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Savior Complex

Fintan O’Toole
Biden’s tragedy is that he has come to feel that he alone can rescue America.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Joe Biden walking offstage after the first presidential debate at CNN studios, Atlanta, Georgia, June 27, 2024

Those who define themselves by the thing they are not eventually find themselves more and more like their imagined opposite. To be someone’s antithesis is also to be their alter ego. Watching the disintegration of Joe Biden in his CNN debate with Donald Trump, I was reminded of Hans Christian Andersen’s chilling story “The Shadow,” in which a man’s shade comes to life, gradually infiltrates his existence, takes over his entire persona, and kills him off. Biden’s shadow is Trump and we got to watch in real time as it inhabited and displaced him.

This happened at a point in the debate when Biden had already alarmed viewers with his weak, raspy voice, his looks of stricken confusion, his fragmentary or unintelligible answers, his claim that “we created 15,000 new jobs” (he meant 15 million), and his boast, which Trump pounced on with relish, that “we finally beat Medicare.” The horrifying feeling of watching a president in freefall had been firmly established when the cohost Dana Bash raised the obvious concern that both men would be well into their eighties at the end of a putative second term. Biden, a man capable of dignity and even of grace, morphed, before our eyes, into a bargain-basement Trump. The contest for the future of the American republic became two crabby old men in the clubhouse shouting “My swing is bigger than yours.”

Trump boasted that he had won two club championships. He could “hit the ball a long way” whereas Biden “can’t hit a ball fifty yards.” To any opponent who was fully present, this pitiful bragging would have been manna from heaven. Trump was inviting the one thing he cannot withstand: mockery. He had left himself wide open to a quip of the kind that would have shown Biden to be quick-witted and endeared him to viewers: “Did you win those championships at your own clubs? How do we know they weren’t rigged?”  

Instead, Biden shanked his response out of bounds, way beyond the outer limits of intelligent political debate into the mire of idiocy: “I’d be happy to have a driving contest with him. I got my handicap, which, when I was vice president, down to a six. And by the way, I told you before I’m happy to play golf if you carry your own bag. Think you can do it?” That’s a ball that will never be found again. It will always be out there, lodged in some dark hollow of American history—the final proof that Biden really has lost it.

Not only did the debate come down to this level of mutual fatuity; Trump, rather than Biden, was the first to realize that it was all too embarrassing to be endured. It was the man whose shamelessness knows no limits who grasped how mortifying it was that the past and future leaders of the free world were uttering lines like “I’ve seen your swing, I know your swing.” Trump moved to end it: “Let’s not act like children.” Even then Biden was too slow to grasp what was happening, to understand that Trump had just established himself as the adult in the room. Biden continued in playground mode: “You are a child.” It seems that he thought he was winning, that this puerile comeback was somehow a point being scored for democracy.

As in some gothic movie, the two men were switching identities. Trump had enough self-awareness to put on a little show of restraint, to demonstrate to viewers that he understood how pathetic this episode of reality TV was becoming. He may have sensed, too, that he had already delivered a knockout blow by luring Biden into his own swamp of malicious triviality and spiteful juvenility. For that crucial minute, Trump seemed vaguely presidential—and Biden, as he blundered on with the insults, seemed more than vaguely Trumpian. He needed to remember the old adage: “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.” Biden surely knew that debating with Trump is pig-wrestling. The job is to make sure that the pig is not allowed to enjoy it and that you don’t get too soiled. Trump clearly liked it and Biden got the mud of a debased and infantile politics all over him.

This contamination was a matter of substance as well of style. Biden’s task was to differentiate himself as radically as possible from Trump. Yet he failed to stake out the clear dividing lines on crucial policy questions. On immigration, he largely capitulated to Trump’s characterization of migrants as a threat to be kept out of America. On women’s reproductive rights—arguably the single issue most likely to help the Democrats win November’s elections—he was muddled to the point of incoherence. He actually framed a vital point (that women who have been raped by family members are being denied abortions in some states) within Trump’s talking-point about alleged rapes by immigrants: “Look, there’s so many young women who have been—including a young woman who just was murdered and he [Trump] went to the funeral. The idea that she was murdered by—by—by an immigrant coming in and (inaudible) talk about that.”


This in turn allowed Trump to shift back from the area in which he is most uncomfortable (reproductive rights) to the vile trope he has been using since he launched his presidential campaign in 2015: dark-skinned immigrants as rapists. Even on a question as visceral as the consequences of rape, Biden could not make his own case without reinforcing Trump’s. By focusing so exclusively on presenting himself as not-Trump, he placed himself in a position where all he could do was react (in most cases inadequately) to his opponent’s lurid narratives. Trump was the actor; Biden the audience member heckling in ineffectual exasperation from the stalls. In such situations, the actor always wins.


Ever since Biden announced that he was running again, it was always clear that this decision would allow Trump to set the terms for the election. At a campaign event in Boston last December, Biden admitted that “If Trump wasn’t running, I’m not sure I’d be running.” It is not that Biden does not have a story of his own to tell. The successes of his administration are real and tangible: reflating a devastated economy, making the first serious attempt in the US to address the climate crisis, improving access to medicines and childcare, reversing the long-term neglect of America’s infrastructure. It is that Biden does not have the vigor, the articulacy, or the charisma to embody that story.

Political campaigns are embodied narratives—the medium for the message is the candidate’s physical and linguistic presence. Like it or not, Trump’s looming, swaggering, domineering mien personifies his insistence that America needs a giant to stand between it and the forces that are about to destroy it. He must surely be the first presidential candidate to draw specific attention to his own body in a formal debate: “I think I’m in very good shape. I feel that I’m in as good a shape as I was twenty-five, thirty years ago.” The corporeal Trump, in his telling, is almost ageless. He has arrested the ravages of time on his own body—just as he will stop the decline and decay of the American body politic.

Biden can’t do this. His political story is not one of time arrested but of time renewed. He wants (and needs) to evoke a sense of future possibility, a rebirth of social and racial justice and a bold adaptation of the economy to meet the climate crisis. Yet his body is not in sync with this message. Unable to exemplify an idea of progress, he is forced to play Trump’s game by pretending to have stopped his own physical decline. The little running motions, the aviator sunglasses, the protesting-too-much displays of youthful energy are failed efforts to do what Trump is so good at: appearing ageless. But time will not play along. It is all too easy to look at a photograph of Biden in 2020 and compare it to his present, more withered self. 

Thus, even in this most obvious physical sense, it is Trump who has set the terms and Biden who has allowed himself to be sucked into accepting them. In 2020 the pandemic saved Biden from the consequences of this mistake. It wiped out Trump’s advantage in physical presence. Trump held in-person rallies, but this may have worked against him by sending, to unaligned voters, messages of recklessness. (One subsequent study suggested that Trump’s rallies led to seven hundred additional deaths from Covid.) Biden at first campaigned virtually, losing the excitement of a physical campaign but sending a reassuring signal of safety and responsibility. When he did start holding rallies, they were either small-scale affairs or “drive-in” events, with supporters staying in their cars, creating a peculiarly disembodied experience that made the physical contrast between himself and Trump less relevant. Biden’s actual demeanor did not matter nearly as much as it does now.

All of this helped Biden to establish himself as the anti-Trump. This was what he needed to be in 2020. Trump was the incumbent. The US had experienced almost four years of his chaos, his incompetence, his relentless egotism. Biden’s personal sorrow was consonant with the grief-stricken mood of the pandemic, and his weariness matched that of the majority in a nation that was weary of death, weary of disruption, weary of Trump. Biden’s personal appeal was not that of a savior. It was that of a survivor—he had been through so much and was still standing. It was possible to hope that the same might then be true of the country.



The great problem, and the one that now threatens to engulf American democracy, is that Biden began to think of himself as indeed a savior figure. There was, of course, a certain immediate and literal truth to this: Biden not only saved the US from a second Trump term but also saw off an attempted coup. Yet Biden’s mindset is also deeply religious, and specifically Christian. In his inaugural address, delivered just two weeks after the invasion of the Capitol on January 6, he offered to stake both his earthly body and his immortal soul on the defense of democracy. He repeated Abraham Lincoln’s words at the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863: “My whole soul is in it.” Biden echoed this commitment: “Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this.” This is not rhetoric for Biden—it is prayer.

What, though, was the “this” to which he committed his immortal essence, the part of him that is beyond the ravages of time and age? It was “Bringing America together. Uniting our people. And uniting our nation.” This may be a gallant ambition. It is also an impossible one. Biden was completely sincere in his belief that reuniting a fractured nation is more than a political program—it is a sacred duty. But it was a duty he could not possibly fulfill. America has no interest in being brought together. It is not Biden’s fault that what had been sundered could not be made whole, but it is a reality that grates on his whole nature as a politician steeped in ideas of comity and consensus.

From the wreckage of this aspiration, Biden’s sense of divine mission was rescued by Trump’s reemergence, not just as the Republican candidate-in-waiting but as the defining figure of American politics. When Biden gave his inaugural address it might have seemed reasonable to assume that Trump was over, that the grotesque efforts to overturn the results of the election had made it impossible for him ever to return to power. But Trump was undead and his malign potency again established him as the major predator in the American political jungle.

This in turn gave Biden a second chance at achieving something worthy of his eternal soul. He had saved America from Trump once—now he could do it again. He could banish Trump, and Trumpism, not for now but forever. If thoughts of eternity gather round the aging Catholic believer, this is Biden’s political equivalent of an undying achievement. In his inaugural address, he evoked the struggle of light against darkness. He sees the delivery of a final, fatal blow to Trump as the ultimate vanquishing of the American darkness.

This is noble. The difficulty is that it also endorses a kind of personal exceptionalism. Biden, because he has suffered so much pain, is deeply inclined toward the Christian message that suffering is redeemed by a self-sacrificing savior. This is where being the counterpart in the world of light to Trump’s presence in the world of darkness takes on that eerie sense of transference. For Trump, too, presents himself as a savior. He conjures the vision of an American apocalypse. In the debate he ranted about immigrants: “people are coming in and they’re killing our citizens at a level that we’ve never seen.” He used the word “killing” eleven times. The fascistic vision of eternal ethnic war is now fully integrated into Trump’s rhetoric. And its point is the same as it has always been: only an exceptional man can save the real Americans from the carnage that otherwise awaits them.

This is Trump’s most visceral appeal. As he put in his speech accepting the Republican nomination in 2016: “I alone can fix it.” At the heart of authoritarianism is this notion of indispensability. The leader is unique, unparalleled, irreplaceable. God has chosen him to rescue and revive the nation. That is why he cannot be constrained by laws or even by the ordinary calculations of rationality. Only in his infallible instincts and indomitable will does salvation lie.

Biden’s tragedy is that he has come to take on this same conviction, to feel that he alone can save America. In mirroring his archenemy, he has created an equal and opposite belief in his own indispensability. On a rational level, he knows that this does not make sense. In December he responded off the cuff to a reporter’s question about whether he thought another Democrat could defeat Trump: “Probably fifty of them.” Yet he has also boasted in a social media video that “I’m still the only person that ever beat Donald Trump.” Even after the debacle of the debate, Senator Chris Coons, the Biden campaign’s co-chair, insisted that “the only Democrat who can beat Donald Trump” is Biden. This has always been a circular argument: no one but Biden can beat Trump because no one but Biden can be allowed to stand against him because no one but Biden can beat Trump…

Biden’s motivations are infinitely more benign than Trump’s, but he has ended up in the same place: with the great delusion of “I alone.” This is a face-off that Trump will always win. His supporters really do believe in his exceptionality—as the miserable performance of Ron DeSantis in the Republican primaries showed, they do not care for Trumpism without Trump. Few of Biden’s supporters think likewise about their candidate. The valorization of the lone savior suits reactionary politics—it is not a good fit for democracy. It is the ultimate case of the anti-Trump forces operating on Trump’s terms.

The Democrats cannot defeat Trump by trying to play on a course he already owns. Those who want to stick with Biden whatever happens are engaged not in rational politics but in magical thinking, the belief that Biden’s victory in 2020 has imbued him with powers that only he can wield. But this fantasy is becoming a horror story in which the dark shadow of America’s democracy threatens to usurp its life.

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