Night and Day (NYBooks Aug 26, 2020)

But a broken nation is not a macrocosm of a broken family. It cannot be healed by love and understanding alone, by religious faith and “small acts of kindness.”

Both Biden and Harris placed family at the center of their candidacies. Both suggested that America is a family that looks and feels like theirs—like Biden’s in its sense of loss, like Harris’s in its diversity. Because it has a basis in truth, this creates an illusion of intimacy that is indeed the negative of Trump’s persona. Trump says: I am not like you; I am richer, smarter, superior. Biden and Harris are saying the opposite: I am just like you; my family is a representative fragment of the American mosaic. If Harris can bring together a family with Indian, African, and Jewish heritage, America can glory in its diversity. If the Bidens can overcome tragedy, America can emerge from its present nightmare. The Harris and Biden clans are the parallel, in the world of light, to the Trump brood’s cynical privatization of power in the world of darkness.

This impression of intimacy is a political asset, but it is also deceptive. It implies that the problems that Trump’s accession brought to the surface are primarily problems of his personal character—and that they can be solved by having nicer leaders with nicer families. The nation, as Michelle Obama put it, has been “underperforming not simply on matters of policy but on matters of character.” “Character,” said Biden, “is on the ballot.” And yes, of course it is. Maybe most of the electorate feels the same disgust that Barack Obama enacted for them at the convention. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe the strategy of leaving rage and fear to Trump in his domain of darkness will pay off in November. But kindness and empathy are not a program for government or tools for structural change. A real republic is one in which citizens are not dependent on the benevolence of others for their basic needs.

The decision, it seems, has been made: to campaign more in sorrow than in anger. But if the soundtrack of the Biden-Harris road movie is to be a lament, it is crucial that the idea of mourning at its heart be properly understood. It is not the same as the toxic nostalgia that fueled Trump’s success in 2016. The difference lies in the idea of restoration. Trump told his voters not just that they had lost something (which was often true) but that he could bring it back (which was mostly a lie). But the point of genuine mourning is that the thing you are grieving for cannot be restored. The grief is an acceptance that the loss is irreparable. There is and always will be the empty chair at the table, the black hole in the chest.

Perhaps this true sense of bereavement is a necessity for America—a hard, sad, relentless reckoning with the knowledge that much of what it has been should be allowed to die, that the structures of inequality and oppression and rapaciousness that have been a part of its life for so long must finally be let go. A false notion of greatness must be given a decent burial. Biden can perhaps be the chief mourner at its obsequies. If there is really to be a new creation, there must be no doubt that the old world is dead.

This is an extract from an article which was first published in the New York Review of Books on August 26, 2020. 

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Fintan O'Toole is an Irish columnist, literary editor, and drama critic for The Irish Times, for which he has written since 1988.

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