History May Be Unkind Yet...
The Biden presidency does not guarantee a brighter future
“I’m glad people are happy, and the pure stupid resplendence of their joy fills me with dread.” - Colin McGowan
Conspiracy theories used to be interesting. The moon landing and JFK assassination. Extraterrestrials and planes plucked out of the sky. They arose from gaping holes in our psyche. They were questions that demanded answers, or answers that raised deeper questions. They were products of obsessive puzzlement and fever dreams, like the first cavemen who invented god to explain the world. A lot of them were insane, some of them dangerous, almost all of them were wrong. But they were usually good stories. And in the quiet moments we needed good stories, even if the only answers they could give us were about ourselves.
Conspiracy theories today are boring. They’re boring because they are prompted less by big questions than by answers we don’t like. The only ones that seem to matter still orbit around the venal desires of a former president who cannot imagine nor care to imagine a world beyond his TV. They aren’t even stories, really, but a perpetual loop of blunt, self-soothing fictions. COVID is a hoax because my life would be much easier if it wasn’t real. Climate change isn’t happening because those pencil neck scientists and sanctimonious activists irritate me. Donald Trump won the election because everyone who said he would lose is a liar. Peel away the ornate layers of conspiracy theories today and you’ll almost always find something like this at the centre: the irrepressible contrarian spirit of some of the dumbest motherfuckers alive.(1)
Over 70 million people in the U.S. voted for Donald Trump. Many of them will never stop believing the election was stolen from him. They will retreat into their fictions, every half-baked “isn’t it convenient that…” and “don’t you think it’s strange that…” which disassemble our shared reality a little bit at a time.
I am happy that Joe Biden won the election. I wasn’t dancing in the streets or anything, but I believe he is sincere about not wanting to watch thousands more Americans die every day from a novel respiratory disease so that’s progress, I suppose.
I also have problems with Joe Biden. Beyond the hair sniffing and encroaching senility, my biggest problem is that he’s vanilla, a flavour the relevant parties bet would taste like sweet delight to everyone who had been eating shit for four years. As a political tactic, it worked…sort of. He won the election, but the margin wasn’t exactly comfortable. Trump was so obviously monstrous they thought they could deliver a decisive victory by offering little beyond “I’m not him.”
That this didn’t happen should surprise no-one, least of all the strategic wizards in the Democratic party. Which is irritating given how they’ve maligned the progressive wing of their party in the name of executing this grand middle-of-the-road vision. They accused progressives of being naïve for pushing agenda items like free healthcare and appropriate taxation for multi-billionaires, while the party brass remained steadfast in their commitment to “unity” with many of the morally rudderless goblins across the aisle.
Conventional wisdom in this poison racket suggests that helping ordinary Americans avoid bankruptcy which too often accompanies, say, a cancer diagnosis just isn’t politically feasible. Doing too much to prevent humanity’s plausible extinction will cost too many jobs right now. In fact doing too much of anything too soon to address these and similar problems—problems that overwhelming numbers of citizens want addressed, like, now—is still somehow seen as beyond the scope of their work. A better world isn’t possible according to the people charged with making our world better.
But maybe I am being too harsh. On his first day in office Biden signed several progressive executive actions, and has taken many similarly progressive actions since. Perhaps most significantly, he revoked the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline which would transport oil through America’s heartland between Alberta and Texas, a move that prompted a mealy mouthed statement from our own Justin Trudeau. Several coronavirus actions were simple and relatively easy but also hugely consequential; things like “come up with a response plan.” Biden even appears open to the prospect of forgiving student debt, a priority for progressives. For this, and many other moves, he deserves credit.
But if you think all of this bodes well for the future, I’ll have to stop you right there. Because there is little evidence to suggest that Biden will keep this up if his progressive colleagues stop doing their job, which, at this point, seems to be throwing staplers at his head until he begins governing the way his base wants him to. One especially cynical take is that Biden will do for the progressive left what Donald Trump did for the evangelical right which is to neuter them as a political force. The “we’re on the same side” sentiment will force them to fall in line with a vision for the country they neither wanted nor accepted, the same way God fearing, hymnal signing southerners rallied behind a New Yorker who has a howling void in the part of the brain that might be said to house Christian values.
Joe Biden is no more like Bernie Sanders than Donald Trump is like Mike Pence. The people Biden has chosen to staff his administration are, as you might imagine, much more like him than they are like the quickly growing progressive proportion of the electorate to whom, historically, they’ve just been saying no.(2)
The problem with getting politicians to do their job is this: most of us subscribe to the belief that “politics” is a thing you do when you go vote. Real life is what you do before and after that. Trump invaded “real life” in such a way that even people who were not immediately affected by his policies couldn’t ignore him. But very few people felt they could do anything about it until the election.
Noam Chomsky, a contemporary intellectual and political thinker, believes this attitude is misguided. In the lead up to the election, Chomsky was asked approximately 8 million times(3) who he would be voting for and without any hesitation or reluctance whatsoever he said Joe Biden and you should too. Biden’s campaign positions were, according to Chomsky, more progressive than any president’s in American history by a country mile and that is not because, in his words, Biden had some personal conversion. It’s because he had been getting hammered by progressives.
“The left position has always been: You’re working all the time, and every once in a while there’s an event called an election,” he told Anand Giridharadas. “This should take you away from politics for 10 or 15 minutes.” After you vote it’s back to the real work of politics. Keep hammering.
Luke O’Neil, a very smart writer whose book you should buy, wrote about the phrase “history won’t look favourably on this.” He is not a fan. He says it’s a form of punting responsibility for current problems to the future when some hypothetical historian will arrive and offer a scathing appraisal of how badly we’ve screwed up. It’s also, he points out, not even true. History is written from the perspective of winners who have a way of conveniently omitting or positively reframing all the terrible things they’ve done.
The thing is though, people don't always use this phrase in the predictive sense. It's an appeal to vanity. It’s used to get people to think about their legacy, to raise the spectre of an unforgiving judge and jury in hopes they’ll stop doing the bad things that'll land them in the courtroom; even if they are very likely to escape conviction anyway.
We are lucky that Donald Trump was not only stupid but also frequently drawing attention to how stupid he was. If history is in fact unkind to him, this will be why. But here’s a little non-hypothetical: There absolutely will be leaders in the future riding the same waves that carried Donald Trump to the White House and some of them will be at least as charismatic and considerably less dumb. That’s going to be a problem. Trump’s presidency did not equip America to stop this from happening again. Just the opposite. It weakened many of the institutions that were meant to stop it in the first place.
Joe Biden has lulled many people into a false sense of security. People seem to think Trump is an aberration of the U.S. political system rather than a logical extension of it. For that reason, far too many people are being far too kind to Joe Biden. They say that now is not the time(4) to be critical of his administration because of the mess he inherited. Or they’ll say what an incredible achievement it is that Kamala Harris is the first female minority VP, which is true right up to the point it's used to sweep aside every whiff of criticism as misogynistic or racist. These people will stop paying attention because the good guys are in office without understanding that, all else being equal, the “good guys” aren't invested in changing the stuff that needs to change. They are, after all, creatures of this system.
Trump-era conspiracy theories now influence political decisions in a way traditional conspiracy theories never have. Most people who stormed the Capitol at the former president's behest may have been dumb, but they were not the garden variety conspiracy theorists of yore. They were “regular” Americans. They were people with things to lose if they got caught planting pipe bombs or attempting to take law makers hostage. In some ways, they embody certain American values more than other Americans. After all, is it not very American to carry an antipathy and distrust of government so deep that you would refuse to marshal even a basic level of critical thinking when a time travelling informant tells you Democrats are sacrificing babies, and your messiah is a gilded-hair reality TV show host who has failed at every venture in his privileged life? It’s basically apple pie.
And yet, and yet, the most dangerous thing about these conspiracies is not that a lot of people believe them, it's that they have now been insinuated into not-insane world views. Little pieces have wound their way into respectable conversation, not always explicitly, but you can see the fingerprints if you look closely. Smart and cynical people have recognized precisely how useful these fictions are. This includes politicians like Mitch McConnell who have allowed these fictions to flourish right up until the moment the rioters arrived very pissed off at their office doors. But it also includes people in your life. They’re the ones who’ll say “yeah obviously QAnon is outrageous” but who feel in their bones that it is not nearly as big a problem as the growing chorus of progressives demanding a better world from their governments.
They're the ones we’ll have to convince that “no, $7/hour hasn’t been a livable minimum wage for years” and “no, the people who ask for more are not actively trying to destroy American businesses.” We’ll have to convince them that the medical establishment is not, in fact, conspiring to “shut down the economy” as part of some elitist power grab, but because keeping people healthy is a prerequisite for getting back to business as usual. We’ll have to convince them that the political action demanded by more than 30 years of dire scientific warnings on climate change is not a grand scheme to destroy our way of life, but to preserve it.(5)
If you're looking for the seams where our shared reality is coming apart, this is it. We'll have to begin stitching it back together if we ever hope to eventually alleviate suffering that, right now, many of us refuse to see.
(1) I wish I wasn't the kind of person who said things like this. There are people in my life who take this stuff seriously who I want to believe are kind-hearted and smart. But the people driving this movement are dishonest and dumb, and if you buy what they’re selling, that’s a dumb decision on your part. Also, you’re making the rest of us dumber by forcing us to explain why it’s dumb. What I’m saying is, I’m running out of excuses to make for you.
(2) One of these appointments—Neera Tanden, whom Biden pegged to head up the largest office in his executive branch and someone who has gone to great lengths to discredit Bernie Sanders supporters as malicious political operatives because they said mean things to her online—might be read as an emphatic “fuck you” to progressives.
(3) Chomsky, who has the demeanour of a kindly and incredibly sharp garden gnome, personally responds to many of the thousands of emails he receives on a regular basis and does way more interviews than anyone should be expected to do at age 92.
(4) By which they mean “at no point ever in the future.”
(5) This is not to suggest that our scientific or medical authorities are beyond reproach. Both have made serious mistakes during the pandemic. Climate science measures complex planetary systems over huge timelines and deals in vast ranges of probability. It’s reasonable to be skeptical. But skepticism is not what these people want. They believe scrutiny is unnecessary because these whole fields of study are corrupt or based on nonsense. A “hoax” does not require deeper investigation except as a means to dismiss it.
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