When I was a desk officer in the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, I hated coup attempts. My phone never stopped ringing, round-the-clock task forces were organized, and bosses demanded endless reports because important people in Washington, D.C. had become interested in countries they otherwise ignore. Sometimes, I rooted for the aging dictators to cling to power, so that I could simply go home on time. The media’s failed coup attempt on President Biden, by contrast, was more entertaining than those affairs, even if there are parallels between the president and various African leaders who survived coup plotters even more malicious and duplicitous than the American media.

 Before the debate (BD), virtually every Democrat and most in the media assured us that Biden was totally up to the job. In case you’ve already forgotten the long-ago BD era that ended a few weeks ago, Matt Orfalea has compiled a brilliant video compilation of these folks claiming that Biden was “sharp as a tack,” or variations on this phrase. But just moments into the AD (after the debate) era, the dam broke and almost every media outlet and figure, even Biden superfan Joe Scarborough, turned on him. The same gang who have been warning us about the threat to democracy posed by Donald Trump, all suddenly determined that the 14 million votes Biden got (87 percent of those cast) in the  primary process (admittedly rigged in his favor) didn’t matter. He needed to step down because they said so.

 Scarborough, Van Jones, Thomas Friedman, the New York Times editorial board, and others pledged their undying affection for Biden AD, enthusing about what a wonderful fellow he is, as they plunged the dagger in the teetering president’s back. For a few days, it looked like the walls were closing in, as the talking heads would say in the Trump era. But then, as with most coup attempts, the media-led insurrection fizzled. Most Democratic politicians remained loyal to Biden, and polls revealed that other Democrats might fare even worse than the cognitively challenged president.

 The New York Times conducted polls right before and after the debates to track movement, and the results are revealing. Among men, Trump’s lead grew from 13 to 22 points. But Biden’s one-point advantage with women before the debate expanded to six points after it. Perhaps some women felt sorry for the president or, after spending 90 minutes with Trump for the first time in years, remembered that they despise him. Whoopi Goldberg said that she’d vote for Biden even if he pooped his pants on stage, given who his challenger is; apparently this sentiment isn’t confined to her.

 How did Biden survive the coup attempt? For starters, his poll numbers have dropped, but they haven’t fallen of a cliff. He retains strong support among seniors, women, and African Americans. Plenty of Democrats would still rather eat nails than vote for Donald Trump. If Republicans had nominated someone else, perhaps that candidate could have peeled off some Democrats at a time like this, but the best Trump can likely hope for is for stalwart Democrats to stay home. Aside from a polarizing opponent and strong support from Democratic loyalists, Biden has been playing Big Man politics very effectively for decades in the same way that many of Africa’s worst tyrants have. 

The late Robert Mugabe clung to power in Zimbabwe for 30 years until he was ousted in a ZANU-PF party-led coup at age 93. Chad’s Idriss Deby likewise stayed in power for 30 years, surviving many coup attempts, until he was killed on the battlefield in 2021. Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang, age 82, and Cameroon’s Paul Biya, 91, have been in power since 1982, surviving many coup attempts, and refuse to leave power.

Of course, being the president of a democratic country, Biden doesn’t have all the tools these authoritarian leaders have at their disposal. He can’t singlehandedly rig elections, shut down independent media, imprison enemies, and terrorize the populace like a proper dictator. And yet, repression wasn’t the key factor that enabled these dictators to survive coup attempts and cling to power. Each was able to retain the loyalty of people who mattered—rank and file soldiers, party leaders, tribal elders, and so on. Biden has sagely done much the same during his five decades in politics. The media has deserted him, but key Democrats and Democratic constituencies (unions, the Congressional Black Caucus) have not.

When I was the State Department’s desk officer for Chad, French diplomats made many overtures to Idriss Deby, offering significant incentives and soft-landing sinecures to try to convince him to retire. He wasn’t interested, largely because he enjoyed being in power. President Biden is the same. He thinks Trump is beatable (and he is) and doesn’t want to be a one-term president. In the same way that Third World tyrants disregard public opinion, Biden brushes off polls showing that close to 80 percent of the country thinks that he’s too old to be president. That’s not what our polls say, Jack!

 U.S. policymakers sometimes grow comfortable with aging dictators abroad and sometimes actively prop them up. During my time in the Africa bureau, this was often the case because policymakers surveyed the likely successors if the dictators fell out of power and concluded that the alternatives were no better. This is the same reason why most key Democrats are pulling a Tammy Wynette and standing by their man. It’s unclear if prominent Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez grasp that many independent voters regard Democratic alternatives like Gavin Newsom, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, and others as ineffectual, annoying, or both. But they can read the polls as well as anyone, and unless Democrats can convince Michelle Obama or Taylor Swift to run for president, Immemorial Joe may still be their best option.

The media thought that they could take Biden down, but it’s becoming clear that he’s not stepping down just because armies of polyamorous, Brooklyn-dwelling sub-editors have soured on him. The question now is: In the wake of their failed coup attempt, how will the media go back to shilling for Biden? It seems like an impossible pivot, but somehow I’m confident that the same lying, dog-faced pony soldiers who told us the president was as sharp as a tack will return to business as usual. That is to say, after a brief hiatus, they will go back to promoting the perceived interests of the Democratic Party, hoping that voters forget all the mean things they said about Joe Biden during the brief, heady days when it looked like the coup was on.

Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images


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