Opinion: The force propping up Trump that we still don't talk about

El precandidato presidencial republicano, el expresidente Donald Trump, habla durante un debate con Joe Biden organizado por CNN, el jueves 27 de junio de 2024, en Atlanta. (AP Foto/Gerald Herbert)
At the debate in Atlanta, former President Trump "won," but he also intensified the MAGA moral mudslide. (Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

The hand-wringing and panic over last week’s presidential debate/debacle continues apace. Democrats have been downright apoplectic at President Biden’s projecting confusion and weakness when the party needed clarity and resolve. Former President Trump, as usual, was loud and assertive — that is, vigorous — which was more than enough to make him the winner.

There are legitimate and pending questions about Biden’s ability to serve another four years. But in terms of a leadership crisis, his age and health do not begin to compare to Trump’s moral decrepitude and general unfitness. The idiotic equivalency of this election season — that both men are unfit on a similar scale, though for different reasons — is deeply, dangerously false.

And it distracts from what’s really dragging us down.

Read more: Abcarian: Yes, Biden looked and sounded awful. But the debate didn't change the stark choice we face

Whatever his age-related problems, Biden is not alone in the confoundment he showed on stage at the debate. Face to face with Trump, the president’s fatigue and bewilderment mirrors what so many of us feel in response to an intensifying moral MAGA mudslide that is overwhelming, not just politically but emotionally.

As usual, Democrats relied on numbers and recitations of policy successes to parry Trump. The Biden administration’s achievements are indeed important. Truth and reality do matter. Except to roughly half the country, which has settled willingly into white nationalism, which runs not on facts but on emotion, specifically resentment and entitlement. It represents the very antithesis of a multiracial democracy that Biden’s policy successes support. You can talk about the importance of low-cost insulin or student debt forgiveness until you’re blue in the face — or until you’re stumbling over your words or losing your train of thought — but that doesn’t budge white nationalists at all.

Here’s the hard truth of the last eight years: America leans at least as much toward white nationalism as it does toward democracy (and that’s being optimistic). Nobody says it out loud, on either side, which is obscuring the real shape of Showdown 2024.

Read more: Litman: After the Supreme Court's immunity ruling, can Donald Trump still be tried for Jan. 6?

The GOP cult is clearly racist and anti-equality but claims not to be, despite rapidly mounting evidence to the contrary. Trump brags about how much Black folk love him, how much he’s done for civil rights. These are absurd claims, but they stand because the party needs to keep up the pretense of “all men are created equal” fairness, however threadbare. Fairness, civil rights and democracy are still America’s brand, as everybody knows (to quote Trump).

Meanwhile, Biden can’t call out white nationalism because he’s afraid of tarnishing the positive U.S. brand, which glorifies the “heartland” and “hardworking people” and “ordinary Americans” — code terms for “white.”

The president is in a bind: He must be the publicist in chief, saying we’re all good and well-intentioned people, but the MAGA phenomenon proves him wrong in the most obvious way. He’s tried to walk a line by criticizing MAGA extremists, but if those extremists number in the tens of millions and have seized one of the major political parties, what they espouse is not extremism, it is mainstream-ism.

Read more: Column: The perils of diagnosing Biden's health by watching CNN

The problem of having to name this problem without really naming it literally makes Biden tongue-tied, which is not a good thing for a man who has dealt with a stutter his whole life. The entire Democratic Party and its white fellow travelers further to the left have stifled themselves on this matter too, subconsciously or because they think talking too directly about white nationalist rot would be self-defeating politics. As disgusted as Biden and others may be by MAGA, they do not, will not call out white people about toxic whiteness. And so the rot spreads unchecked.

The combination of denial and paralysis about race is why watching the debate and its aftermath has been so maddening. The non-MAGA audience seethes at Trump’s usual lava flow of lies, insults and self-aggrandizing bluster. No one — not Biden, not any other Democrat younger and in better health — moves to shut it down at its root.

Faced with the primal id that is at the heart of white nationalism and the pathological narcissism of Trump, the response has to be emphatically and repeatedly, “No.” To Trump and everything he stands for, and to the people he represents.

Read more: Opinion: Joe Biden has always put duty to country first. Will he do it again now?

Biden and the Democrats need to be the rolling thunder that claps back at the whirlwind storm of lies and bigotry that’s been coming at us so hard, in so many ways, that we’ve lost sight of the weather we’re in. We’ve fallen into thinking we can manage the deluge, or negotiate with it. But our only hope of dissipating it is to describe it accurately.

There is a silver lining. The storm is bearing down only because diversity is on the rise. Diversity is who and what America is. For most of us, this is an uncontroversial fact, the fulfillment of the founders’ promise of a truly democratic nation. But for Trump and his aggrieved nation within a nation, that ascending promise is a frontal attack that must be fought for however long is necessary, with whatever means is necessary.

It’s past time for the majority of us invested in the promise to employ whatever means is necessary, too. The crisis Biden revealed to the world last week is not about age. It’s about courage.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing writer to Opinion.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.