Joe Biden wants to make America “already great” again.
There was no shortage of soothing, optimistic voices in the Democratic Party’s primary field before Biden made his candidacy official Thursday morning. Pete Buttigieg offered voters a ray of hope from the heartland — where a postindustrial midwestern town had discovered better living through gentrification, and an openly gay mayor won the acceptance of his constituents. Beto O’Rourke campaigned as Texas’s coolest youth pastor, preaching the gospel of hope-punk from the tallest diner tables he could find. Cory Booker sang paens to “radical love”; Amy Klobuchar, to targeted tax credits.
But for all their positivity and moderation, these candidates still tended to paint Donald Trump as a mere symptom of our nation’s broader problems — and progressive change as an urgent necessity. Mayor Pete describes Trump’s election as a consequence of the traumas of deindustrialization and the collapse of “the Reagan consensus.” O’Rourke has argued that America’s civic life is in disrepair because “a full political democracy is only possible if we vigorously pursue a true economic democracy.” Booker insists that rapid progress on redressing structural racism is necessary because “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” Klobuchar laments that “leaders in Washington have sat on the sidelines while others try to figure out what to do about our changing economy and its impact on our lives … the changing climate, the tumult in our world.”
Judging by his announcement video, Biden plans to take a different tack. Unlike many of his rivals, the former vice-president didn’t introduce himself to voters by lamenting the long-term stagnation of middle-class wages, the hidden legacies of white supremacy, the metastasizing climate crisis — or any other policy challenges that predated Trump’s time in office. Rather, the vice-president chose to put a spotlight on a problem unique to Trump, one that America could have averted by electing literally any other candidate in 2016 — the problem of having a president who is uncomfortable unequivocally condemning neo-Nazis.
Biden’s address to the camera is worth quoting at length:
Charlottesville, Virginia is home to the author of one of the great documents in human history. We know it by heart: “We know these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” … We haven’t always lived up to these ideals. Jefferson himself didn’t. But we have never before walked away from them.
Charlottesville is also home to a defining moment for this nation in the last few years. It was there on August of 2017 that we saw Klansmen and white supremacists and neo-Nazis come out in the open. Their crazed faces, illuminated by torches, veins bulging and bearing the fangs of racism. Chanting the same anti-Semitic bile heard across Europe in the thirties. And they were met by a courageous group of Americans, and a violent clash ensued, and a brave young woman lost her life. And that’s when we heard the words of the president of the United States that stunned the world, and shocked the conscience of this nation. He said there were “some very fine people on both sides.” … In that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I’d seen in my lifetime.
… I believe history will look back on four years of this president, and all he embraces, as an aberrant moment in time. But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation, who we are. And I cannot stand by and watch that happen. The core values of this nation, our standing in the world, our very democracy, everything that has made America America is stake … America is an idea … It gives hope to the most desperate people on Earth. It guarantees that everyone is treated with dignity, and gives hate no safe harbor. It instills in every person in this country the belief that no matter where you start in life, there’s nothing you can’t achieve if you work at it. That’s what we believe … We can’t forget what happened in Charlottesville. Even more important, we need to remember who we are.
In many respects, Biden’s message here is actually an invitation to forget “who we are.” When Uncle Joe says that although we haven’t always lived up to our republic’s emancipatory ideals, “we have never before walked away from them,” he excises Reconstruction and the white backlash to the civil-rights movement (of which Biden was a part) from American history. In Biden’s telling, Trump is not the most recent manifestation of a deep-seated, revanchist tendency in our republic; he is the singular exception in a proud history of steadily advancing progress. Racism is still blocking the full realization of the “American idea” in 2019. But it doesn’t look like ordinary white suburbanites pushing restrictive zoning laws or fighting redistricting efforts that would integrate their schools; it looks like literal monsters with “crazed faces,” bulging veins, and racist “fangs.”
This Manichean sensibility pervades Biden’s entire message, which is no more nuanced than a nursery rhyme. Before Trump came along, America was a land renowned for its exceptional social mobility and immunity to racial hatreds, a shining city on a hill whose example lifted the spirits of desperate people the world over. Then the bad man came to power. Now, everything that “makes America America” is at risk; if Trump remains in office for eight years, all will be irrevocably lost. If he is in power for only four years, however, none of the damage he has done will be lasting. And, as fate would have it, a familiar old hero was so moved by the tragedy in Charlottesville, he has decided to come out of retirement for one last mission — to defeat the vile usurper, and restore peace throughout the land.
In other words: Biden’s announcement video is a 210-second-long insult to the intelligence and moral imagination of its viewers.
It might also be a winning message.
Biden’s gambit here isn’t crazy. He knows that his core asset in the primary is Democratic voters’ nostalgia for the Obama years (lately, he’s taken to calling himself an “Obama-Biden Democrat”). And he also knows that Trump and the Republicans hope to win the general election by, on the one hand, disqualifying the Democrats as a far-left party that threatens to bring disruptive change, and on the other, harnessing the tailwinds of a full-employment economy.
Thus, Biden’s campaigning on a pledge to do nothing more threatening than “be kind and rewind.” He’s promising Democrats he’ll deliver them back to Obama’s promised land, when the long arc of history was still bending toward justice. And he’s assuring swing voters that he can make American politics boring again, without disrupting this tight labor market they’re enjoying, or forcing them to disavow any form of racism more subtle than a parade of torch-wielding Klansmen. He’s selling hope without (much) change; a boat ride against the current, bearing us back ceaselessly into the misremembered past.
Here’s hoping we don’t buy it.