A Crucial Reset

This article is part of the Review’s series on the 2020 US elections.

Donald Trump embodies the worst in us. By “us” I mean both the human species generally and the American people in particular, since the salient qualities of Trump’s personality, without exception, are extreme examples of tendencies to which anyone who grows up breathing the polluted air of American capitalism might fall prey. The dogma that all publicity is good publicity. The uncritical worship of money, coupled with a deranged financial recklessness and the certainty that a fall guy can always be found when things go awry. The belief that any display of humility, uncertainty, or compassion is an admission of weakness. The implicit conviction that goodness does not exist; only bigness does. The obsession with plastering one’s name, one’s brand, on every possible surface, like a dog spraying its urine on every tree in sight. The notion that the best way to deal with bad news is to bury it under an avalanche of worse news. The assumption that Americans, as a people, are stupid.

These unspoken, unspeakable convictions are as American as Rittenhouse Rye. Each of us has probably, at some point, been unnerved to notice one or another of them surfacing within ourselves. But most of us realize that these tendencies are to be resisted: they are devils on our shoulders, the worst impulses of a murderous financial system that cares nothing for individual human lives. And so we struggle, with greater or lesser success, to keep them at bay.

Trump is what happens when a person has no angel on his other shoulder to hold these impulses in check. He is a desperately, tragically incomplete person. He is evidently incapable of laughter, and his rare smiles look grotesque, as if they were the result of fast-acting Botox injections. Astonishingly, to millions of Americans, this very incompleteness makes Trump resemble a kind of god: he is a pure, larger-than-life embodiment of American ravenousness, like Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. He cannot be laid low by pangs of conscience, as mere humans can; he possesses the grim, joyless strength of the undead.

I am ashamed to remember that in 2016, as Trump tightened his vise grip on the Republican Party, I briefly felt a misplaced satisfaction that (as I thought at the time) the hypocrisy of the Republicans had been laid bare once and for all. With this ghoul on their masthead, how could they ever again claim to be the party of “family values,” of the humble religiosity of the heartland? It was probably for the best, I thought, to let Trump burn the party down; maybe something better would rise from its ashes. But the fire, of course, would spread far beyond what had become the party of Trump—and that fire spread easily, because Trump’s toxicity is not just that of American conservatism. It runs deeper, to the loopholes that pockmark our financial system and the misplaced priorities of our shock-and-awe-addicted media. It proved all too simple for Trump to drag the whole nation down into the mud with him.

Weary and traumatized as so many of us are after four humiliating, destructive years, the prospect of a Biden presidency is best thought of as a badly needed deep breath, a blank space within which we can begin the work of rebuilding the country. Biden is seventy-seven years old; he would almost certainly be a one-term president, and it is unlikely that his successor as standard-bearer of the Democratic Party would be another grizzled establishmentarian. He is one of the last of his breed of twentieth-century Democrat. After Biden, the future would be wide open.

For this reason, I hope that Americans across the political spectrum come to agree that a Biden presidency would serve as a crucial reset. Biden was not the first, second, or even the third choice of many progressives, myself included. But it distresses me to see fellow liberals wasting energy taking recreational potshots at him during the final stretch of this campaign, arguably the most important in our lifetimes. The choice is so simple that it barely feels like a choice at all. With Trump in the White House and a likely six conservative justices on the Supreme Court, the American left is stuck in a perpetual defensive crouch. With Biden as president, progressives can focus on making a case to move our country’s policies steadily to the left.

And most important, we can begin to define progressivism in terms that do not begin with the word “anti.” We are so used to playing defense that it is hard to imagine what it would feel like if we had the power to build. In the foreseeable future—which feels painfully unforeseeable these days—only a Biden presidency could make such a prospect possible.

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