On November 8, 2016, Donald John Trump, a shady real-estate pitchman and reality-TV host from New York, was elected the forty-fifth President of the United States. The distinguishing features of his character––bigotry, deceit, narcissism––were as evident during the 2016 campaign as they are now. But, though many more voters supported his opponent, the Trump Presidency had to be endured. Contempt has been at the core of his time in office: contempt for the Constitution; contempt for truth and dissent; contempt for women and people of color; contempt for champions of civil rights as great as John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Trump’s contempt for science and the basic welfare of Americans is so profound that, through an enraging combination of incompetence, indifference, and stupidity, he has failed to meet the pitiless demands of a viral pandemic. The national death toll is more than two hundred thousand.
The pandemic has also laid bare the inequities, corruptions, and cruelties of our political life—features that the Administration did not originate but which it has magnified and exploited. The lack of universal health care; the shrivelling of critical government agencies, regulations, and protections; the persistence of sharp racial disparities in wealth and in health; the unwillingness to deal with the clear danger of climate change––these have all contributed to the dire redefinition of “American exceptionalism.”Biden’s Top Priority
How he must protect public health if he wins.
In an established autocracy—like Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, or Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia—it is nearly impossible to criticize or to investigate the autocrat. In the liminal condition in which we now live, with public institutions threatened but not yet defeated by an elected President, the would-be autocrat must still face the indignities of journalism, legal inquiry, and popular opposition. He must also face an open election. The polls suggest that Joe Biden currently leads the 2020 Presidential race. We suffer no delusions: Trump has on his side demagogic skill and ruthlessness, a willingness to break any norm or law in order to win. Nevertheless, we hope that Biden will displace him by a margin that prevents prolonged dispute or the kind of civil unrest that Trump appears to relish. Ideally, Biden will have an opportunity to govern with Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate, which would vastly increase his chances of passing legislation to confront the nation’s array of crises.
In March, 1933, as Franklin Roosevelt approached his first Inauguration, the country was submerged in the Great Depression. It was a dark time of breadlines and Hoovervilles. The unemployment rate was around twenty-five per cent. At first, Roosevelt’s crucial contribution to national solidarity and the restoration of the economy was his clarity and his optimism. “This Nation is asking for action, and action now,” he declared in his Inaugural Address. In the next hundred days, he proceeded with bracing resolution, initiating the legislation that laid the foundation for the New Deal, economic recovery, and a more humane and activist government than the Republic had ever known.Video From The New YorkerAlexandria Ocasio-Cortez Responds to Verbal Abuse by Ted Yoho
There is no underestimating the craving for restorative calm. It would surely be a relief simply to have a President who is not a chronic liar, someone who doesn’t abuse the office as a colossal grift. It would be a relief to have a President who is reflexively devoted to democratic institutions and refuses to make common cause with white nationalists, QAnon, and other inhabitants of the lunatic fringe. It is true that Biden is not a transcendent speaker or a towering intellect. Yet he has the capacity to convey genuineness and fellow-feeling to a wide range of Americans. “We’re in this together,” the phrase heard so often during the pandemic, has routinely been traduced by an ethos of selfishness exemplified by the President himself. At his best, Biden has the potential to appeal to the country in an emotionally honest way that might help to engender a greater sense of social cohesion, compassion, and mutual respect.
But a new President must also address the failures and the inequalities that have been festering in American life for decades. He must reckon immediately with an environmental crisis that is already upon us and cannot be conquered with a vaccine. Biden, during his long career in the Senate, was hardly a consistent and ardent progressive. On issues as varied as criminal justice and foreign policy, his record and his judgment were mixed. In recent months, he seems to have acknowledged to a far greater degree than he had before the depths of the country’s systemic failings; he relies for advice, to be sure, on a great many Party regulars, but he has also reached out to politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders, who ran distinctly to his left, and to the wave of protesters, for ideas and inspiration. Biden will govern best if, like F.D.R., he is attuned to voices and experts who understand the need for profound changes in policy.
It’s worth remembering that on the day after Trump’s Inauguration millions of Americans flooded the streets of cities and towns across the country. The Women’s March was one of the largest single-day protests in the history of the United States. Since then, there have been mass demonstrations for environmental protection, gun control, racial and gender equality, universal health care. The Black Lives Matter protests have been inspiring not only because of their scale and persistence but because of their diversity and the support they’ve received from countless millions who have stayed at home.
Biden ran in the primaries as a moderate. If he wins the Presidency, he will have to govern with boldness, urgency, tenacity, and creativity. In the face of such challenges, realism and radicalism are not so far apart. Raging fires and rising seas will not respond to pallid proclamations. It is encouraging that Biden has lately been talking in specific terms about job creation and industrial policy, voting rights, higher pay for teachers, police reform, raising the minimum wage, ambitious environmental policy, and serious measures to reduce the dismaying gaps in wealth and opportunity.
In what follows, you’ll read a set of briefs concerning just some of the crises that a new Administration will have to confront and what it must do in order to repair the damage done and shift the moral arc of a troubled nation. ♦