As Donald Trump’s war of attrition has wound down to the point at which only an organized revolt could provide the final glimmer of hope the president is hoping for to extend his lease on the White House past January 20, the American people and US media are left wondering how the president-elect will fill the role of an absent reality TV host. It may, in the end, require the talents of a Samuel Coleridge to tell the full story of President-elect Joe Biden, the ancient mariner of the Washington marshes, who, having cast the albatross of Trump from the country’s neck, will seek to govern a nation reeling from the tsunami of COVID-19 and the economic woes that have come in its wake.
To help us understand at least one dimension of the transformation awaiting us, Ben Smith — President Emmanuel Macron’s newest phone buddy at The New York Times — has authored a fascinating article examining what is likely to stand as the most visible change in the coming transition. It has little to do with policy. Instead, it concerns the two presidents’ relations with the media.
Can Joe Biden Rewrite the Rules of the Road?
The sudden switch next January from the tweet-wielding, unmasked Republican slayer of Mexican and Muslim dragons, a man equipped his desk with a live hotline to Fox News host Sean Hannity and who manages an extended family ready to spread his improvised policies across the globe, to the 78-year-old Democratic DC seadog who, after 36 years in the Senate, spent half of this year sequestered in his basement, the change is likely to be monumental.
The world has grown accustomed to Trump’s slogans, insults, claims of greatness and outrageous lies that are automatically echoed by his minions in the media, including those who oppose him. That has become an attribute of the White House itself. Trump is always on stage and always looking to land a zinger. As Smith points out, the contrast provided by the president-elect couldn’t be greater. Where Trump was constantly inventing counterfactual boasts to market his brand, “Mr. Biden liked nothing more than a wide-ranging, high-minded conversation about world affairs after he had returned from a trip to China or India.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
A dialogue between two people who have mastered the art of sounding not only serious but responsible, regardless of whether the substance of what they have to say is either serious or responsible.
Ben Smith recounts that Joe Biden, when he was vice president, showed himself “particularly attentive to the wise men of Washington, especially the foreign policy columnists David Ignatius of The Washington Post and Thomas L. Friedman of The Times.” The journalist was almost certainly using the term “wise men” ironically, since the wisdom of both of those writers has too often been questioned by truly wise analysts for Smith’s readers to suppose that Ignatius and Friedman seriously live up to that label.
According to the laws of the liberal marketplace — laws with which The New York Times generally complies — opinion writers treating serious subjects in a serious style, and who are read and quoted routinely by educated people, define a journalistic commodity that can be labeled “wise men.” These voices are a form of the merchandise The Times puts on sale every day of the week.
Ever since Hillary Clinton’s famous characterization of Donald Trump’s voters as “a basket of deplorables,” it has been clear that “high-mindedness” is a feature of the Democratic brand. Democrats like to talk about serious, complex problems, although, even when in a position of power, they appear to be far less adamant about solving them. Above all, they aim to convince a reasonably educated public that they are serious people, in contrast with Republicans who like to reduce complex issues to slogans that turn around a binary choice. That is the kind of thing deplorables voters reflexively respond to.
Michelle Obama is admired for the dictum she taught her children, which ultimately became a slogan: “When they go low, we go high.” The problem with this as a mobilizing sentiment is that it tends to communicate an attitude of superiority and condescension. When it comes from people who have achieved a high position, it implicitly expresses their indifference to the concerns of those who, for whatever reason, feel impelled to go low. Appearing to be the product of complex thought, it expresses a simple idea: that “we” (the wise ones) refuse to listen to those who fail to admire our accomplishments and respect our rules.
Smith points out how patently unskilled Biden has been throughout his career at leveraging the power of the media, a force now available to any prominent figure in today’s celebrity culture to impose their brand. Whatever light a public personality has to shed outward can be refracted through the commercial media into thousands of colors and amplified by social media to create an impact that will generate enthusiasm among the populace. That is what Donald Trump consummately knows how to do, and Joe Biden clearly doesn’t. Smith sees Biden as clinging to “an older set of values.” In a word, Biden is an old school politician called to reign over a world that is more likely to resonate with Jack Black’s “School of Rock.”
As Smith observes, “it misreads Mr. Biden to see him as either a true insider or a media operator with anything like President Trump’s grasp of individual reporters’ needs, his instinct for when to call journalists or their bosses and his shrewd shaping of his own image.” A good segment of the US population and a clear majority of people overseas will be reassured. But can this old school approach make an impact in the US today, where celebrity and influencer culture drives every social and even political trend?
In his latest book, “Capital and Ideology,” Thomas Piketty pours out and analyzes in considerable demographic and economic detail the history of voting patterns in the elections of three democracies: the US, France and the UK. The statistics reveal an inversion of the scale of education between the parties labeled left and right in all three countries.
Whereas the conservative parties in these countries have traditionally drawn a clear majority of the educated class, today, it is the parties on the left that have won over the college-educated crowd, producing what he calls the establishment’s “Brahmin left.” It may or may not overlap with the progressive left, who tend not only to be educated but, unlike their establishment peers, intellectual. Increasingly the parties on the right continue to appeal to the wealthiest segment of the population — their traditional constituency — but, paradoxically, they have managed to attract the less educated classes into voting for what Piketty calls their culture of the “merchant right.”
In a fascinating frank and personal discussion between former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang and author Anand Giridharadas, the writer explains his view of how the Democratic Party has evolved. After provocatively observing that “Democrats don’t know how to talk,” he tells Yang that “the Democratic Party as a constellation is a victim of its own high-mindedness, its own sense of moral purpose, its own very high level of educational attainment.” He quite rightly emphasizes that high-mindedness may be a bit overrated in the world of contemporary politics.
Joe Biden of course managed to squeeze past Donald Trump in five battleground states by having what Hillary Clinton lacked, a tenuous connection with the working class and an education that was definitely not Ivy League. He wasn’t exclusively high-minded. But Biden never acquired or even sought to understand the populist swagger that now seems to be obligatory. When Giridharadas says that Democrats don’t know how to talk, what he means is that they don’t know how to present and sell their vision or their ideas. That, of course, supposes they have a vision and really do want to sell it, a proposition that has become somewhat debatable.
If Giridharadas seems skeptical about any Democrat’s ability to promote necessary ideas, Ben Smith ends on a complementary melancholy note, wondering almost fatalistically “whether the electorate and we in the media can break our addiction to the Trump news cycle.”
*[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.