III. The First Avenger
1. Patriot Games
One of the things that distinguished the New Left that emerged out of the turmoil of the 1960s and ’70s was a new attitude toward patriotism: what it meant, how to show it, and who has it.
The Old Left was composed of the New Deal Democrats who led the country through the Great Depression and the second world war and went on to construct the welfare state and the affluent society. The cost of the New Deal — and the gains in prosperity and equality it undergirded — was the perpetuation of Jim Crow in the South. But prior to the Civil Rights era and the consequent fracturing of the Democratic party, the relationship between being a Democrat and being a patriotic American was utterly unproblematic.
The New Left, however, changed this. Where the Old Left was a class-based politics that cut across social identities — or, in the case of race, pretended to — the New Left was a culture-based approach that began to frame politics in terms of identity groups — race, gender, sexual orientation and, due in large part to the Vietnam War, age. For the Old Left, the primary villains were without: first fascists, then communists. For the New Left, the primary villains were within: the Man, the System, the Establishment, Capitalism, the Patriarchy, the Military-Industrial Complex and, of course, Nixon.
The organizing principle was that the world is divided into oppressors and oppressed; the former are typically old white men, the latter are typically marginalized groups who need to be defended. For the Old Left — and certainly for the Right — to be a patriot meant to support the the war. For the New Left, to be a patriot meant to protest it and to challenge power and authority wherever they may be found. Guided by Marxist ideas about ideology and false consciousness, for the young revolutionaries of the New Left, you’d be a sucker to trust anyone over 30. They had all been co-opted and corrupted by the system.
It follows from this either that patriotism is propaganda, or that its enlightened form requires raging against the machine. Whether we understand this as a rejection of the virtue or a reinterpretation of it, it’s one way to understand the ideological divide within the Democratic party that continues to this day. As the decades passed, the reverse patriotism of the counterculture cooled and reincarnated into the ironic nihilism that became the default attitude of the 1990s. With the “end of history” proclaimed after the collapse of Soviet Communism, and with neoliberalism victorious and seemingly invincible, what remained of the spirit of the New Left found a host in the children of its founders, Gen X and the Xennials. But that spirit, channeled by Tyler Durden in Fight Club, was withered and resigned:
We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives
We’ve just read too much Howard Zinn. And even if we haven’t read him, we’ve osmotically absorbed the attitude toward American history he represents.
For this generation — my generation — the notion that patriotism could be anything other than something corny and hokey and sappy and saccharine, or that it would even be possible to unselfconsciously practice it with a straight face, is hard to imagine. The reflex is that the patriotic are dupes to be pitied and mocked. The perfunctory social rituals of pledging allegiance to the flag, standing for the national anthem, or supporting the troops ring hollow. It is the way many secular folks feel about religion: we want to believe, but we just can’t. It’s almost like asking a straight person to be gay. It’s not like we haven’t tried the whole love “my country ’tis of thee thing.” It just doesn’t feel right, to the point that actually feeling it would feel wrong, in the sense of embarrassing. Apart from a span of weeks in the aftermath of 9/11 and Obama’s election, patriotism is an alien emotion and strange disposition that other people feel; dead people, old people, church-going, pickup-driving, Fox News-watching people. We look back at the Greatest Generation’s natural patriotism the way we regard people in the Middle Ages’ belief in spirits: marveling with smug condescension at how benighted and naïve they were, yet envious that they belonged to an enchanted world.
And it is to the Greatest Generation that Captain America, the First Avenger, belongs.
2. A Good Man
Iron Man’s Tony Stark is the perfect foil to Captain America’s Steve Rodgers.
Rodgers is the immovable object of the Greatest Generation, Stark the unstoppable force of Generation X.
Stark is thoroughly postmodern — hip, flashy, materialistic, an endlessly verbal expressive individualist eager to embrace his super-hero status, a self-described “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist.” Rodgers is a total traditionalist — a square, subdued, stoic soldier embarrassed to be used as a propaganda tool for the war effort and who refuses to attend a medal ceremony after his first military victory.
Stark is knowing, clever, witty, cooler-than-thou, ever ready with the oh-so-above-it-all raised eyebrow, smirk, eye roll, or pop culture reference. Rodgers is focused, serious, on mission, and has no idea what the kids are up to these days, couldn’t care less, doesn’t get the joke, and doesn’t want to.
Steve: “We have orders. We should follow them.” Tony: “Yeah, following’s not really my style.”
Where Rodgers’ instinct is to respect authority, Tony’s is to challenge it (and give it the finger).
Where Steve is all about the team, Tony — at his worst — is all about Tony. In terms of the Big Five personality traits, Steve is all conscientiousness, Stark all openness to experience.
Where Steve is all heart, Tony is all head — a man of science and technology who, for most of the series, literally has an artificial heart.
But perhaps most importantly, Rodgers belongs to a world in which the United States was unambiguously a Force for Good in the World. He is a creature of a clear-cut Manichean moral universe of good guys and bad guys, Axis and Allies. Tony is the product of an age defined by the artist formerly known as the War on Terror, in which democratic capitalism has no serious ideological rival and where the enemy is not a country or an ideology but a stateless, faceless tactic. Indeed, in the first Iron Man film, the enemy — Tony’s business partner — turns out to lie within. In the first Avengers film, before the team is even fully formed, they (rightly, it turns out) suspect the motives of S.H.I.E.L.D., the top-secret government division that recruited them, when it hides that it’s been using alien technology to make weapons. The threats are no longer merely foreign (or extraterrestrial), but domestic: corruption in the upper reaches of the U.S. national security establishment, the military-industrial complex, the — yep, you got it — deep state.
Captain America, in other words, has a lot to catch up on, and his learning curve is steep. His suit may be a snug fit, but his patriotism is not, and is increasingly tested and taxed as the series unfolds. After his de-icing in Winter Soldier, he is immediately forced to come to terms with the political and moral ambiguities of the post-Cold War world. Corrupt Secretary of State Alexander Pierce (a sort of cypher for Dick Cheney played by Robert Redford) turns out to be an agent of Hydra, the secret Nazi division started by Red Skull, Cap’s nemesis from the 1940s. Having learned its lesson from World War II — that humanity could not be coerced into subjugation — Hydra has a new ploy for world domination. Having infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D., it aims to get humanity to willingly surrender its freedom by sowing chaos and accepting mass data surveillance in exchange for security. Hydra’s targeted killing system reads peoples past to predict their future. Cap is thus forced to come to terms with the moral conundrums of American power in the war on terror.
The tension between Stark and Rodgers drives the domestic drama within the Avengers team throughout the series, reaching its apex in Civil War and leading to a rupture that, like the Hulk’s inner struggle, must be healed before the final confrontation with the true enemy. The Clash between Stark and Rodgers reflects the cold civil war that has come to characterize, polarize, and paralyze our politics. We tend to focus on the war between the parties, but this tends to obscure the deeper obstacle: the war within the Democratic party. And that war, I am suggesting, has everything to do with the conflict over patriotism.
As I already mentioned, the roots of that conflict reach back to the 1960s in general and the Vietnam War in particular, but its most relevant recent context is the Iraq War. The 9/11 attack granted the country a windfall of patriotic capital that President Bush swiftly squandered by launching a war of choice that split the country.
Patriotism was at the heart of the 2004 election. The Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry, perfectly embodied the party’s ambivalence around patriotism: he both served in Vietnam and spoke out against it upon his return. The Right’s asymmetrical advantage in the culture wars on all things patriotism was so complete that Bush, the frat boy ne’er-do-well with a controversial service record with the National Guard, was successfully portrayed as a veritable Captain America, while Kerry, the Vietnam veteran, was framed as an effete, vaguely French, windsurfing turncoat.
To be fair, Kerry had scant political talent and was an awful candidate. He signaled ambivalence not only in his background, but in his statements about the Iraq War: “I voted for the war before I voted against it.” This Democratic dissonance about the war dogged the party in 2008 — Clinton’s vote in favor of it cost her dearly, and Obama’s vote against it freed him from the party’s baggage — and will do so again in 2020. To add insult to injury, the party’s ham-fisted attempt to dress Kerry up as a war hero at the Democratic National Convention was somewhat like watching Jeb Bush trying to insult Donald Trump on the debate stage: he was trying to succeed on turf and in terms owned by his enemy, and his failure was thus sealed from the start.
You have to remember that in the Bush years, the Right had a total lock on a constellation of politically powerful ideas: patriotism, religion, family values, national security. This was a time that saw the passage of a piece of legislation literally entitled the Patriot Act. It was a time when the country was at war on three fronts: in Iraq, Afghanistan and, in theory, everywhere. It was the time of neoconservatism, the twilight of the “unipolar moment,” that fifteen or so year span between the end of the Cold War and the failure of the Iraq War, when America bestrode the globe playing at world policeman, chasing windmills of “regime change.” It was a time when the patriotic posturing of the Right grew so preposterous that it begged to be parodied, and was, to savage effect, by the South Park creators in Team America: World Police:
But the Bush administration played too many patriot games, and they lost most of their bets. The missing WMDs in Iraq, the failure of the war, the absence of any major terror attacks and, finally, the financial crisis of 2008 knocked the wind out of the GOP and, with the election of the first black president, reordered the constellation of ideas mentioned above. With the GOP’s monopoly on patriotism weakened and its alleged competence in national security discredited, the country was able to tell itself a new story, a story it could be proud of: that it had come together to heal its recent divisions over the war and its ancient divisions over race to elect a young black man as its leader.
The new president’s wife was savaged by the Right when she confessed that she had never felt so proud of her country as the night it elected her husband president. But I must confess to you — and I suspect I speak for many in my generation and the Gen Xers, too — Michelle Obama spoke for me. Never have I felt prouder to be an American, never have I felt more hopeful for our country and its future, never have I felt more connected to the nation than when Barack Obama ran, won, and governed as our president.
But for me, his race was always secondary. What drew me to him — what makes me miss him with a heavy heart — was who he was. Never in my life time had a man whose intellect, character, judgment, and temperament were so well suited to the presidency come close to occupying the oval office. But somehow, it happened.
And with the steady economic recovery, the gradual winding down of the wars, the continued absence of a major terrorist attack, the daring midnight mission to kill bin Laden, the lack of any major scandal (sexual or otherwise) in a Democratic administration, the near constant competence, and the mere abiding presence of healthy, stable, normal African-American family in the White House — the GOPs grip on patriotism in the American social imaginary weakened even further. The balance of patriotic power, to all appearances, had shifted, and we were charting a steady course toward that more perfect union. To almost all appearances.
The backlash began immediately. At the governmental level, it took the form of the GOP’s lockstep opposition to every single one of Obama’s legislative proposals, even (incredibly) the stimulus package to arrest the economy’s free fall, and was sealed with (then) senate minority leader McConnell’s declaration that his main objective was to make Obama a one-term president. At the grass-roots level, it took the form of the Tea Party (or, to be more precise, the “astroturf” level, since the movement was bolstered by Koch brothers-backed front groups such as Americans for Prosperity). The movement donned the symbology of the Founding, opposed itself to what it risibly regarded as the Obama administration’s tyrannical economic and healthcare policies, and offered a preview of the right-wing populist rhetoric to come. Dethroned from power, the faux patriotism of the Right took a more twisted form, re-emerging first as the primal scream of the Tea Party and mutating into Palinism, Birtherism and, ultimately, Trumpism.
The spirit of the new age was captured pithily by a Trump supporter during the 2016 campaign: “Hell yeah! He’s no-bullshit. All balls. Fuck you all balls. That’s what I’m about.” If the mantra of the Bush administration was “America: Fuck Yeah!”, that of the Trump administration has been “America: Fuck All Balls!” In the Bush era, you signaled tribal loyalty by putting a “Support the Troops” sticker on your SUV. In the Trump era, you do so by hanging “truck nuts” on your pickup.
It will come as little surprise, then, that for those of us who have come to regard Trump as a clear and present danger to the country, the morning after the 2016 election felt like 9/11. I realize that will be offensive to many of you reading this, so let me be clear: I am not drawing any kind of moral equivalence between the two events. I am talking, instead, about their world-historical impact, the gut-punch certainty they conveyed that the world had suddenly changed. The difference, beyond the obvious point that no one died, is that no one cheered the 9/11 attacks (save a smattering of left-wing radicals who saw the blowback as just desert for an Evil Empire). But discounting Trump’s hardcore supporters, for most of the country — including, I wager, quite a few of the well-educated, well-off center-Right and libertarian folks who should have known better but held their nose and voted for him for selfish financial reasons — it felt like an attack.
The moral disorientation that characterized the War on Terror, in which we began to worry whether the strangers we pass in public might be terrorists, took an even more twisted form: we began to regard our fellow citizens as something close to traitors. It cut both ways: those on the Left saw Trump’s followers supporting a demagogue attacking the very pillars of our polity: the constitution, liberal democracy, the free press, the courts, the national security establishment. Those on the Right viewed themselves as the “real Americans,” saw Trump’s opponents as disloyal and unpatriotic, and even began to regard Russia more favorably than the Democratic party. In the Bush years, Terrorism was in the air wherever you went; in the Trump years it’s been, well, Trumpism.
In the first Captain America film, the German Jewish émigré scientist (Stanley Tucci) who recruits Steve Rodgers to be the guinea pig for the super soldier project tells him why he was chosen. The superhuman serum, he explains, accentuates whatever is inside you — “good becomes great, bad becomes worse.” He chose Steve because of his character, and made him promise that whatever happens, he remain “a good man.”
As Michelle Obama and many others have observed, “The presidency doesn’t change who you are. It reveals who you are.” Cap’s Axis counterpart Johann Schmid, the first person to be injected with the serum, is transformed into Red Skull, a walking demon that attains such levels of megalomania that he aims to out-Führer Hitler himself.
At this point you are probably wondering whether anyone has compared Trump to Red Skull. Rest assured, dear reader, the internet is, as usual, way ahead of you. But before you open this Twitter feed, make sure you are not eating or standing up, lest you choke or collapse from body-quaking, gut-busting, mind-erasing laughter:
I could go on, of course — about Trump’s German heritage, his belief in his own genetic superiority, his xenophobia, his racism and, beyond that, his alienation of our allies, war on our independent institutions, assault on truth, and gutting of our federal agencies — but I trust the point is made.
Into this fray — I cannot conjure a phrase better than “American carnage” — steps the presumptive Democratic nominee, former vice president Joseph R. Biden.
3. The Happy Warrior
In Avengers, when S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Colson encourages Cap to don his old uniform before going into battle, our hero asks, “Isn’t it a little old fashioned?” Colson replies: “Everything that’s happening? The things that are about to come to light? People might just need a little old fashioned.”
One of the most perplexing things about the Trump era is that traditionalist voters threw their support behind the most un- and anti-traditional candidate imaginable. Take your pick — whether we are talking about the presidency, the constitution, federal agencies, institutional memory, conservative economic orthodoxy, legal precedents, or Judeo-Christian morality — Trump’s instinct and MO is always to shred first, ask questions later. The Trump ethos is that rules are made to be broken, followed only by suckers or cowards, and that the political universe that preceded him is to be destroyed, refashioned in his image, and branded with his name. Like his towers. All the world’s a hotel.
Indeed, Trump’s ethos is less Judeo-Christian and more Game of Thrones — more Persian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Macedonian. He operates like the warrior-kings that led the early agricultural empires of the ancient near East. When conquering a new territory, the first thing to be done is to raze all the temples and statues, erase all the signs of the old gods, and replace them with shiny new testaments to the new god’s supremacy. This perfectly captures his attitude toward Obama. To make the presidency — and the GOP, and the country, and the world stage — his own, he first has to break it.
Oscar Wilde famously said that the trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings. Normal people have busy lives, and don’t have the time to keep up with politics and be constantly engaged citizens. The problem with Trumpism, however, is that it takes up too many mornings. Normal people have busy lives, and don’t have the time to be constantly enraged citizens.
Put another way, the problem with Trump is not that he is too conservative, but that he is not conservative enough. He accidentally reveals an enduring truth of the conservative worldview. As David Frum put it at the outset of Trump’s presidency — in what remains one of the most important essays on the dangers of the Trump era — “Checks and balances is a metaphor, not a mechanism.” By the time Trump came along, the American civic creed had calcified into dumb dogma — “rule of law,” “separation of powers,” “checks and balances,” “liberal democracy” — a set of phrases we repeated to ourselves like so many lame incantations in a world bereft of magic. No amount of heroic speechifying by Obama could restore the blood rush of conviction and true belief.
George Packer explains how the “adults” — his catch-all term for the government officials of the executive branch, which codes as “the establishment” for Sandersistas and “the deep state” for Trumpers — were blindsided:
They failed to appreciate the advanced decay of the Republican Party, which by 2016 was far gone in a nihilistic pursuit of power at all costs. They didn’t grasp the readiness of large numbers of Americans to accept, even relish, Trump’s contempt for democratic norms and basic decency. It took the arrival of such a leader to reveal how many things that had always seemed engraved in monumental stone turned out to depend on those flimsy norms, and how much the norms depended on public opinion. Their vanishing exposed the real power of the presidency. Legal precedent could be deleted with a keystroke; law enforcement’s independence from the White House was optional; the separation of powers turned out to be a gentleman’s agreement; transparent lies were more potent than solid facts. None of this was clear to the political class until Trump became president.
One is reminded of season one of Game of Thrones, when Cersei Lannister tears up the decree of the dead king — her husband, whose body is probably still warm — installing Ned Stark as regent. “Those are the kings words,” Sir Barrister protests. “We have a new king,” Cersei coolly explains.
Another scene from the show clarifies our predicament. When Verys and Littlefinger, the king’s two canniest counselors, debate the politics of chaos in the Throne, the latter delivers a diamond-hard distillation of the world according to Trump. They whisper beneath the Iron Throne, which according to legend was forged from the 1,000 blades of Aegon the Conqueror’s enemies, a forging that symbolized the binding of the seven kingdoms together into one realm. In exquisitely Machiavellian fashion, Littlefinger lays out the terrible truth: “Do you know what the realm is? It’s the thousand blades of Aegon’s enemies, a story we agree to tell each other over and over until we forget that it’s a lie.” Varys protests: “But what do we have left once we abandon the lie? Chaos, a gaping pit, waiting to swallow us all.” Littlefinger’s response:
Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail, never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb, but they refuse. They cling to the realm…or the gods…or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.
“It Can’t Happen Here,” we told ourselves for the longest time. But here we are.
When Joe Biden finally announced his candidacy in April 2019, it was met by many with cautious optimism. Optimism because he promised a return to Obama-era normalcy. Caution because he had clearly lost a step.
As the debates began, caution hardened into concern.
Unlike, say, Amy Klobuchar, who never met a speaking time constraint she couldn’t blow through, Biden was oddly reticent for a politician of his stature, cutting himself off in mid-sentence when he exceeded the allotted 18.5 seconds. In the first debate, he went so far as to punctuate his full stop with what read like a confession that spoke volumes about his candidacy: “My time is up.”
When Captain America first suits up to return to the fray after being on ice for 70 years, Loki mocks him as “a man out of time.” The implication is twofold: in both quality and quantity, Cap is out of time.
Joe Biden was born in 1942, when the war Captain American helped to win was still going on. He is so old that an “Ok, boomer” epithet would be anachronistic. He entered the Senate in 1973. He came of age politically during a time before bipartisanship was a punch line, a time mythologized as Reagan and Tip O’Neill putting aside their differences and settling everything over drinks after hours. The premise and promise of a Biden presidency was, of course, restoration: that only he could bring back comity and regular order in the Senate and in the government in general. But Biden’s belief in the possibility of bipartisanship seemed to many on the Left as naïve and outdated as Steve Rodgers’ simplistic faith in truth, justice, and the American way proves to be in the modern world.
His background and bearing also seemed out of sync with leftward cultural currents — the very culture associated with the president he served that is broadly blamed for fomenting the rise of Trump. Whether on gender or race, Biden was vulnerable to political attacks that, while craven, slowed his roll. Even before he entered the race, he had his own little #MeToo reckoning when former Nevada congresswoman Lucy Flores accused him of sexual misconduct. In the first debate, Kamala Harris knifed him over his opposition to school busing. His handling of the Anita Hill hearings and support for the Clinton-era crime bill weighted him down. Brandishing his bipartisan credentials by talking up his record working with segregationists in the Senate didn’t help to dispel the perception that he was a cultural dinosaur.
As the debate season dragged on, the concern became alarm.
Biden had always been gaffe-prone, but when he was the vice president, it was cause for amusement. Now that he was the front runner — and visibly older — it was, well… a “big fucking deal.” In answers, he fumbled his words, rambled incoherently, and said things — “break out the record player” — that did indeed suggest that he was not just a man out of time, but a man who may be starting to lose his mind. A major piece in the Atlantic focusing on Biden’s lifelong stutter did little to displace the narrative that he was simply over the hill.
Bloomberg, who bet that Biden would coast to the nomination and feared a Sanders nomination above all, came off the sidelines and announced he would enter the race on Super Tuesday. A rumor surfaced in a Politico article that Obama would intervene if it appeared that Sanders was running away with the nomination.
As the primary season kicked off — and after Sanders won New Hampshire and Nevada — the alarm became panic.
What Biden had been calling his “firewall” — South Carolina — began to look more and more like it would be his Alamo.
And then, on Super Tuesday, Biden did something that surprised everyone. He did what Captain America did that surprised Loki.
He kicked ass. And he kicked ass the next week. And the week after that. And in almost no time, he was suddenly, for all intents and purposes, the Democratic nominee.
Such a disturbance in the Force had not been felt since election night 2016: a black swan electoral earthquake that overturned the conventional wisdom and embarrassed the mainstream media. It was a reminder that political reality is always more complex, more unpredictable, more wild and alive than the pollsters and political pseudo-scientists would have us believe.
In the wake of Biden’s tsunamic victories, the conspiracy theory machine was predictably set in motion on the Left, spinning a story about what had happened: that the system was rigged, that a conspiracy of the DNC, the MSM, and the Establishment had worked to undermine Sanders’ candidacy. As is generally the case with conspiracy theories, though, the reality was far less interesting and much simpler. These abstract entities — the DNC, the MSM, the Establishment, the System, the Man, Neoliberalism — didn’t bring Biden victory. Voters did.
The question is why.
Permit me another Star Wars analogy. The Rise of Skywalker was given the impossible task of wrapping up the Skywalker saga of nine movies and three trilogies. It wasn’t the Star Wars movie we deserved — such a thing, we are coming to realize, does not exist. But it was the Star Wars movie we needed. The new trilogy was about a generational changing of the guard. Each film progressively had us saying goodbye to the original trio of heroes: first Han, then Luke, then Leia — as power is handed off to Finn, Po, and Rey.
So, too, the Democratic Party is caught between the moderates and the progressives, on the cusp of a tectonic ideological, generational, and demographic shift. The New Democrats of the Clinton years are now the old guard, and power is passing from Bill, Hillary, and Obama to a new generation of leaders: Pete Buttigieg, AOC, and Stacey Abrams. They are the hope for the future, not just of the Democratic party, but of our democracy itself. This New New Left promises to fulfill the promise of the Old Left — not just for white Americans, like the New Deal did, but for all Americans.
But right now, we are caught in the breach. Indeed, it is a chasm whose fissures were discernible decades ago, Ross Douthat writes, as the rust marks of decadence:
We should have seen the bad days coming. The filmmakers of 1999 did, as Reason magazine’s Jesse Walker noted when The Ringer’s top-100 list came out. “Election,” “The Matrix,” “Fight Club,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “Office Space,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” even (God help us) “The Phantom Menace” … it’s all there, everything that followed, class anxiety and workplace alienation, end-of-history discontents and internet-fueled hoaxes, disputed elections and virtual-reality prisons, plus a tottering republic waiting for its Palpatine.
We should have listened. Instead, we took that stupid red pill from “The Matrix,” and now we’ll never find our way back up.
If we want a future worth having — if we want to “find our way back up” — we must summon the spirits of the past, as Rey does to banish Palpatine once and for all in the Rise of Skywalker. Biden is just such a spirit, a bridge from the New Old Left of Clintonism to the New New Left that is beginning to pull into focus.
For what Biden offers is a caretaker presidency on the model of Gerald Ford. As Walter Shapiro points out, Biden’s political career is, eerily, bookmarked by the two most scandalous administrations in modern American history:
Biden was in the Capitol cheering when Jerry Ford, in his first speech to Congress, broke with the divisiveness of the Nixon years and pledged to be president of all the people — including “women’s liberationists and male chauvinists.”
Forty-five years later — after more than three decades as U.S. senator from Delaware, two failed White House bids, and eight years as vice president — Biden is running for president to become the Jerry Ford of the twenty-first century. Even though Donald Trump can make Nixon seem like Pericles, and Mitch McConnell is devoid of any principle beyond partisanship, Biden still believes that as president he can bring back the era of “clean, honest fights.” You can imagine Biden saying, with the same sincere awkwardness that Ford did after taking the oath of office, “Our long national nightmare is over.”
One term, one task: to restore faith in the office, in the government, in the American story, and in our power to clean up the mess left by a corrupt president. But the election is about so much more than the election itself. While the Trump administration has turned what was already a swamp into a cesspool, what made it possible was a style of politics and way of doing business in Washington that was inaugurated — you simply could not have made this up — by some of Trump’s lieutenants: Roger Stone and Paul Manafort. These were Nixon insiders who got rich quick peddling influence in Washington by building what became the lobbying-industrial complex that we call the swamp.
All of which is to say: this began with an impeachment, and it will end with an impeachment. The “this” in question is the modern conservative movement that, as I mentioned above, was never really about ideology. It was about identity. As Lee Atwater — Stone’s and Manafort’s business partner and Nixon campaign aid — infamously confessed:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
The collapse of Americans’ faith in institutions can arguably be traced to the Nixon era, for obvious reasons. But the public’s disdain for Congress, in particular, is of more recent vintage. Biden’s abiding, seemingly absurd belief in bipartisanship puts him at odds not just with the country, but with a major wing of his party. In a deeply biographical analysis of Biden’s approach to American politics, Ezra Klein writes:
Biden believes the system is sound and his experience and relationships will let him restore its functionality. The candidates he’s running against do not have his experience in the Senate, and many of them see a broken institution in need of structural reform.
To understand Biden’s belief in the system, Klein explains, we need to understand the history of the Senate during his tenure:
By the time Biden got to Congress, the Civil Rights Act had passed, and the realignment of the South from Dixiecrat to Republican was beginning. But it would take decades for the Dixiecrats to die out. In Biden’s day, the Southerners still had the seniority, they still wanted allies, and they were still, crucially, Democrats. If you wanted to succeed as a Senate Democrat in 1973, you needed their help. Biden understood all this.
But Klein is skeptical. Biden, he thinks, is blinded by his experience, and does not and cannot grasp the structural forces that have made bipartisan compromise in the senate irrational and virtually impossible:
Biden’s career has convinced him that compromise is possible, and that he has an almost unique ability to work with senators of all ideological persuasions. I can see why he looks across the Senate and sees people rather than partisans, why he posits his experience and approach as an antidote to polarization. But I worry his personal experience has misled him. There is really no evidence that he can overcome the bitter polarization of this period.
On the other hand, Shapiro writes:
But Chris Coons, who inherited Biden’s Senate seat, argued that Biden has “had to endure the enormous frustration of Mitch McConnell’s obstructionism. He’s not naïve. He knows exactly how hard this is and how difficult this time is. But if there is anyone who can work across the aisle … it’s Joe.”
Klein is hard to argue with. As Pete Buttigieg correctly stated at the beginning of the campaign, a central lesson of the Obama administration is that we must abandon the premise that bipartisan compromise is possible with McConnell. There is one path, and one path only: win back the Senate and kill the filibuster. As Dan Pfeiffer recently put it, if legislative action on climate change depends on getting 8 or 9 Republican senators to break a filibuster, the Senate will be underwater before anything gets done. If Biden hopes to save the institution to which he has devoted the better part of his adult life, he will have to break it. But sometimes the only way to fix a broken thing is to break it further. Biden and Sanders are united in opposing the elimination of the filibuster.
But as Coons noted, Biden is not naive. Unlike Klein, I do not find it plausible that Biden fails to grasp how far gone the GOP is; after all, this is a man who rode shotgun with Obama for eight years. He may well be running on the message of restoring bipartisan bonhomie, knowing that push will almost certainly come to shove and planning to do what must be done when the time comes. In fact, this could prove to be a shrewd strategy.
Joe Biden’s style of politics — the stuff of compromise, transaction, deal-making, and personal relationships — is anathema to the Sanders wing of the party. Unfortunately for them, this style of politics is, of course, politics. Their refusal to accept that the country is still basically center-right drove their misunderstanding of the Obama presidency and is of a piece with their inability to grasp how American politics actually works. The country would not tolerate the imposition of Sanders’ plans — even if he won the senate, and even if the senate would pass them. But if it elects Biden president and gives the Democrats the Senate, effectively punishing the Republicans for their abuse of power, I can see the country tolerating the elimination of an arcane procedural rule to advance an agenda that enjoys broad popular support: which Biden’s agenda does.
Sanders’ Hulk-smash style of politics is not only a bad game plan on any given Sunday. It is especially ill-suited for our historical moment. Shapiro again:
Democrats, in the months ahead, should ask themselves whether America is ready to veer from a president who has trashed the Constitution to a leader who wants to overhaul the entire economy and health care system in a single four-year term. There is a pro-Biden case to inaugurate a long-overdue interval of national healing rather than a season of dramatic transformation.
Even if his restorationist campaign proves successful, Biden would be destined to be a transitional president. Sometimes, more than anything, a democracy needs a chance to exhale. There is no shame in competence, knowing how to govern, and a faith that compromise in a post-Trump world is possible. Accidental though he was, the record after four decades shows that Jerry Ford was a pretty good president.
Remember Agent Colson’s words of wisdom: “Everything that’s happening? People might just need a little old fashioned.”
Yet Sanders and his supporters still have a crucial role to play. They can provide the spark that will light the fire that will bring the First Order down. They can provide the passion — and, crucially, the youth vote — that a Biden ticket needs. The youth vote is the last piece needed — the final infinity stone, if you will — to reassemble the Obama coalition and begin to undo the last four years.
But we should resist the temptation to cast the Biden presidency as a “restoration,” as though we are reinstituting a monarchy. E.J. Dionne advises:
Biden also should reject the premise of another foolish argument: that Democrats must choose between restoration or transformation as the core goal of the next four years. Plainly, the country needs both. Restoring the norms and values that Trump has ripped apart is a precondition of progress. But that’s the point: What voters seek to restore is progress.
As with the other dichotomies used to tell the story of this race — mobilization vs. persuasion, or moderate vs. progressive — we need both.
And so we turn to this avuncular avenger.
The problem is not fear, as it was for FDR’s America in the depths of a depression. The problem is despair. American has lost its why. “He who has a why to live for,” Nietzsche wrote, “can bear almost any how.” The American why is to save democracy, fix capitalism, and solve the climate crisis. It is the triple bottom line — people, profit, planet — transfigured into the transcendent challenge of the 21st century, a challenge is coincident with the future survival and flourishing of the human race.
If we are to achieve our country — if America is to fulfill its world historical mission — we must pass through the dark night of the postmodern soul, escape the labyrinth of irony, and feel ourselves once again burdened with glorious purpose. We must accept that the cavalry isn’t coming, that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We must throw off the hideous yoke of nihilism. We must find the way back to the place where we can, without embarrassment, pursue truth, justice, and the American way.
President Eisenhower — another avuncular leader — famously said that “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” The very thing that makes Biden appear to be a man out of time is why he is made for this moment. Despite the crushing weight of all that has befallen the country in the last four years; despite the depths of dysfunction and decay that have beset the Senate, the institution to which he has devoted his energies; despite the great tragedies in his personal life that bookend his political career; despite all of this — Biden still believes. He believes in the American experiment, in human progress, and in the simple idea that people are basically good.
It is not often that you find an American politician quoting a philosopher, let alone an existentialist. Biden likes to quote Kierkegaard: “Faith sees best in the dark.” Unlike the cheap hope of Bill Clinton, which was, in the end, a skin deep sales job; unlike the heady hope of Barack Obama, which was genuine but cast in lofty rhetoric that sailed over the head of the average voter; the hope of Joe Biden is visceral, elemental, existential, the most human of things.
After Biden’s commanding debate performance against Paul Ryan in 2012, Obama called him by a phrase that had come to be associated with Ronald Reagan: “America’s happy warrior.” The phrase, though, predates Reagan, and entered American politics attached to a figure of the Old Left: Hubert Humphrey. But its origins lie in a poem, “Character of the Happy Warrior,” which William Wordsworth wrote to commemorate the death of British war hero Lord Nelson, which begins:
Who is the happy Warrior? Who is he
What every man in arms should wish to be?
— It is the generous Spirit, who, when brought
Among the tasks of real life, hath wrought
Upon the plan that pleased his childish thought:
Whose high endeavours are an inward light
That makes the path before him always bright:
Who, with a natural instinct to discern
What knowledge can perform, is diligent to learn,
Abides by this resolve, and stops not there,
But makes his moral being his prime care;
The happy warrior’s secret is his inward light. It helps him see, always — even in the darkest of times.