During the last few years—and increasingly during the last few months—Americans have more and more come to resemble the passengers on the steamboat Fidèle in Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man. A sign hanging from the barbershop bulkhead says “No Trust.” This nineteenth-century term for “no credit” also signals the shipboard atmosphere of universal mistrust. The Fidèle is a fit setting for our historical moment: a grotesque confidence man in the White House who is plainly unfit to govern; an uninspired and uninspiring opposition party; a press corps rife with stenographers for the national security state; a population in the grip of epistemological and ultimately ontological crisis as a pandemic overwhelms a public health system crippled by decades of deliberate underfunding. Authority crumbles; trust disappears.
Under these circumstances, much of the electorate naturally yearns for a restoration of what they imagine to be normality. That is what the Democratic Party has promised. I share its conviction: Trump must be removed. Yet a return to the status quo ante Trump would be neither possible nor desirable. The pandemic and the protests against racist police violence have transformed the political landscape, and Trump has provoked the Democrats into a rightward swerve on foreign policy.
Biden has made a few rhetorical gestures toward progressive initiatives. But as Michael Tomasky observed in these pages, his move to the left has been “probably less a policy shift than a persona shift.”* The great danger is that much of the Biden administration will likely be composed of Washington insiders who are devoted to the failed policies of the past—austerity at home, overextended military commitments abroad. To cling to those policies would be to pretend that the populist challenge to the Washington consensus in 2016 never happened.
One sign of that persistent pretense was an announcement by Ted Kaufman, the head of Biden’s transition team. “When we get in, the pantry is going to be bare,” he told The Wall Street Journal. The kitchen metaphor recalls Obama’s equation of federal and household budgets in his 2010 State of the Union address, to applause from the assembled legislators: “Families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same.” The president must have known that this was a misleading formulation, but such signals of “fiscal responsibility” still win applause on Wall Street and in Washington—despite their inconsistency with bank bailouts and bloated military budgets. If we are lucky, the progressive insurgents in Congress will successfully challenge the lingering commitment to austerity and implement the humane agenda we will need to combat the protracted depression ahead.
In foreign policy, the restoration of past failures is even more likely. In contrast to Trump’s Fortress America, which offers its own confused version of a bullying global presence, the Biden message is consistent. His administration will reaffirm Washington’s dedication to “global leadership,” the polite term for imperial hegemony. This is a self-defeating ambition in a multipolar world, though there are a few hopeful signs of ambiguity: Biden has renounced regime change and promised to revive START talks with Russia.
But he is as much a shape-shifter as Trump, and his foreign policy team does not inspire confidence. They are the sort who could sabotage disarmament as a threat to national security and tart up regime change as humanitarian intervention—a time-worn strategy deployed by such predecessors as Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. Susan Rice, the team captain, lobbied for the catastrophic interventions in Libya and Syria during the Obama administration, and at the height of this summer’s protests for racial justice, she suggested that the conflict in the streets may have come “right out of the Russian playbook.”
Here is where we return to the good ship Fidèle, thronging with impostors. The Democrats have embraced the intelligence agencies—the inventors of disinformation, the original “fake news.” Bellicose intellectuals who backed the Bush-Cheney administration, such as Max Boot and William Kristol, have migrated to the Democratic Party en masse; so have the “Never Trump” Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who envision a return to the crusading globalism of the Bush-Cheney years.
The identification of the Democratic Party and the national security state has become virtually seamless; the cold war resurges, with all its old binary formulas. One witness at Trump’s impeachment trial declared that the US must “make sure that the Ukraine remains strong and on the front lines so we can fight the Russians there and we don’t have to fight them here.” This hoary cold war cliché conjures a fantastic specter of relentless Russian expansion up to and beyond our very borders—the familiar projection of America’s aggressive policies onto a demonic Other.
Amid proliferating fantasies, confidence men from the intelligence community appear regularly as respected commentators on mass media. Three of the most prominent—James Clapper, John Brennan, and Michael Hayden—have almost certainly perjured themselves before Congress. This apparently affects neither their credibility nor their status as patriots supposedly speaking truth to power. The Fidèle founders. As we drift, we face the slow collapse of a society saturated with deceit. The alternative is in the hands of the progressive insurgents, those truth tellers whose agenda requires deficit spending to promote the public good, and not to feed the ravenous appetites of an entrenched oligarchy and a warfare state.