Visible Cracks in the New American Order

Joe Biden will have a kind of majority in Congress but will be faced with a deeply fragmented nation.
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Joe Biden has now officially been designated the 46th president of the United States. He dislodged the quintessential political misfit, Donald Trump, who, before belatedly agreeing to “an orderly transition,” had engaged in a truly Satanic battle to overpower the institutions he was elected to defend as he attempted to install a regime of permanent chaos.

Biden is a skilled 20th-century politician who, two decades into the 21st century, follows the rules of the previous one. His public discourse never fails to remind us of the decorum affected by politicians in former times. Many Americans find Biden’s adherence to the values of a bygone era reassuring. But the dramatic events that took place on Capitol Hill on Wednesday demonstrate that, in today’s political card game, chaos still has a trump card to play and may even have the upper hand.

As the panic was raging, Biden stepped up to deliver a calm, realistic and responsible address to the nation. At the same moment, Trump, bunkered in the White House, was deviously maneuvering the forces of darkness while appearing to call for calm.

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Biden’s performance was credible, but just a bit too Bidenesque. After an effective litany of the noble targets victimized by the ongoing assault, the president-elect resorted to stale rhetorical clichés. He immediately deployed the standard expression Americans trot out whenever something shameful occurs: “That’s not who I am.” (We heard it only last week, when the latest “Karen” made headlines by falsely claiming that a black teenager had stolen her iPhone. Accused of racism, she countered: “That’s not who I am.”)

Wishing to defend the now sullied character of the nation, Biden reached for the same cliché: “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect the true America, do not represent who we are.” He followed this up with his idealized vision of the nation’s identity: “America’s about honor, decency, respect, tolerance. That’s who we are. That’s who we’ve always been.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Who we are:

The imaginary self-image or ideal ego that Americans believe they must affirm when their actions reveal the true ambiguity of their character.

Contextual Note

Joe Biden’s public discourse has always been fraught with problems. He sounds reassuring but rarely convincingly sincere. In the past, he has been guilty of flagrant plagiarism. The young man who overcame his stutter may have perceived the risk of launching into unprepared discourse. He eventually learned to avoid danger by limiting his plagiarism to one of two things: either resorting to anonymously source and generally meaningless ideas, like “that’s not who we are,” or plagiarizing himself by obsessively repeating what he deems his wisest and sincerest sounding pronouncements.

In his speech on Wednesday, Biden predictably signaled the denouement of the drama on Capitol Hill with his now inevitable self-quotation: “There’s never been anything we can’t do, when we do it together.” This has been going on for at least two years, inciting us to mention this rhetorical tic in several columns starting in October 2019, then in August and November this year. On Wednesday, he even insisted on repeating it a second time, with added emphasis, only a few seconds after his first self-citation: “There’s never, ever, ever, ever, ever been a thing we’ve tried to do that when we’ve done it together, we’ve not been able to do it.”

The first problem with this supposedly profound thought is that it is demonstrably false. For example, the US hasn’t managed to win a war in many decades, though not for lack of trying (and producing millions of victims). The nation hasn’t managed to eradicate racism or slow down growing wealth and income inequality, but that may be because it has never really tried. Those familiar with any of Biden’s speeches expect it to end with another predictable locution: “God bless America. God protect our troops.” Why this insistence? Does Biden really think that militarism defines the nation? It’s as if his message is, “The troops are who we are.”

As president, if Biden really wishes to protect the troops, he could simply decide to bring them back from places like Iraq and Syria, where they have accomplished nothing, even while “doing it together.” In the meantime, the locals have requested repeatedly that those troops return home. But as an establishment Democrat, Biden prefers to delegate to God the task of protecting the soldiers’ lives because his task is to put them in harm’s way. In her failed primary campaign, Tulsi Gabbard, who served in the Middle East, made that point repeatedly. It led to Hillary Clinton accusing her of being a Russian tool.

Historical Note

American history tells a story somewhat different from Biden’s about “who we are.” To defend their aggression, some of the protesters remembered their school history lessons about the Boston Tea Party and the Revolutionary War. They could have reasonably countered with “This is who we are and always have been.”

Biden believes he can return the nation to its true identity, as a nation of decency, order and peace. In reality, the US has never sought stability, order and peace. Throughout its history, it has used disorder and “creative destruction” for the purpose of conquest and growth. Whether it was the capture of Africans to serve as slaves, the genocide of Native Americans or the more recent implanting of hundreds of military bases across the globe, the essential ingredient of order, as applied by American governments, has always been founded on the assertive use of force.

Militaristic empires have been known to prosper for centuries. The US empire is facing a different problem today. The political values that ensure the kind of unity Biden wishes to restore — “honor, decency, respect, tolerance” — are simply no longer shared by the people and no longer promoted by the media. Because of this confusion of values, the nation has become fragmented, perhaps not beyond repair, but definitely beyond the capacity of a politician who doesn’t dare to present a vision or a project of society capable of mobilizing the population to participate in. Lyndon Johnson’s “great society” and the social programs that accompanied it had a real impact. Johnson’s commitment to war undermined it.

One thing that has changed since Johnson is the rise of radical individualism, an inevitable consequence of the culture of the consumer society that was already well advanced. Consumer society logic has now infected politics. Voters are now treated by professional politicians as consumers rather than engaged citizens. Political parties have become mass marketing enterprises. In the voting booth, consumers select the merchandise that most appeals to them on the basis of the advertising they have been exposed to.

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Parties have become brands rather than vectors of political thought or even an ideology. This approach might work reasonably well if politics wasn’t also about the way power is distributed in society. People remain aware of power even when they don’t understand how it is structured. One reason for popular discontent is that having made their choice and finding that the product doesn’t meet their needs, they can’t just throw it away and buy something else.

The conjunction of an individualist culture and the structures of self-interested but well-organized economic and political power inevitably produced utterly unpredictable patterns of consumer behavior. Donald Trump’s election in 2016 proved to be one of those unpredictable outcomes. It revealed that society had reached a tipping point. Unpredictable outcomes had become the norm.

Observers are now mulling over the fate of the Republican Party after this week’s events. The GOP may be shattered to the core. The Democrats are just as profoundly fragmented, though that will become visible only in the coming months. And American society itself is much more fragmented than both parties. Trust in the parties — but also in the media, law enforcement, the electoral system and education — has withered. Republicans and Democrats get votes simply because there are no other choices. Politicians’ appeals to decency have become meaningless in an era of consumer narcissism fueled by commercial interests. The harsh reality is this: No one today is in a position to affirm “who we are.”

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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