When he announced his presidential campaign a year ago, Joe Biden called Donald Trump’s presidency “an aberrant moment in time.” The musty stench of that phrase has clung to the former vice-president. Presenting Trump as the sole and idiosyncratic source of America’s troubles carries the connotation that the Republican party itself bears no important blame for his misdeeds, and suggests that merely defeating him at the polls will suffice.
That caricature never fully captured Biden’s worldview. (He also often highlights the extremism of the GOP by saying, “This is not your grandfather’s Republican party,” and is running on a sharply progressive platform.) But in a speech Tuesday, he repudiated it frontally.
“The American story is about action and reaction. That’s the way history works. We can’t be naïve about that,” he said, “I wish I could say this hate began with Donald Trump and will end with him. It didn’t and it won’t. American history isn’t a fairy tale with a guaranteed happy ending.”
The debate over whether Trump is an aberration or the culmination of long-standing trends has broadly divided Trump’s more radical critics from his centrist ones. An accurate picture would concede truth to both ideas. Trump engages in aberrant behavior on a daily basis that would be shocking and scandalous under a Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, or Ted Cruz presidency. On the other hand, Trump also reflects his party’s sustained evolution into authoritarianism, and the support he has drawn from his party for his violations of democratic governing norms reveals how fundamentally comfortable most Republicans are with his strongman tendencies, even if many of them cringe at his undisciplined messaging style.
But it was Biden who attached himself to the fairy tale version, in which the bad man would be vanquished and happiness would return to the land. Replacing Trump will only be a step in a long struggle. (Biden laid out several concrete proposals to restore the police reforms that the Obama administration had begun implementing and which Trump halted.) None of those will be accepted easily. They will instead set off the same racialized panic that Trump exploited. It is a relief to see Biden withdraw his false promise.