With a booby-trapped White House, many Americans will want the nightmare to end

Jan 12, 2021

Biden’s task of restoring unity is not merely a matter of being statesmanlike or breaking down the hyper-partisanship of recent years. It is a matter of restoring faith in democratic institutions, the media, and in facts as a basis for debate.

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Joe Biden has never been one for fighting on all fronts at once. He’s more George McClellan than Sam Grant or William Sherman – often afraid that too great a display of courage might bring him into collision with the enemy. But he does not have all the time in the world. And everything he does as president needs to be not only essential in its own right but judged for long-term wisdom through the prism of whether it serves to help restore unity in a fractured nation – at times seemingly on the brink of civil war.

Restoring unity is not merely a matter of being statesmanlike rather than jeering at opponents after a solid victory. Nor is it about mere reconciliation, as though differences have not become fundamental. It is not simply about knocking heads together, or of breaking down some of the hyper-partisanship of recent years.

It is a matter of restoring faith in democratic institutions – including in the electoral system itself. It involves restoring faith in the media, including new media, and in generally agreed facts (as opposed to strongly held opinions or beliefs) as a basis of argument and debate.

Trump manipulated the sense of his being an outsider – one who didn’t care what the “elites” thought – by constantly talking of how politics at virtually every level had become corrupted by insiders, lobbyists and special favours. He was going to drain the swamp. That struck a chord with many dispossessed white Americans, but it’s a feeling (and a reality) that goes well beyond special Trump constituencies.

Hardly anyone could better represent the comfy and corrupted world of professional politicians, lobbyists, influence mongers and deals than Joe Biden himself. He’s been around forever – including in an era before politics became so polarised. He knows how the system works. He knows something about lubricating the machine of state.

Some of the deal-making has been corrupt. However, compromise is at the heart of the American constitutional system. Sometimes it brings politicians from both sides to work amicably in solving great national problems, rather than looking only at ways of making the other side look bad. A major vice of Trumpism has been how its effects were mostly for short-term political advantage, rather than any long-term good, even from the viewpoint of a Trump. He, and supporters such as Mitch McConnell,  trashed a lot of institutions and conventions for  fairly small gains – often succeeding only in making government more difficult, less based on public interest, and less trusting.

Over his long parliamentary career, the art of a Biden often consisted of trying to find ways to bring opponents on board by little concessions (to their districts or their prejudices) that could make them think  they shared ownership of a project and that they too had had a win. Compromise, in the US system, is more about win-win than about grinding one’s enemy into the dust.

Biden would do well to think aloud, and address the electorate at large – which will include the alienated, the sullen and the suspicious – over the heads of the politicians.

The man may not be charismatic, but he is affable, and does not instinctively seek to polarise with every breath. He should be asking the best of Americans, not echoing their tribal hatreds, sneering or point-scoring or living in short-term grudges.

Trump became famous for twittering insults, anathemas and surly commentaries, along with an unshameable narcissism. But his tweets were by no means all spontaneous or from a stream of consciousness. Rather they were researched by his political staff – not just for their capacity to appeal to potential supporters but for their capacity to distract, infuriate and unsettle his political enemies. His enemies thought his weakness was his indiscipline, or that he could be trapped  by disputing his “facts” or his logic but too often they were being played by an expert.

Bringing people together is possible, even though distrust is high. Many Americans are deeply sentimental, susceptible to reiterations of claims of American exceptionalism, greatness and nobility of purpose – statements that seem absurd,  ludicrous and embarrassing to the rest of the world. Especially now, post-Trump.

The nation abounds in flag-worship and national rituals, not least at times of death, or tragedy or rededication to disinterested higher purposes. Whether one likes the excessive religiosity or not (or its preachers or not), religion is another way of inculcating higher purpose into a conversation between governor and governed. America’s best leaders have been good speechmakers, good at drawing all together for some common purpose (and in the process making themselves seem above the fray). The best too, use their “bully pulpit” to set the public agenda.

This seemed to be something that Trump simply could not do. He was a specialist at dividing Americans. Hardly ever did he – or many of his followers, including members of his family – espouse a noble aspiration or sentiment, or use some ideal as an explanation of what they were doing. He spoke the language of self-interest – often his own. Even when religion was invoked it was generally as a weapon to attack others – by the pretence that God was a registered Republican, and that the Republican agenda had been settled  with the Bible on the table (alongside the gun). The mean spirit has been all too much underlined by the introduction of coded references to race, misogyny and latent violence.

Those most needing to be brought into the fold of mainstream America are in need of jobs, dignity and pathways to self-improvement rather than the dead-end of the minimum wage. But they and other alienated Americans must be addressed also in terms of their values and their identities rather more than being patronised by transactional promises or mere appeals to their economic self-interest.

It is not merely a reflection of the way the partisan spirit has atomised society and made people more tribal and inclined to believe that others are a clear and present threat to their way of life. Such folk have their own media reinforcing not only their sense of themselves, but, as Isabel Sawyer put it this week in The Atlantic, their sense of themselves as citizens.

She quotes political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lyn Vavreck as saying: “Growing divisions between the Republican and Democratic Parties threaten to make political conflict less about what government should do and more about what it means to be American … This is the American identity crisis and it is getting worse.”

“At the core of a unifying response will be an agenda to address the economic divide between Americans. It needs to be focused on the dignity of work, and call for greater investment in building skills, creating jobs and raising wages and benefits.

“I now believe that, in addition, the US may need to adopt a more explicit industrial policy alongside place-based strategies to revive small towns and rural communities. I also believe the cultural underpinnings of American divisions are more important than I earlier understood. To address them, the country will need more than an economic agenda: it will need new efforts to re-establish respect for the facts and to cultivate respect for one another across political and social tribes.”

And just as important, she says, is the establishment of schemes to rebuild a sense of community and shared purpose at the local level. Enhancing inter-group contact (prejudice and distrust are reduced when groups know and deal with each other) and to create shared work towards common goals, building bridges instead of walls, thereby limiting tribalism and social division.

That’s a big agenda for an old codger still curious about whether Trump has booby-trapped the White House, poisoned the water supply, or encouraged harassment by gun-totin’ “patriots”. It won’t be sweetness and light, and, after all, the mid-term elections are now only 22 months away. Biden’s biggest consolation is that there are plenty of people wanting the nightmare to be over and for him to succeed.

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