Biden in Iowa.
Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A really unexpected thing happened to me this week. I felt a slight but measurable twinge of hope. For the first time, I heard a speech that, while measured and well-balanced, homed in relentlessly — and with passion and authority — on the core moral unfitness of Donald Trump to be president of the United States. Joe Biden’s Iowa address last Wednesday finally did what needs to be done: Leaving questions of policy aside for a moment, it framed next year’s presidential and congressional campaigns as a battle for the soul of America.
Trump’s inability to grasp this country as an idea ultimately beyond race and territory and religion, his despicable moral character and incendiary rhetoric, and his constant threats to Constitutional order and civil peace render him unfit for the office he holds. That’s Biden’s central message and the core, urgent issue of our time — because it relates to all the others: the costs and insecurity of health care, the intensifying climate crisis, the crumbling of liberal democracy in the West, the corruption of the American right, the rise of white supremacist terror, and the pressures of absorbing the biggest wave of immigration in a century, and, in absolute numbers, the biggest wave in American history. With Trump reelected, all of this gets fathomlessly worse. With him gone, there’s a chance to recover. But while he’s there, the danger never ends.
The speech should reassure people — as it reassured me — that the Democratic primary base is not wrong or cowardly or sexist for consistently putting Biden at the top of their preferences. These rank-and-file voters want to defeat Trump and think they’ve found the best candidate for the job available. And if Biden can sustain both his focus and the powerful argument he laid out this week, he may well prove them right.
This is not to say that Biden isn’t showing some signs of aging. He was composed, but he does appear a little frail; there were times his speech seemed a little slurred, and he had several minor slipups. This is not to fault him: At 76, he has enviable sharpness and physical fitness. But at 76, there are limits. And somehow, at 73, Trump’s psychological sickness gives him an edge: a gob-smacking drive to keep going and going and going, with no signs of flagging at all, and many signs of mania. Who in their 70s is crazy enough to keep up? Even as he claimed he was seeking healing and unity this week, Trump was still tweeting insults, filming a shameless campaign video, and comparing crowd sizes with Beto O’Rourke’s. The sheer sociopathic narcissism in the face of such grief and trauma beggars belief. But it sure makes Trump seem younger than he is.
But I don’t think Biden’s age matters that much, or that “Sleepy Joe” is an apposite nickname. In fact, his age and political longevity help him deliver the moral case against Trump more convincingly. Yes, I know that smart analysts insist that the election will be won on policy issues, like health care, jobs, or immigration — and that most voters are bored by the tweet-driven drama Trump revels in. Ignore the wannabe Caesar, we’re told, and you can beat him on policy grounds. Attack his record, not his depraved and corrosive threat to our entire constitutional system. Remember how the Dems won the midterms, that’s how you do it. Offer tangible policy contrasts: a public option in Obamacare as opposed to abolishing it altogether; a program for green investment against Trump’s burn-the-planet-down swagger; taking back the super-wealthy’s tax breaks and redirecting the money to the middle class, so far as possible; restoring America’s traditional alliances, rather than tearing them up. You know the drill.
And I certainly don’t think you should ignore policy contrasts. I’d make health-care security a central message. If I were Biden, I’d also defend and embrace Obama’s record on immigration enforcement without the slightest apology — and ridicule Trump for letting illegal immigration soar under his watch. I’d also emphasize how I had shifted on trade, and how acutely I was hearing the concerns of the white working class in the Rust Belt.
But avoiding the lardaceous orange elephant in the room seems like a defensive dodge to me. It gives the impression of weakness. It cedes too much to Trump and normalizes him. It is not the relentless, epiphanous stare-down of Trump that a successful 2020 opponent needs to muster, and that so much of the country is yearning for. And it misses what is in fact the central issue in 2020: the unique danger this bitter bigot poses to this country’s liberal democracy and civil peace.
Next year will not be a midterm election, after all. It will be a referendum on Trump — as it has to be, and as Trump will insist it be. And so the central task of the Democratic candidate will be not just to explain how dangerous Trump’s rhetoric and behavior is, but how un-American it is, and how a second term could leave behind an unutterably altered America. One term and the stain, however dark, might fade in time. Two terms and it marks us forever.
Biden made this moral case. And he did it with feeling, and a wounded sense of patriotism. He invoked previous presidents, including Republicans, who knew how insidiously evil white supremacy is and wouldn’t give any quarter to it. He reminded us that in politics, words are acts, and they have consequences when uttered by a national leader: “The words of a president … can move markets. They can send our brave men and women to war. They can bring peace. They can calm a nation in turmoil. They can console and confront and comfort in times of tragedy … They can appeal to the better angels of our nature. But they can also unleash the deepest, darkest forces in this nation.” And this, Biden argues, is what Trump has done: tap that dark psychic force, in an act of malignant and nihilist narcissism.
Yes, Biden powerfully argued that Trump was an enabler of “white supremacy” in the sense understood by most people, and not the absurdly broad, new left definition that counts as a white supremacist nearly everyone not actively virtue-signaling on left Twitter. But he went further and explained why America, at its best, is an inversion of that twisted racial identitarianism: “What this president doesn’t understand is that unlike every other nation on earth, we’re unable to define what constitutes ‘American’ by religion, by ethnicity, or by tribe; you can’t do it. America is an idea. An idea stronger than any army, bigger than any ocean, more powerful than any dictator or tyrant. It gives hope to the most desperate people on earth.” Hope, one might add, that has been deeply qualified by this president’s outspoken fondness for dictators like Kim Jong-un.
And although some of this might once have seemed like pabulum, in the Trump era, it comes off as fresh. There was even a nice line designed to get under Trump’s skin, ridiculing the listless condemnation of white supremacy Trump recited in the wake of the El Paso massacre: that “low-energy, vacant-eyed mouthing of the words written for him condemning white supremacists this week.” That’s a poignantly wrought description of that sighing, sniffing, singsongy voice that Trump uses when he’s saying something his heart isn’t into.
And more importantly, Biden was able to express all this with authority. The speech was a defense of American decency against an indecent commander-in-chief — and it echoed loudly because Biden is, so evidently, a decent human. I’ve never been a huge fan of the logorrheic, egotistical grandstanding Biden sometimes engages in; I don’t agree with him on some issues; his treatment of Anita Hill was disgracefully off-key. But I have never doubted Biden’s core decency. Maybe I have a soft spot for a well-meaning Irish-uncle type. But for 25 minutes or so this week, I felt as if I were living in America again, the America I love and chose to live in, a deeply flawed America, to be sure, marked forever by slavery’s stain, and racism’s endurance, but an America that, at its heart, is a decent country, full of decent people.
This is not all Biden needs to say or do. He needs to do much more to prove that he understands why Trump was elected in the first place. He has to recast the Democrats as the tough but humane enforcers of immigration laws, and not the party of open borders, and he has to find a way to boost African-American enthusiasm and turnout. But decency is the heart of his candidacy. And voting for Joe Biden feels like voting for some things we’ve lost and have one last chance to regain. Normalcy, generosity, civility, experience — and a reminder that, in this current darkness, Trump does not define America. “Everyone knows who Donald Trump is,” Biden concluded. “We need to show them who we are. We choose hope over fear. Science over fiction. Unity over division. And, yes — truth over lies.”
My typically uplifting essay on the parallels between the decline of the Roman Republic and of our own perhaps underemphasizes one point. In Rome, the challengers to “the way of the elders” were popular; the Senate and the republican order was not. Caesar, after all, was not assassinated by an angry mob; he was killed by fellow elitists who worried about the mob and Caesar’s sway over them. In fact, dictatorial power is often quite popular to begin with.
Two new studies, here and in the U.K., help demonstrate this today. One survey, conducted by Pew, polled Americans about their approach to liberal democratic values, and the power of the presidency. Money quote: “Currently, 66 percent of the public says ‘it would be too risky to give U.S. presidents more power to deal directly with many of the country’s problems.’ About three-in-ten adults (29 percent) offer the contrasting opinion that ‘problems could be dealt with more effectively if U.S. presidents didn’t have to worry so much about Congress or the courts.’” Three in ten is not a terrible place to start if you want to become an American autocrat.
And there’s one demographic in particular that is even more fertile territory: “The share of conservative Republicans who say that presidents could deal with problems more effectively if they ‘didn’t have to worry so much about Congress or the courts’ has doubled since March 2018. Today, about half of conservative Republicans (52 percent) hold this view, compared with 26 percent a year ago.” Liberal and moderate Republicans didn’t shift much from year to year. But the base of the GOP is suddenly far less interested in liberty than they usually claim. It may help explain why the tea party was able to have a conniption about acquiring debt during a terrible recession, but is now cheering a president who is adding a trillion dollars a year to the debt in a time of record employment.
In Britain, a new study also finds that there has been a deep shift in the public mood, away from a belief in freedom to a primary concern about security, even if that means a strongman. Brits now favor expanding security over freedom by 65 to 35 percent. But again, there’s one group that stands out: “Across all dimensions, support for security was highest among groups that the Conservative Party now relies on most heavily for its voters: older age groups, pensioners, white voters, and those with lower levels of education.” If you wonder why the Tory Party has shifted away from Thatcherite liberalism to more statist authoritarianism, this is a clue. If they didn’t, they’d disappear.
Some of this new leaning toward authoritarianism strikes me as a sane response to global capitalism and its immense dislocations. As one of the authors explains: “British politics is undergoing a sea change and it is for security, not freedom. Most voters are not freedom fighters who want more rampant individualism, a small state and lower taxes. They want well-funded public services, security for their family, and a strong community in the place in which they live.”
But there’s a darker drop shadow to this, especially among the young who have only experienced liberal democracy in their lifetimes and found it to be wanting: “66 percent of 25-34 year olds favor ‘strong leaders who do not have to bother with Parliament’ and 26 percent believe democracy is a bad way to run the country.” I’ve no doubt that the Brexit paralysis, amid widening inequality, has pumped these numbers up. But it does suggest that a willful prime minister who decided this fall to suspend Parliament for a few weeks in order to force a default no-deal Brexit might not become so unpopular after all.
Among the severe failings of the Catholic hierarchy in the last couple of decades, nothing comes close to the rape of countless children and the despicable cover-ups that followed. But I have to say that the pharisaical firing of gay and lesbian and transgender employees at Catholic institutions offends in a different way. Firing any individual because of something that has nothing whatsoever to do with the work they do is always wrong. Firing them because they get civilly married to someone of the same sex or transition from one sex to the other is appalling discrimination. And yet, in over a hundred cases in the last decade, the church hierarchy has done just that.
This has nothing to do with sustaining orthodoxy in Catholic institutions, where such orthodoxy is essential, like, say, in teaching religious classes. The church has every right to insist that its relevant employees do not actively oppose church doctrine in front of the kids. But there are many people who work in Catholic schools and hospitals and other institutions open to the public who have nothing to do with the teaching of doctrine, or are not Catholic, and many Catholics who, like most of their American peers, dissent from the hierarchy on a few issues. As long as they are doing their jobs well, and do not attempt to proselytize against Catholicism, I see no reason why they shouldn’t be left alone. And usually, they are. I know of no cases where, say, a straight teacher or a nurse has gotten a civil divorce and then been fired for it — even though divorce is outlawed among Catholics, and the teaching comes from the words of Jesus himself. But if a gay teacher gets married, or a trans person finds his or her true self, it’s an entirely different story.
A few brave Catholic institutions have stood behind their employees — including an inspiring case in 2016 when the Sisters of Mercy refused to fire a teacher at Mercy High School in San Francisco because she transitioned from male to female. But now, the Jesuits, God bless them, have taken a stand. In Indianapolis, Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory school was ordered this year by the archbishop, Charles Thompson, to fire a popular teacher, because he just got married to another man in a civil ceremony. And the school, citing the conscience of its leaders and staff, refused. The school was then stripped of its official designation as a Catholic school, and campus-wide masses were banned. (Daily masses are still held). And the fight is still going on, after two years.
The case involves not merely how thoroughly church teachings should apply to laypeople in Catholic institutions, but also how much power a local archbishop has over the Jesuit order, which retains a large amount of independence within the church. This week, the prep school formally launched an appeal of the decision to the pope himself, a Jesuit. It will be interesting, to say the least, what his decision might be.
Look: I understand a Catholic institution’s need to ensure that orthodoxy is taught in class, and teachers who refuse to do so, or teach contrary to church doctrine, can be fired. But teachers and workers who have no such teaching role, are good workers, and merely get civilly married, or transition from one gender to another, should be off-limits. A janitor or an administrative assistant in a Catholic school should be able to have a zone of privacy, and that zone should apply, it seems to me, to gays and straights alike. That it is respected for sinful straights but violated for sinful gays is morally wrong. It’s discrimination that reveals, by its targets, that it’s less about orthodoxy than bigotry.
The kids see this, of course. In some cases, the teacher is beloved, and their removal protested. The younger generations, used to treating gay and trans people as fully human, find this kind of persecution unfathomable. And if they have been brought up right as Catholics, they are surely right to. What the hierarchy has to understand is that this younger generation are also learning at the same time just how tortured and cruel this kind of discrimination is, and are repelled by its inhumanity. They are learning that the church actively punishes people merely for seeking to marry the person they love, or to be fully themselves, and does so by throwing them out of their jobs.
Is that an institution that any of these kids will want to support in the years and decades ahead? Is that message even recognizable from the mercy of the Gospels and the teachings of Jesus, a figure whose deepest rage was directed at those who pretend to perfection while persecuting others? Not so far as I can tell. Here’s hoping that a papacy based on mercy can find a way to end this madness and stop this cruelty.
See you next Friday.