It’s sad to reflect how the success of former Vice President Joe Biden in the Democratic primaries shows the political strength of President Donald Trump. Just as former President Ronald Reagan and former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s rightward lurch in the ’80s defined the boundaries of the opposition by pushing it towards the centrism of their respective successors (former President Bill Clinton and former Prime Minister Tony Blair), the current opposition has been shaped according to Trump’s movement: We now have only the choice between blatant reaction and bland conservativism. And when we can’t imagine our future, we turn to the past — Trump and Biden represent the past each in their own way. If Trump is America at its worst and ugliest, Biden is the self-deception America practices to make its own ugliness livable.
After Trump won in 2016, there were several big theories about what made it possible, all of which had some purchase and validity; those theories were more or less embodied in the last remaining Democratic candidates. Was it a desire for a plutocratic strongman (former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg)? A populist revolt against corrupt elites (Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders)? Or just raw white, gerontocratic reaction and nostalgia for the old days (Biden)? If Trumpism represents the desire to continue the rule of old, rich white men and to replay a hazy memory of America’s past greatness, its partial success can be seen in the selection of Biden as his primary antagonist.
If Trump is America at its worst and ugliest, Biden is the self-deception America practices to make its own ugliness livable.
For the left, this is obviously a bitter defeat that will take time to fully understand. Sanders was not able to retain or expand the support of the white working class, who made him so competitive with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016 and furnished the best case for his electability versus Trump. He also failed to make any inroads among older black voters or among older voters in general. More than race, class, or gender the defining issue of the primary seems to be age: Older voters flocked to Biden once the field narrowed, young ones stuck with Sanders throughout.
It’s of course impossible to blame older black voters for the defeat of the left; they correctly see Trump as the political heir of the Klan and Jim Crow. For people with everything to lose and the living memory of that regime of terror, Trump’s defeat is absolutely essential, and Sanders apparently failed to persuade that he could do that job. I, for one, sympathize. The first fear that seized me in the wake of Trump’s victory was that of race riots and pogroms. It’s usually wrong to condescend about or second guess the political judgment of persecuted people, a judgment that has been conditioned by fear and sharpened by necessity. If Biden delivers the convincing victory these supporters believe he can, we may yet reflect that the Democratic Party and the country is once again in the debt of its black citizens.
But less noble fights also intrude here. Age has become a proxy for class, and the struggle between old and young is taking on the characteristics of a class struggle. The old have property, houses, pension funds, the preservation of whose value is really their primary concern. The young do not have these things. While their demands and style seem radical, the young often merely want what their parents have and taken for granted: a home, a stable job, the means to start a family. The watchwords of conservative society — family, property, and order — are precisely what is being denied to the young. What Sanders and Warren’s politics amount to is re-setting the clock to the post-war social democracy that made Boomer prosperity possible. It’s beyond frustrating that this modest demand now seems out of reach even if Biden wins. Then there is the issue of climate change, which for the young in particular is growing to be an existential one.
Throughout his career, Biden has been a proponent of the status quo. He dedicated his earliest public office, that of County Councilman in New Castle, Delaware to fighting industrial development and the building of highways. Of course, this benefitted the property values of his constituents, that most sacred value of American politics, as much as it preserved the environment. And he has been able to accommodate reactionary energy, like when he joined archconservative North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms in attempting to fight school busing and to limit the scope of the Civil Rights Act. It was perhaps because of and not despite his dopey racist comments about former President Barack Obama that made him an ideal vice presidential candidate, a politically savvy olive branch to the racist uncles of the world (Biden is nothing if not avuncular). But it also must be admitted that his affection and respect for Obama seems to have been genuine, and he served under him loyally, without attempting to undermine or upstage his presidency. He is a figure of transition from the old regime, and perhaps therefore ideal for the post-Trump interregnum.
Age has become a proxy for class, and the struggle between old and young is taking on the characteristics of a class struggle.
Hypocrisy at least pays tribute to virtue, as a fella once said. A certain amount of forgetfulness is reassuring: both Trump and Biden know this, both can move into a rhetorical mood that encourages people to “forget about it” or “don’t go there.” Sanders does not. As he’s said, his political life is defined by two clear memories: growing up working class and his family’s experience of the Holocaust. He does not coo and shush his audiences, but snaps them to alertness. Apparently not everyone wants that. In a 2018 piece for Harper’s Corey Robin wrote about America’s political amnesia and how the country constantly forgets its own history. With Biden and Trump facing off, perhaps the more apposite condition to reference is senility. Our politics stagger from vague, sentimental nostalgia to irritability and back again. We faintly hear the echoes of the New Deal, the Cold War, the ’60s, and the Reagan ’80s, without bothering to learn their lessons. The country yearns to recall it knows not exactly what.
One day the poor shall inherit the earth. The legacy hoarded by the older generation will fall, one way or another, into the hands of the young, but by that time it will probably be blighted by neglect, pollution, and climate change. The process of rebuilding and renewal will be long and arduous. Things will not be divided up equally; they never are. And so the fight will have to continue.