
Of the 105 monarchs of the British Isles, 19 were murdered, assassinated, executed or euthanised by their doctors; 15 died in battle.
Ottoman sultans were supposed to enjoy higher levels of security than their west European counterparts. Nevertheless, a surprisingly large number met violent ends. Of the 36 Ottoman sultans, by my reckoning, 11 were murdered, killed in battle or otherwise came to a premature end.
The key to survival as a strongman, aside from inaccessibility (on which subject see the outstanding Chinese film Hero), is to have an intimate circle of people who know they would also be for the chop if you were overthrown. However, you also need to deter any potential successor from getting impatient. One way of doing that is to have multiple sons and play them off against one another. Another option is to have no heir and project your longevity so credibly that no one dares aspire to succeed you.
Looking at our present crop of strongmen, you might be tempted to conclude that the democratically elected ones — Trump and Johnson — are more vulnerable than the authoritarians. After all, they have to face the voters every four or five years. I am not so sure. If I were Boris, my main worry would be that by promoting Rishi Sunak to the chancellorship, I had inadvertently nominated my successor.
History suggests that a significant proportion of the undemocratic strongmen will be gone within the decade — and it will not be the coronavirus that carries them off. Unless, that is, the Wuhan epidemic proves to be Xi’s Chernobyl, which it may yet. After Maduro, who soon won’t have a population left to plunder, and the Saudi crown prince, whose plans to reform Saudi Arabia are doomed to fail, Xi seems to me the most vulnerable figure.
Come to think of it, didn’t The Economist once call him “the most powerful man in the world”?
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
“He was no whit more respectful or mild towards the senate, allowing some who had held the highest offices to run in their togas for several miles beside his chariot and to wait on him at table, standing napkin in hand either at the head of his couch, or at his feet”— Suetonius on Caligula in The Lives of the Caesars.
It will take a historian with Suetonius’s eye for grotesque detail to do full justice to the presidents of the late American republic when the time comes to chronicle its decline and fall. Readers will need to know the erotic adventures of Bill Clinton’s cigar fully to appreciate the self-indulgence of his reign. They will struggle to grasp the recklessness of the invasion of Iraq if they are not told how George W Bush was manipulated by his vice-president and defence secretary.
And they will miss the fatal flaw of Barack Obama’s presidency if they are not given a sense of his chilly aloofness — his thinly veiled contempt for those voters who “get bitter [and] cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them”.
It will certainly not be for his magnanimity or contrition that Donald Trump — the man those very voters helped elect in 2016 — will be remembered. No sooner had he been acquitted by the Senate of the charges brought against him by the House of Representatives than Trump let rip against all those he held responsible for his impeachment.
“It was evil, it was corrupt, it was dirty cops, it was leakers, it was liars,” the president said on Thursday morning at what he called a “celebration” of his acquittal. James Comey, the former FBI director fired by Trump, had been “a disaster”. Robert Mueller’s investigation into the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election was “all bullshit”. Adam Schiff, the Democrat who managed the impeachment process, was “a vicious, horrible person”.
Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, was also “horrible”. Mitt Romney — the only Republican senator to find Trump guilty in last week’s vote — was “a failed presidential candidate”. Those present, including leading Republican legislators, cheered this rant to the rafters, napkins in hand.
I dwell on these details because they are characteristic of the atmosphere today in Washington. According to CBS News, Republican senators had been warned: “Vote against the president and your head will be on a pike.” The Democratic senator for Ohio, Sherrod Brown, wrote a column in The New York Times headlined: “In private, Republicans admit they acquitted Trump out of fear.” I have a different theory. I believe they acquitted him because they see his re-election as all but certain.
Richard Nixon was forced to resign before it even came to impeachment because polling made clear to the Republican leadership in Congress that he was irreparably damaged in the eyes of voters. In any case, Nixon was already in his second term. The Democrats should have saved impeachment for next year.
Right now, by contrast, Trump is on track for four more years. Those economists who have spent the past three years predicting a recession — dubbed the “Armageddonists” by JP Morgan — look foolish. According to Gallup, 63% of Americans now approve of the way Trump is handling the economy — the highest economic approval for any president since the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Among Republicans, Trump has a stratospheric 94% approval rating. With independents he is on 42%.
Meanwhile, in Iowa, the president’s political rivals made the biggest possible mess of the first of the steps they must take to select a candidate to run against him in November. Caucuses are an archaic procedure, but there is nothing wrong with that. The fatal mistake was to introduce smartphone apps into the process. If you’re going to do things the old-fashioned way, stick with paper and pencil.
What has Iowa told us, except that, despite all those millions of dollars of donations from Silicon Valley, the Democratic Party still sucks at technology?
First, Bernie Sanders is the real frontrunner, not Joe Biden, whose campaign is in disarray (the fate that usually befalls early Democratic frontrunners).
Second, if there is to be a dark horse in this race, it will be Pete Buttigieg, the youthful, brainy and gay former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
Third, not being involved in Iowa or the other early races may not significantly dent the strategy of Mike Bloomberg to spend his way to the nomination.
Perhaps most importantly, Iowa reminded us how easily close races in American politics can descend into farce and acrimony. I emphasise this because the eventual Democratic nominee will have — contrary to the conventional wisdom that currently prevails in Davos, Aspen, Manhattan and Silicon Valley — at least some chance of beating Trump.
Three of the past five US general elections (2000, 2004 and 2016) have been close — decided by very narrow margins in the electoral college. If (as seems likely) Trump holds on to the bulk of the “Sun Belt” — the band of states stretching from the southeast to the southwest — then this year’s election will once again hinge on Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Here’s Trump’s problem. In these key swing states, between 44% and 49% of 2018 mid-term voters named healthcare as their top issue. Three-quarters of those who did so voted for the Democrats. This isn’t so surprising when you discover that, since January 2017, the inflation-adjusted increase in employee contributions to family health insurance plans has been 24% in Michigan and 30% in Wisconsin.
On this subject, Republicans have no good story to tell. They failed to repeal and replace Obamacare. Now they are held responsible for its “implosion” — Trump’s ill-chosen word back in 2017. Four years ago, voters blamed Democrats for problems with Obamacare by 66% to 23%. Today 61% blame Republicans; only 32% Democrats.
Yes, the economy has been strong under Trump (although it has not added more jobs than in Obama’s last three years). True, no postwar president has lost re-election with unemployment below 7%. And I agree: real median household wages are up — by $2,228 (£1,700) in 2019. But higher health insurance premiums ate a third of that gain, and the trade war another third.
Even in only four years, those three key states have seen demographic changes that are bad for Republicans, shaving the number of white voters without a college degree by about 2 percentage points. So it will be close. Even if they nominate Bernie, it will be close.
Would a Democratic win halt the republic’s seemingly inexorable Roman-style slide towards empire? I doubt it — especially if the general election result is as close as that of 2000. Imagine Iowa writ large. Imagine Mayor Pete again claiming victory before the results are in. Imagine Trump’s reaction. Imagine his party’s reaction (think napkins).
Imagine mayhem — the invariable prelude to empire.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford