The American election is more than six months away and in these nervous pandemic times, it’s hard to see at the moment what could happen in the long battle between the Democratic candidate Biden and the current President Donald Trump. Arguably, much will depend on how the US deals with the coronavirus crisis. Crisis years have often spelt bad omen for sitting presidents.

In the chaos of these days, however, there is a group of people who have made up their minds. In the last four years the divide seems to have been between Never Trumpers and Trumpers. This divide has split the pre-Trump Republican party, whose ideological basis was formed by the so-called neoconservatives. After having reached the acme of power in the Bush Junior era and have shaped the course of history after 9/11, neocons’s fortunes appeared to fade in the eight years in which Obama was president. Neocons were the sort of people who supported the Iraq War in 2003 and aggressively promoted the idea of democracy export in the Middle East as a justification for this.

For the neocons, Obama was too disengaged: he wanted the US troops to pull out of Iraq, which he eventually achieved (at least temporarily) in 2011, at the beginning of his presidency the US pledged for a “reset” in the relation with Russia, and he was seen as too passive in Syria because he refused to commit too many US troops there. In short, the neocons, strong believers in the idea of American leadership, despised Obama because he was too much of a dove and did not stand up aggressively enough for American interests. It is of course debatable how much of a peaceful dove Obama really was, but clearly he was not hawkish enough for the neocon establishment.

The Trump card in 2016, however, took things to a different level. Neocons had shaped the intellectual Republican debate at least since Ronald Reagan, but the candidature and later the presidency of Donald Trump, an outsider in the realm of politics on a grand scale, forced them to break up with the Republican party basis. It was not because they found Trump coarse, ignorant, racist, sexist, or plain dumb. It was exclusively because the original meaning of the “America First” message was not a nativist and racist “America is best”, but a more pragmatic “out of foreign entanglements”. It was something that went against the whole neocon philosophy and neocons found absolutely unacceptable. They went on to support Hillary Clinton, Obama’s first term Secretary of State, who embodied the US government establishment and enjoyed tough talk – “We came, we saw, he died”, she exclaimed with an enthusiastic smile after learning about the death of the Libyan leader Gaddafi, killed by rebels backed by NATO airstrikes in October 2011.

Biden, Obama Vice president, would be a Clinton 2.0, another incarnation of the US politics establishment, and in this respect a strong believer in the necessity of American exceptionalism and leadership in the world. Trump has exhibited no lack of aggressive posturing in his dealings with China, Iran and North Korea, but has rarely had his words followed by the sort of actions the neocons would expect from a leader. When in September last year Trump pulled out from a strike on Iran, after Iran had downed a US drone, in the last minute, arguing that a drone was not worth the lives of a hundred Iranians that would be probably killed, many US commentators accused Trump of inconsistency.

Many think, wrongly, that the neocons, people like Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice or Paul Wolfowitz, belong to a bygone era and are not a force in American politics anymore. But although these individual figures may have left politics, the neocon credo, a granitic faith in the right of the US to rule the world, has never abandoned US political discourse and is still very popular within the American policy elite, which Biden represents and where he has been mingling for four decades. The line between the neocons of yesterday and the establishments “liberals” of today is very thin indeed.

Richard Sattler