Joe Biden’s presidential candidacy has often prompted comparisons to President Warren G. Harding, whose campaign slogan of 1920 promised a “return to normalcy” after a chaotic decade.
But these comparisons often miss a number of important differences between the two candidates: While Harding ran on some sort of petty conservatism, vowing to save the country from the autocratic progressivism of Woodrow Wilson’s war, Biden campaigned for Obama’s restoration. technocracy of the time, returning the reins of power to the elite of the United States, over-accredited managers after four years of populist chaos. Harding has clashed with elite consensus, opposing the growing power of progressive academics in the executive bureaucracy, while Biden – despite his obligatory nods to fight corporate greed, dismantle systemic racism and say truth in power – ultimately presented himself as the champion of the status quo before 2016.
The “normality” in which Biden is about to bring the United States back is therefore very different from the “normality” promised by his predecessor. In many ways, the 70-year-old Democrat is a personification of the destructive Clinton-Bush-Obama consensus that bears significant responsibility for the production of Donald Trump.
But it’s hard to fault voters for having been courted by this Restorationist message, especially after the tumult of recent months: in a choice between the reckless and often downright ashamed of Trump’s behavior – which culminated in the January 6 at the The U.S. Capitol which claimed the lives of at least five people – and what felt, at least on the surface, a semblance of sanity and competence, it is understandable that many Americans chose this last.
Trump’s tenure in the executive branch has undoubtedly ignited and exacerbated the significant challenges the United States currently faces. But Biden and his counterparts don’t seem to have bothered to wonder why the former president’s populist energy has proven so powerful. And for this reason, the new administration’s business-as-usual approach to governance will inevitably further energize the forces that propelled Trump to power in the years to come.
The political and cultural leaders of the United States seem to have learned very little from the past four years: the reaction to Trump from mainstream media, academia, big business and – to varying degrees – from the two party establishments has not been a reaction of introspection and criticism. -reflection, but a doubling down; “More or less the same”, but with renewed vigor and determination.
If President Biden is truly to “unify” the country as he puts it, he will have to take into account the failures of the bipartisan political and cultural consensus that has governed our politics since at least the September 11 attacks. Over the past 20 years, our leaders have fiddled with their constituents suffering from declining life expectancies – a trend unprecedented in a modern industrialized nation – cultural atomization, the collapse of the middle class, the spiritual alienation, loss of a shared sense of citizenship, and loss of confidence in all major institutions of American life (with the notable exception of the military).
No ideology has a monopoly on this issue: The disconnect between the top third and the rest of the American population has widened under the Republican and Democratic administrations, and Trump and Bernie Sanders have tapped into comparable types of populist energy. in segments of their respective parties. But when Sanders gave up after his failed Democratic nomination contest in 2016, Trump was the only candidate to offer a meaningful alternative vision to the outdated and established form of politics symbolized by Hillary Clinton. In retrospect, then, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he was ultimately victorious.
The populist energy that Trump represents is, at its core, a rejection of the apparent comfort of our leaders in the face of the deteriorating American way of life. Economic problems are a factor, but they’re not as central to Trump’s call as they often claim. Fundamentally, the movement the former reality TV star tapped into is a reaction to the loss of a shared American identity, the collapse of a collective sense of purpose, and the decline of our civic community ties. And these phenomena, in turn, are the direct result of political decisions made by the guardians of managed decline of the United States: A pro-business neoliberal economic philosophy has seen the financialization of the American economy, the demise of the middle class. and digging. communities, and our elites’ embrace of multiculturalism has produced unchecked border immigration and an approach to social policy that divides Americans into distinct identity groups and pits them against each other in perpetuity.
Everywhere now we see the consequences of these decisions. More recently, and worryingly, the rise of political street violence on the fringes of the left and right – what Abraham Lincoln described as the “mobocratic spirit” in the years leading up to the Civil War – can only be understood as a direct result of the loss of confidence in the American system that has been caused by these political and cultural developments.
To the extent that our elite institutions have recognized the Trump phenomenon as a symbol of the deep unhappiness of a significant portion of the American electorate, their response has been to denigrate, marginalize, and ultimately suppress these sentiments rather than take heed their own role in their creation. The last-ditch effort of last resort to fight the country’s increasingly radicalized populist fervor by rescinding book contracts, banning access to economic capital and banning social media accounts is like trying to heal a gunshot wound with a bandage. It’s too little, too late – and it speaks to the persistence of a widespread elite attitude that views Americans’ concerns about the nation’s decline as dangerously bigoted and worthy of derision.
Trump is a full-fledged Jacksonian populist: he represents the energetic, unpredictable, and at times dangerously deranged identity of America’s wildest democratic passions. The aesthetic of stability offered by a Biden presidency will come as a momentary relief from these chaotic tendencies. But it is a cosmetic remedy; it won’t stop the big trends that produced Trump in the first place. In the event that our ruling class allows itself to be lulled into comfortable apathy by the illusion of security, something far more dangerous and destructive will emerge in Trump’s place – and when it does, a ‘return to normal’ will no longer be an option at all.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.