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Joe Biden’s War on Frivolity

Joe Biden understands that he’s the electable one because he’s serious and everyone else is frivolous.
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Joe Biden in Philadelphia, USA on 5/18/2019. © Matt Smith Photographer / Shutterstock

May 01, 2020 13:12 EDT

The Democratic Party establishment and the Joe Biden campaign are busy building the vocabulary of their electoral newspeak to guide voters’ moral thinking. The word of the month, used to describe the behavior or thinking of opponents, is “frivolous.”

The latest example concerns President Donald Trump’s controversial, audacious and downright provocative transfer of the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018. Here is how Biden describes Trump’s reprehensible action, while explaining his own intention not to modify it: “Moving the embassy when we did without the conditions having been met was short-sighted and frivolous. But now that is done, I would not move the embassy back to Tel Aviv.” 

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Even when critical of decisions and actions in the past, Biden reassuringly promises to respect the one thing that always requires respect: the status quo. That presumably is what makes him electable.

When it was revealed this week that Democrats had agreed to remove Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ name from the delayed New York presidential primary, Democratic co-chair Douglas Kellner made the following statement: “What the Sanders campaign wanted is essentially a beauty contest that, given the situation with the public health emergency, seems to be unnecessary and, indeed, frivolous.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:


Anything that exposes the habits and conventions of the status quo and disturbs the tranquility of an established order

Contextual Note

Earlier in the primary season, the Biden team broadcast a campaign ad attacking rival candidate Pete Buttigieg. Anya van Wagtendonk, writing for Vox, remarked: “The message of the commercial was clear: Serious, executive branch work can’t be compared to the frivolity of small-city governance, and voters should choose the candidate with experience with the former.” As this and other examples show, the Biden campaign wants American voters to understand that he is the only non-frivolous candidate.

In the great Puritan tradition, frivolity is the enemy of seriousness and the opposite of responsibility. Biden’s image and electability turn around a single idea: returning to and stabilizing what the Democrats believe to be the true status quo of the Barack Obama years that has been momentarily disturbed by Trump’s frivolity. Although Biden doesn’t have a powerful slogan equivalent to the one Trump touted to get elected in 2016 — “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) — his message this year is similar. America was once great (up until four years ago) and can be great again.

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For Biden and the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the Obama years represent the true status quo, a kind of no-nonsense historical ideal, characterized by “no malarkey” (a truly frivolous slogan Biden launched in Iowa but now seems to have abandoned). In 2016, the Democrats awkwardly tried to counter Trump’s MAGA with their own “America’s already great,” believing Americans felt attached to the status quo that President Obama had created. 

But that only sounded petulant and rang false because everyone was aware of civilizational decline, a phenomenon Trump knew how to exploit. He understood that George W. Bush had left the nation in shambles with his perpetual wars and the subprime market crash. So much for traditional Republicans. Trump sensed that a good part of the population had never digested the idea of a black president under Obama who partially stabilized things but changed little. So much for radical Democrats. Trump frivolously promised to go off in a new direction. His frivolity pleased enough people to get him elected.

The situation in the Middle East has never been frivolous. Although the hyperreal “deal of the century” to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be described as one of the most frivolous global PR campaigns ever imagined — totally detached from any historical or psychological reality — Trump’s act of moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem was provocative, dangerous and damaging to the image of the US. But it wasn’t frivolous.

Twenty-five years ago, Biden voted for the Jerusalem Embassy Act, “a public law of the United States passed by the post-Republican Revolution 104th Congress on October 23, 1995.” If anything was frivolous, it was Biden’s vote in favor of that law promoted by Republicans. Even the late conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer agreed at the time that voting for that law could be called “pandering to the Jews.”

On December 21, 2017, the United Nations reasserted its traditional position on the status of Jerusalem, a question that has been waiting for decades to be resolved. “The General Assembly voted overwhelmingly … to ask nations not to establish diplomatic missions in the historic city of Jerusalem, as delegates warned that the recent decision by the United States to do so risked igniting a religious war across the already turbulent Middle East and even beyond,” reads a press statement. The resolution on the “status of Jerusalem” passed by a vote of 128 in favor to nine against, with 35 abstentions.

On most issues that concern Israel, over the past decades the US has consistently voted against overwhelming majorities in both the General Assembly and the Security Council, using its veto to quash all initiatives that might punish Israel for its violation of UN resolutions. Defining his position on the embassy in Jerusalem, Biden explained on April 29 what he specifically objected to in Trump’s action. “The move shouldn’t have happened in the context as it did, it should happen in the context of a larger deal to help us achieve important concessions for peace in the process,” he said. This means he believes — as he did in 1995 — that it was the right thing to do, but at the wrong time, which is in clear contradiction with the UN resolutions. Some might call his cavil about timing a frivolous objection.

Historical Note

In 2003, Joe Biden gave his enthusiastic support to President George W. Bush’s plan for war in Iraq. That turned out to be far more dangerous and costly than Donald Trump’s move of the embassy to Jerusalem. And now, Biden frivolously claims it never happened. In this year’s primary debates, he asserted: “From the moment ‘shock and awe’ started, from that moment, I was opposed to the effort, and I was outspoken as much as anyone at all in the Congress and the administration.”

Every video document from the period shows that the opposite is true. On October 10, 2002, as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden explained his rationale for handing war power over to Bush: “The threat need not be imminent for us to take action. That’s the authority we’re about to delegate to the president.” Some might consider this, in constitutional terms, a frivolous transfer of power from Congress to the executive branch. Stephen Zunes, a professor at the University of San Francisco, commented that by securing Democratic votes for Bush’s war resolution, “Biden played a more important role than probably anybody in Congress in making the Iraq war possible.”

In another implicit criticism of Trump for a different sort of frivolity, Biden recently declared: “No one in my family will have an office in the White House, will sit in on meetings as if they are a cabinet member, will, in fact, have any business relationship with anyone that relates to a foreign corporation or a foreign country. Period. Period. End of story.” This, of course, contradicts Biden’s own well-documented history of using his office and his name to promote the career and business of his son, Hunter.

Has Biden invented a new art form in the culture of political anti-frivolity? It consists of solemnly promising to be opposed to every shameful thing that once has been known to have done in the past, to the point of affirming that even if he did do or say those things, he was opposed to them on principle even then. While Biden was pitching for Bush’s invasion of Iraq, he was against it. While he was setting up conditions to facilitate lucrative business deals for his son, he was opposed to the idea and finds it intolerable to consider today. In 1993, he is accused of violating a woman (Tara Reade), but in 1994, he sponsored the Violence Against Women Act. There’s nothing frivolous about either of those actions — in the first case to produce trauma and in the second to fight against it.

All this proves that frivolity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

*[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.]

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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