They had a better class of insult at Catholic boys’ prep schools in the 1950s. During his first semester at Archmere Academy in Delaware, where Latin was a big thing, Joe Biden was given a nickname: Joe Impedimenta. The word referred to his speech impediment, the stutter that meant, as he recalled, “I talked like Morse code.” But it also signifies in Latin the baggage encumbering an army’s progress over rough terrain. As president, Joe Impedimenta needs to move fast. It seems obvious, however, that he will be held back by a formidable hindrance. His baggage is an impossible ideal, a desire for bipartisan unity that cannot be fulfilled. Yet he can and must leave it behind him and learn to travel light.
Biden has long returned to a phrase from Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address of 1861. In his 2007 book, Promises to Keep, he deplored the way “partisanship rips at the bonds of affection that tie the country state to state, political party to political party, citizen to citizen.” In November 2008 Biden stood with Barack Obama as the then president-elect, in his own victory speech, quoted Lincoln’s words to “a nation far more divided than ours”: “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” Even leaving aside the reality that Lincoln’s appeal preceded by a matter of weeks the outbreak of open civil war, its repetition on that hopeful occasion thirteen years ago now casts a gloomy shadow. The appeal was no more successful in 2008 than it had been in 1861—and there is even scanter reason to think it will be heard in 2021.
Indeed, in Biden’s own previous analysis, the “ethic of division” in contemporary American politics took hold as early as the 1994 midterm elections, when Republicans stormed to victory under the banner of Newt Gingrich’s radically right-wing Contract with America, in the process winning more House seats in the South than the Democrats for the first time since Reconstruction. If this is so, almost thirty years of calls for mutual respect and tolerance have been not just rebuffed but flung back with contempt. There surely comes a time when repeated declarations of unrequited love look less like fidelity and more like madness, a time to see the bonds of affection tying party to party as bonds in the other sense, chains that shackle the democratic majority to the will of a fiercely intractable minority.
What Biden surely understands by now is that he does not have to break those fetters—the Republican Party has done the job for him. The willingness of most congressional Repubicans to endorse Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the November election and their unwillingness to convict Trump for his role in the violent putsch of January 6 may be horrifying. But these choices are also clarifying. There can be no illusions of accord, or even of civilized dispute. There is only a minority that will do everything in its considerable power to thwart, to wreck, to undermine.
There should be a kind of liberation in this implacable hatred. Biden has been freed, by the failure of the Republicans to move beyond Trumpism, to shake off his pursuit of consensus politics. He has become Joe Nonimpedimenta.
After all, unity—the word Biden used over and over in his inaugural address—is not necessarily a virtue. Trump, for instance, is a great unifier. He brought together people who would not previously have recognized their mutual affinity—bankers and neo-Nazi thugs, tech bros and the peddlers of deranged conspiracy theories. His movement is generous and inclusive—anyone who acknowledges him as the leader has found a sense of belonging in Trump’s big tent. None will be repudiated. All will know that, as he informed his invaders even when they were still hunting Nancy Pelosi and his own vice-president in the Capitol, “we love you.” He effectively adapted the old socialist slogan “No Enemies on the Left” for the right: no fascist, white supremacist, misogynist, anti-Semite, or insurrectionist left behind.
Imagine, however, that Mitch McConnell’s little rebellion against Trump had not melted away so pitifully between January 6, when he seemed to launch it, and February 13, when he voted to acquit the man he acknowledged was “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.”
Just before the mob stormed the Capitol, McConnell told the Senate that validating Trump’s attempts to defy the electorate, the courts, and the states “would damage our republic forever.” If he had taken his own rhetoric seriously, there might have been an effort on his part to recreate an atmosphere in which, as Biden had dreamed in 2007, it would be possible to debate issues of substance “without questioning the basic decency of the people on the other side of the line.” The most senior Republican in Congress was apparently recognizing, however belatedly, that his party had done potentially fatal damage to the American republic. And this mirage of reconciliation might have gained substance from the knowledge that Trump’s attempt to overthrow the results of the election failed in large part thanks to the basic decency of some Republican state officials and judges.
It is conceivable that, at that moment, McConnell might have taken up Biden’s challenge, in his inaugural address, to “write an American story of…unity, not division.” He might have offered the incoming president the kind of deal his implied act of contrition seemed to warrant—Republican support for Trump’s impeachment in return for a middling, modest, watered-down program of government that protected the privileges of those who already hold them and dropped all the far-out stuff like a Green New Deal. What then? Biden would have been trapped, forced either to reveal his bipartisanship as a mere pose or to make himself a prisoner of McConnell and the GOP.
Of course, McConnell did not make such a move. He couldn’t do it. His party remains a majority-owned subsidiary of the Trump Organization. To repudiate Trump and return to what used to be mainstream conservatism, it would have to vacate the insurrectionist space Gingrich opened up in 1994 and that was occupied successively by the Tea Party and MAGA movements. To do so would demand an effort of both moral will and political skill far beyond the Republican Party’s collective capacity. If it could not bring itself to convict Trump in the Senate trial even in the face of a direct threat to the lives and safety of its own leaders, what circumstances might force it to begin the painful task of remaking itself as a democratic party of the center right?
McConnell has placed himself in a no-man’s-land, not loyal enough to avoid Trump’s rage at his betrayal, not honorable enough to act on his own convictions. Yet if McConnell had, even as a tactical move, made serious overtures to Biden and offered to work with him, he could have created an equally insoluble dilemma for the incoming president. Biden is wily enough to know that he has avoided a trap. It takes two to tango, and the Republicans are locked in their own perpetual dance of rage. So Biden is going to have to learn a whole different caper.
If he really wants to draw on Lincoln’s first inaugural address, there is a passage that speaks much more directly to his own task. Lincoln reflected on what must happen when a minority insists on its right to overturn the properly expressed will of the majority: “The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.” The rule of a minority as a permanent arrangement is the underlying project of a Republican Party that cannot win majorities in presidential elections.1 Despotism and anarchy—not as alternatives, but rather working in tandem—are pretty much where that project has ended up: the combination of Trump’s authoritarian instincts with mob rule. It remains, if democracy is to survive, wholly inadmissible. This has to be Biden’s starting point.
How do you govern in a democracy where one of the two main parties is incapable of escaping its own willing embrace of despotism and anarchy, and where such a party—through the system of grossly unequal representation in the Senate, the gerrymandering of House districts, the packing of the courts, and the suppression of voters—is able to embed itself as a minority that can frustrate the will of the majority? The obvious, and accurate, answer is: with great difficulty. But you also do so by a relentless and unmerciful application of the attitude that Biden in 2007 hoped always to avoid: questioning the basic decency of your opponents. When the opposition cannot separate itself from the far-right movement that would, in McConnell’s terms, “damage our republic forever,” it is folly to pretend otherwise.
This is why, in spite of his inevitable acquittal, the Senate trial of Donald Trump should not be seen as a sideshow or a distraction, but rather as the foundational act for the new regime. Everybody knew that Trump would not be convicted because his party remains, well, his party. But this did not make the trial meaningless. On the contrary, it functioned superbly as an act of definition. It was, in effect, “for the record,” but that record is a vividly awful enactment of what Lincoln’s “rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement,” looks like in the flesh—and sounds like to the ear. When the lead House impeachment manager, Jamie Raskin, spoke of “a sound I will never forget: the sound of pounding on the door like a battering ram,” he was composing the real overture to the Biden presidency. That pounding on the door is the bassline over which the president must write his own song. It should not be muted or muffled by false amity or forgotten for the sake of unachievable harmony.
But to insist on the crudeness of what the GOP has become is not a merely negative proposition. The great opportunity for the new administration is to aim for basic decency, not just as an ethic of conduct, but as a governing idea. Trump made America an indecent proposal and much of the country accepted (and still accepts) it. Biden must—and can—make a counteroffer of decency, not only in public life but in the lives of all citizens. Decency is civil and evidence-based discourse. But it is also access to health care and education. It is true equality under the rule of law. It is a living wage and a habitable environment.
Many commentators have reasonably compared Biden’s task now to that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he assumed office in 1933. There is one respect, though, in which Biden’s job is conceptually more difficult than FDR’s. In 1933 there was one all-consuming crisis: the Great Depression. The president could tell a single story of rescue and recovery. At Biden’s inauguration, he named no fewer than six “cascading crises of our era”: the pandemic, climate change, gross economic inequality, racial injustice, the decline in America’s global standing, and the Trumpian attack on truth and democracy.
He was undoubtedly right to do so. The problem, though, is that a cascade of crises threatens to wash away any unifying narrative. To fight on so many fronts is to risk the loss of any clear idea of what the fight is about. One sign of this trouble was the somewhat contradictory signals Biden sent about the emotion that Trump both generated and exploited: fear. On the one hand, Biden acknowledged its dominance in the contemporary American psyche: “I understand that many Americans view the future with some fear and trepidation…. I get it.” On the other hand, he promised to “write an American story of hope, not fear.” There is a disjunction here. If so many Americans are prey to trepidation, is it enough to tell them a story about aspiration? It is necessary, rather, to enter the dark, to confront fear and give it a new political meaning.
Biden, shadowed as he is by grief and tragedy, seems uniquely placed to do this.2 He was, as Obama’s vice-president, the handmaiden to Hope personified. But when he accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Obama at the end of their period in office in January 2017, he did not reach for his favorite Seamus Heaney quote about hope and history rhyming. He used another one, from Heaney’s “From the Republic of Conscience”: “You carried your own burden and very soon/your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.” It would have been interesting just then, a week before the inauguration of Donald Trump, to have continued on to these lines:
At their inauguration, public leaders
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office.
Biden has carried his burdens of mourning and, even if he did not actually weep at his inauguration, he did speak to and for a nation then reeling from some 400,000 deaths from Covid-19. He also began to tell Americans the truth that Trump had refused to articulate or act on—that they damn well ought to be afraid of the coronavirus.
Democrats, contrary to the advice of FDR, have tended to be afraid of fear itself, to assume that, as a collective emotion, it favors the reactionaries. Hence the prophylactic of hope. But the uses of fear in political life are not necessarily negative. It was the terror of what happened to democracy in much of the Western world in the 1930s that produced the social democratic consensus of the postwar decades. It was the dread of communism that forced capitalism to control its own rapacity and accept that at least a large proportion of the wealth it produced must be shared. The disappearance of that threat allowed these imperatives to evaporate.
It is this kind of alarm bell that Biden needs to keep ringing. Without an urgent anxiety about the near-death of the American republic, about the pandemic, about the terrors of climate change, about the insupportable nature of racial injustice, about the incompatibility of gross inequality and democracy, there can be no hope. He has to adjust the ratio of threat to promise. The latter word, both as noun and verb, has given Biden the titles of two books: Promises to Keep and Promise Me, Dad. But the pledge is weak without the warning. The message that needs to be heard is not about what his administration would like to do for Americans, but about what it must achieve because the alternative is self-destruction.
Democrats like to think that they win when they shift public discourse from darkness to light. This is sometimes true. History suggests, though, that much more often, they win when every sentence they speak has an implicit “or else” at the end. Change happens when the cost of continuity outweighs the risk of transformation.
Trumpism—its apotheosis on January 6 and its continuing hold over the GOP—has altered this calculation decisively. It has conjured, before our eyes, America’s “or else.” What the footage exhibited at Trump’s trial so terrifyingly showed is not just a very recent past but a highly plausible future. Anarchy and despotism are not vague possibilities. They are the default option if society and the economy stay as they are.
The opposite of fear is not really hope. It is security. The challenge for Biden is that this is a concept Republicans have owned. Yet he has the chance to take it from them. The new administration can attack them at their strongest point. There is a way of bringing Biden’s natural emollience together with the need for a bold political departure—by at once embracing and redefining safety. Between them, the events of January 6 and the terrible toll of the pandemic have made the Republicans dangerous to both law and life. This opens the path to a paradoxical progressive program: radical reassurance. The only path to security lies through large-scale change.
This opportunity arises from a deeper history than that of Trumpism. Postwar American conservatism, like its counterparts in Europe, understood security as having five dimensions: “national security,” “law and order,” religious and cultural continuity, economic stability for most workers, and regulation for safer products and a less dangerous environment. The last two of these were just as important as the others. Perhaps more new regulation was imposed on the American economy under Richard Nixon than at any time since the New Deal, from a raft of environmental laws to income guarantees for elderly and disabled citizens to large increases in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
To put it crudely, the story of American conservatism since the 1980s is the narrowing of the idea of security by stripping away these last two dimensions and upping the ante on the other three. Two ways of reassuring citizens—giving them a safe environment and reducing the risk of falling into poverty—were ditched. To compensate, national security—from Ronald Reagan’s dirty wars to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan to the “war on terror”—was fully weaponized as a partisan property; law and order (aka “the war on drugs”) was deployed as a proxy for racial oppression; religious reaction was embraced. Many Democrats responded by accepting—and trying to compete on—these terms: we can be more hawkish, we can do mass incarceration. The only ground on which they would fight was that of culture and the place of religion in politics.
That era is over. Starting wars is not an easy option when both the cold war and the period that followed it of unchallenged American hegemony are in the past. Even Trump understood this. Law and order as a flag of convenience for systematic racism still has a potent appeal, but it is fiercely contested. The only real offer that the right has on security is the promise of an imagined religious and cultural stability, with all the racial and nativist overtones of “culture.” Having given up on strengthening the economic safety net and declared, under Trump, open season on environmental regulation, just one of the five dimensions of security remains at the core of right-wing politics.
Such is Biden’s chance: to occupy this abandoned territory by both reclaiming and redefining each of these dimensions—and by adding another one. The new aspect is the safety of democracy itself, threatened by a mass movement that, as Trump put it after his acquittal, “has only just begun.” As a good start, national security is already being radically reshaped by the new administration. Biden quickly issued an executive order that climate change should be regarded as “an essential element of US foreign policy and national security.” It is equally obvious that, in the face of the pandemic, public health is a national security priority. Both questions, of course, erase the distinction between the national and the international and upend the imagery of America First. If Biden is to fulfill his desire to restore its claim to global leadership, the US, among the world’s worst performers on both carbon emissions and Covid-19 deaths, must first take responsibility for its own failures.
Law and order must be thoroughly reimagined. There could be no clearer example of the possibilities of taking an old cliché and infusing it with new meaning than that offered by the most abused slogan in the US: “To protect and serve.” Policing and the wider criminal justice system have been vectors of fear and insecurity for too many communities for far too long. At the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement has been the terrible irony of its own slogan—the need to insist on what ought to be obvious. Yet that very necessity points to the possibilities of this moment in American politics. Black communities are not making outlandish demands. They are merely seeking the fulfillment of the most basic promise of any democratic system of justice and law enforcement—that it protect and serve the public. The implications of this pledge are radical; the undertaking itself is, properly speaking, conservative. It seeks to validate law by applying it equally and to create order by generating the consent without which, in a democratic society, it cannot be sustained.
Biden has quite rightly defined climate change as an “existential” question. But economic insecurity is also experienced as a matter of existence. It shapes the conditions of life for vast numbers of Americans. There is an ecosystem of social decency in which a sufficient income, a right to timely and appropriate health care (regardless of income), access to education from pre-K to college, a safety net for unemployment, ill health, and old age, and the sense of having an equal voice in public decisions are as essential as breathable air and clean water. To those who lack these basics are added the millions more who live in dread of losing them. We know from history that democracy cannot survive long in an environment where faith in the ability of the state to build a floor of decency has been eroded. Just as Biden rolls back Trump’s sustained assault on the natural world, he has to give ordinary Americans concrete reasons to reclaim that faith for themselves and their families.
This has to be done clearly and emphatically. If, as Biden seemed to suggest in his recent town hall meeting in Wisconsin, he adopts a gradualist approach to raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour or canceling up to $50,000 of student debt, the audacity of real change may be adulterated into endless haggling with recalcitrant Republicans.
It might be useful to recall T.S. Eliot’s quip that while “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Too often, Democratic administrations have ended up imitating Republicans, trying to mimic or even surpass their most regressive policies. Bill Clinton’s declaration of his intention to “end welfare as we know it” is a shameful example. So is the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which Joe Biden used to claim ownership of and refer to as “the Biden Crime Bill.” Biden’s championing, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, of this disastrous legislation, with its “three strikes and you’re out” mandate for mass incarceration, was a self-conscious act of imitation—in this case of Nixon. As he put it at the time, on the Senate floor:
Every time Richard Nixon, when he was running in 1972, would say, “Law and order,” the Democratic match or response was, “Law and order with justice”—whatever that meant. And I would say, “Lock the SOBs up.”
The consequences for Black communities of this imitative gesture were devastating. But there were also consequences for the American political system. If the primary tactic of Democrats is to split the difference between themselves and hard-line conservatives, there is an inbuilt incentive for the right to move ever further to the right. Halfway between decency and proto-fascism takes you a long way down the reactionary road.
There is good reason to think that Biden’s regret for his central role in the creation of the criminal justice disasters of the 1980s and 1990s is sincere. But learning the lessons of that catastrophe means not just reversing a particular set of policies, urgently important though that is. It demands the adoption of a very different way of dealing with Republicans: don’t imitate, steal. What Biden and the Democrats can and should do is to annex the idea of security once and for all, to grab it from the right and make it what it ought to be: the signature tune of social, economic, political, and environmental renewal.
With the triumph of Trumpism, the Republican Party has forfeited any right to what used to be the conservative values of safety, caution, and protection. Its anarcho-despotic mainstream can offer only environmental chaos, a public health disaster, economic precariousness, and a deeply endangered democracy. It will, of course, seek to disrupt and defy the new administration at every turn, and Biden and his party cannot simply override its destructive negativity. What they can do, though, is to make clear over and over to the American people what exactly they are being denied: security in a time of threat. That, and not the “story…of unity,” is the tale Biden has to keep telling, the theme that fuses his responses to “cascading crises” into a single stream of argument.
Biden has been given the opportunity, in the words of the African proverb cited by Theodore Roosevelt in a different context, to speak softly and carry a big stick. His personal experience has given him the empathy needed to assuage the hunger for reassurance in the face of existential threat, for consolation in the face of mass death, for resilience in the face of economic anxiety. Now, at the pinnacle of his public life, those same desires have become the most potent weapon in the struggle for democratic decency. We are at a historic juncture in which being a safe pair of hands does not mean playing it safe.
—February 25, 2021