An Omen of Joe Biden’s Timidity
Something ominous happened in President-Elect Joe Biden’s remarks on November 19, which he gave after he met with governors.
A reporter posed this fiery question to Biden: “When you take a step back and you look at how the president is handling this — his refusal to concede — what do you think is really going on here? In your view, Mr. President-Elect, what do you think the president is doing? What are Americans witnessing here?” (See 42:30 minutes into the video.)
Biden gave a lengthy pause and prefaced his answer by saying, “Let me choose my words here.” Then he said, “I think they’re witnessing incredible irresponsibility. An incredibly damaging message is being sent to the rest of the world about how democracy functions.” He then gave another very lengthy pause before reiterating, “Well, I don’t know his motives, but I just think it’s totally irresponsible” (my emphasis).
That last point came up again in answering the questions, when Biden addressed the reports of Donald Trump’s calls with Michigan county officials to personally interfere with the vote-counting.
Biden said, “It’s hard to fathom how this man thinks. It’s hard to fathom. I’m confident he knows he hasn’t won and he’s not going to be able to win, and he knows we’re going to be sworn in on January 20. And I just, uh, but far be it for me to question his motives — it’s just outrageous what he’s doing” (48:55, my emphasis).
Unity through Heroic Defeat of the Identified Enemy
Just to set the stage so you’re able to see the bad moon rising in all its repulsive glory, observe that Donald Trump is sabotaging Biden’s presidency with a scorched-earth strategy. The Republican Party is cooperating not with Biden but with Trump, to turn Biden’s entire first term into a lame duck session. Jack Holmes from Esquire explains:
Trump’s destructive impulse has been highly useful in that regard:
on the foreign-policy front, he is reportedly in the process of setting “so many fires that it will be hard for the Biden administration to put them all out.” He is also hard at work ransacking the federal bureaucracy to prevent Biden doing much of anything at all. Meanwhile, he’s not doing the actual job in any sense. His regime is doing nothing about the pandemic even as it explodes in severity. There will be no relief bill for businesses or local governments.
Holmes adds, “All of these consequences are pretty much baked in now. Trump’s base will refuse to recognize Biden’s legitimacy as president, having been served a steady stream of disinformation on Facebook and the teevee. He’ll be Birtherized.”
Yet Biden deems it necessary to refrain from questioning Trump’s motives. Whatever Biden thinks he’s doing there, it’s important to appreciate how weak he looks by not telling the obvious truth.
Biden thinks of himself as a healer and a uniter. He wants to define himself as the opposite of Trump, who demagogued shamelessly to exploit social divisions to feed his childlike ego. Trump is sabotaging Biden’s presidency in what he considers retaliation for how the deep state sabotaged his term in office with Russiagate.
Fine, but let’s compare Biden’s efforts to unite the country to those of a rather more famous uniter in world history, namely Jesus. In the New Testament, Jesus was a radical moralist who taught that we should love our enemies, because all worldly disputes are trivial in light of our everlasting relation to God in Heaven or Hell.
But Jesus accused those who rejected him of being misled by the devil: “Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:42–44).
My point here isn’t at all theological or religious. We can assume even that Jesus didn’t exist in history and that this quotation is just part of a fictional story from world literature. What’s important is that this kind of myth has had an enormous impact on our expectations for heroes. If Biden wants to call himself a uniter and a healer in the largely-Christian United States, he’s setting himself up to be judged by standards set by the likes of Jesus.
Jesus saw the world in terms of black and white: good and evil, Heaven and Hell, believers and unbelievers, God and Satan. Yet Jesus is widely admired as a uniter, because he had a revelatory vision of how to transcend our mundane squabbles.
Presumably, Joe Biden has a vision of a united America. But if he really believed in that vision, if Biden were any kind of idealist, he’d fight for his values by making enemies of those who implacably oppose him. That’s what Jesus did, that paradigmatic peacemaker. According to the myth, God will reign over his kingdom in the end when the devil and all unrepentant sinners are hurled into the pit of Hell rather than being won over or united with the believers.
Heroes unite people not by surrendering to the enemy or by pretending evil doesn’t exist, but by defeating the hostile forces that don’t belong in any ideal world.
By contrast, Biden’s talk of unity and of healing comes across as sentimental and platitudinous, because Biden can’t even bring himself to identify what Trump is, not even when he’s asked point-blank to demonstrate where he stands and what he’s willing to fight for. Biden hasn’t proved even that he understands the nature of his enemy or the dire state of his country. So how can anyone trust he’ll heroically unite and heal Americans by taking the lead in slaying the dragon of Trumpism?
Biden’s Public Relations Tactics
Biden’s actual reasons for refusing to question Trump’s motives are probably the opposite of heroic. Perhaps Biden is following the lame Christian tradition of leaving it up to God to judge people’s motives — as though God wouldn’t have given people the intelligence to work out how others think or have expected us to do so to avoid insane outcomes.
Or maybe when he was a child, Biden’s mother told him never to talk ill of anyone, and Biden thinks his words have magical power, as though he could steal something’s soul by calling the thing by its true name.
Then again, political hacks will insist that Americans hate it when politicians go negative, so politicos should always be smiling and optimistic. That counsel to be winsome and fake has been widely seen through and disposed of, though, which is why Donald Trump is a more transformational figure than Barack Obama.
Obama smiled his way through his presidency. Then came Trump immediately afterward by way of brutal repudiation of Democratic niceties, and rather than losing in a disgraceful rout in his bid for reelection, Trump got more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016. And what does Trump represent? Sheer trolling and vengeance against the political establishment that can’t be trusted to tell the citizenry how things really are, that pretends everything’s fine even as neoliberal globalization devastates the middle class (and the world’s ecosystems) and the US returns to the Gilded Age of robber barons.
Again, Biden wants to be seen as a uniter, but just calling yourself one in opposition to Trump the Divider doesn’t make it so, just as Obama’s calling himself an agent of “change” didn’t make him a real progressive or a new FDR, despite the opportunity afforded him by the 2008 housing market collapse.
The chances of uniting Americans and ending their culture war, by pretending the social differences aren’t deep-rooted are nil. By being so shy that you refuse to publicly question the motives of the un-American anti-president who’s in the middle of actively sabotaging your entire presidency, who turned the loyal opposition into a full-blown cult which holds the Republicans hostage, and who spent four years desecrating every American norm and tradition from the very White House — such unmanliness signals that maybe the bad guys deserve to win.
An American Tradition of Downplaying the Real Enemy
This is comparable to US policy under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, to avoid using the term “radical Islamic terrorism.” The purpose was to reassure most Muslims that the US wasn’t at war with them and that the terrorists had only hijacked Islam and didn’t fairly represent that religion.
But everyone knew this was disingenuous, that there was no such official American respect for Islam. Bush gained few friends in the Muslim world when he invaded Iraq after Afghanistan, on the pretext that Saddam Hussein was part of an “axis of evil” and couldn’t be trusted with the weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist.
And as this article points out, “Muslim enthusiasm for Obama’s presidency proved short-lived as he struggled to enact most of his promises, and along the way soured on engagement with the region.” For example, “Obama was an enthusiastic early supporter of the 2011 pro-democracy Arab Spring movement, but he threw his support behind Egypt’s military regime two years later…The Guantanamo prison remained open even as the U.S. transferred out hundreds of detainees. And across the region, new wars flared up — from Syria in 2011 to Yemen in 2015.”
Obama carried out ten times more drone strikes in the Muslim world than did George W. Bush.
As a result, that article says, “A June 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that less than 50 percent of Turks, 36 percent of Lebanese, 15 percent of Palestinians, and 14 percent of Jordanians and Pakistanis approved of Obama’s handling of global affairs.”
Obama and Bush would say their heart was in the right place. But their ignorance or lack of candidness about the nature of Islamist terrorism showed, rather, that they didn’t care about Islam or the region. If they cared, they would have known enough not to imply there’s only one correct interpretation of Islam and that all other interpreters are therefore mere impostors. And if they cracked open the Quran for even a minute, those presidents would have discovered the fertile soil for Islamist militancy. The Quran makes the blood-soaked Jewish scriptures look like a nursery rhyme.
No, Bush and Obama did understand that Islam isn’t simply a religion of peace and that the terrorists have their theological justifications just as the myriad Christian denominations have had theirs. These presidents were only trying to be politically correct and to avoid inflaming Muslim populations. But that’s a euphemistic way of saying they were afraid to face the real challenge that most of the Middle East hasn’t yet been modernized and is thus in conflict with the world of Western liberties.
Biden’s Fear-Based Reticence
Likewise, Joe Biden declines to identify the nature of his enemy because he’s afraid of Trumpism — rather like the Republican Party that’s been captured and turned into a cult that worships Trump as an agent of chaos. Biden’s afraid of the seventy-four million Americans that voted for Trump after having witnessed four years of his anti-presidency.
Most importantly, Biden’s afraid he and his feminized Democrats aren’t fit for the monumental task of defeating Trumpism or of undoing the radicalization of most Americans, including the many that don’t vote and the supporters of the toxically masculine Republican Party. Most Americans have little or no confidence in their governmental institutions. They don’t expect their public institutions to function well. Instead, they watch the political shenanigans from the sidelines for entertainment or they vote to troll and to embarrass the establishment.
Biden’s afraid to admit that Americans may not be what they once were, that tens of millions of them are desperate or enraged and are lashing out because their institutions are failing and they’ve lost faith in the myth that actually unites them, the myth of upward mobility for the American masses. Like the other centrist Democrats that are more nihilistic and therefore more Trumpian than they realize, Biden may fear that the moderates lack the stomach to sustain the noble lies needed to reinvigorate the citizenry. The President-Elect may have reason to worry that the final stage of the Spenglerian cycle may have arrived at last for liberal civilization.
Indeed, centrist politicians are the least capable of handling this particular emergency, because they’re guardians of the perfidious system that’s so widely condemned for having been captured and rigged by the richest ten percent of Americans, by the plutocrats and coastal liberal elites.
The centrist Democrats’ fear and weakness show through; these deficiencies can’t be hidden for long, just as Trump’s malignant narcissism (a fancy word for “evil”) bubbled over in his surreal conduct as “president.” When the spotlight’s on us, we evidently reveal who we are.
President Trump certainly revealed more of himself than anyone of good faith would have wanted to behold, and by pretending otherwise, Biden is beginning his first term with the kind of obvious lie of omission that justifies the masses’ cynicism about politics and even their turn to populist demagogues.