A nation of indifference. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

March 6, 2024   5 mins

As he prepares to deliver the final State of the Union speech of his first presidency, Joe Biden must know it might possibly be the last he ever gives. The President’s approval ratings are at a historic low, but that is only the start of his difficulties. The problem isn’t simply that a large number of Americans — including much of his own base — think that he is simply too old and frail to run again. There are a litany of problems dogging his administration.

Such are the storm clouds, even a strong and dynamic economy can’t help him. As inflation eats into more and more of their earnings, Americans report very high levels of dissatisfaction. Meanwhile the crisis at the southern border grows worse, exacerbating political polarisation. And polarisation within congress is now hampering the funding of core state functions, up to and including the military.

Things aren’t looking better in terms of foreign policy. Though Biden made a point of flagging Donald Trump’s warmongering while on the campaign trail, he himself has locked America into several new wars, quagmires and proxy conflicts. The situation in Ukraine grows bleaker by the day; the Suez Canal has been blocked by the Ansar Allah — or “the houthis” — of Yemen; and the American bombing campaign has utterly failed to improve the situation, while US bases in Syria and Iraq are under constant attack.

Thanks to Biden’s stance on the war in Gaza, America’s diplomatic position in the Middle East has been ruined, hollowing out belief in the “rules-based order” that America has long preached. What neutral observer in Delhi or Kuala Lumpur would now take American concerns about the Uighurs of Xinjiang seriously, given the treatment of the Palestinians? But of course, these questions are not just for foreigners to ask; as many countries are now losing faith in America, a significant and growing share of Biden’s own voters are now turning on him in disgust.

Around half of his own voters now think that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza. The state of Michigan, which is critical to Biden’s re-election chances, saw an ominous number of “uncommitted” votes, a very clear form of protest vote given that Joe Biden is the only real candidate on the ballot. Does his campaign have a plan to staunch the bleeding, or have they simply given up?

In truth, the story of Joe Biden’s current misfortunes are inextricably connected to the fortunes of his main antagonist: Donald J. Trump. When Trump first descended that escalator almost a decade ago, nobody took him seriously. He was a joke; his enemies laughed at him; and even his friends didn’t think he had a chance in hell. But Trump’s surprise victory was forged by his willingness to commit heresy in public: to say that the Iraq war was a mistake (a cardinal sin within the Republican establishment at that time); to say that globalisation and Nafta had hurt American workers, and to give voice to other voter worries that were scorned by the political class.

Trump arrived at the White House saying that the system was broken. America was no longer great, but perhaps it could be made great again — if the supposed saboteurs would simply get out of the way. But even as Trump inspired a fanatical loyalty in a slice of the American electorate, he inspired an equally visceral loathing in another slice. He was the reason the system was breaking down. His buffoonery, his disrespect for norms, his lack of grace, his erratic decision-making; these were the things that were threatening America’s place in the world order. For the eight years since 2016, Trump has become a lightning rod for everything that went wrong.

It’s against this backdrop that Joe Biden won in 2020. If Trump was a tornado upending stability in the West, Biden was a return to normalcy. Far from a political firebrand or radical, Biden was meant to be a stable, reliable hand, proving that the Western liberal democratic order was still strong and healthy, regardless of the orange barbarians at the gate. Regardless of the truth of the tale, people believed it, and they voted for Biden because of it. All attempts to put Trump in prison or to ban him from standing for election again flowed from this same story: Trump was the guy who could bring down America’s political system if let loose, and so he had to be stopped to save it.

Now, the entire cosmology that pitted Trump against Biden in 2020 is collapsing. Only this week, the US Supreme Court delivered a unanimous verdict that Trump’s name could appear on the ballot for the forthcoming election. And while there’s been a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth among pundits and members of the US political class, the chances of any large anti-Trump demonstrations at this point are pretty small. He is simply not that big an issue anymore. It’s not that all Americans have suddenly warmed to him — they haven’t — it’s that the Biden administration has made it impossible for them to keep believing that the system can continue like this for much longer. Biden was supposed to save America from Trump; instead, he has revealed the depths of the system’s dysfunction.

The truth is simply becoming impossible to ignore. America now faces a fiscal crisis, as federal deficits grow to unsustainable levels with no end in sight. It faces a military crisis, as the Pentagon can no longer recruit nor retain its soldiers, nor crush threats such as the Houthis in Yemen. It faces a political crisis, as congress bickers and prevaricates, unable to even pass an ordinary budget anymore. It faces a crisis of legitimacy, as a majority of Americans feel the country is heading in the wrong direction and that their votes don’t really matter. It faces a social crisis, as deaths of despair mount and as toothpaste, socks and deodorant are put behind lock and key due to an epidemic of theft and shoplifting. And Biden hasn’t solved any of these crises — everything has just got worse.

“A majority of Americans feel the country is heading in the wrong direction”

But the overarching problem for Biden right isn’t that voters think he is senile and incapable, it’s that people believe that the American political order itself has become senile and incapable of fixing people’s problems. Where it once made sense to rage against Donald Trump out of a genuine belief that he was going to destroy American democracy, in 2024 the pressing problem for many voters is that democracy is busily destroying itself, whether through neglect, malice, incompetence — or a combination of them all.

And so nothing Biden could say tomorrow will halt the growing sense among voters that there’s a pointlessness to all these proceedings. They aren’t angry or disappointed or hopeful. They’ve simply stopped believing in the idea that the American political system still works. Let Joe Biden have his speeches, they think, let him lose the election, let Trump burn the system to the ground if he wants to; what’s even the point of caring anymore? Just as in the last days of the Soviet Union, America is being hollowed out from the inside: where people were once angry and passionate, they are now consumed by indifference. If hatred was the force tearing apart America for the last eight or so years, what comes next might very well prove that some things are, in fact, worse than even hatred. Hatred, after all, means you still care.

Malcom Kyeyune is a freelance writer living in Uppsala, Sweden