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A Return to Normalcy?
In the wake of the assault on the Capitol, an uninspiring Joe Biden may be just what we need
Donald Trump is conducting the most shameless and disgraceful departure from office in our nation’s history. That is bad news for the country. It is, however, good news for Joe Biden, the incoming president. He has been handed an opportunity he would do well to exploit.
We should suffer no illusions about what we have in Biden. He was a middling politician in his prime, which was a long time ago, and can be said to be one of those ambitious people devoid of vision, who enter politics to be someone rather than to do something. He served in the Senate for 36 years without distinction but also without disgrace. At his best, Biden conveys a sense of middle-class solidarity with the public. At his worst, he has engaged in bizarre behavior, like plagiarizing passages of a speech from a British Labour Party official, of all things.
But the president-elect possesses one quality that seems to overcome these deficiencies. He is extraordinarily lucky. He was lucky to be chosen for the vice presidency by fellow senator Barack Obama, who needed a gray head to complement his own youthfulness in the 2008 presidential race. He was lucky that campaigning under pandemic conditions in 2020 played to his strength and masked his weaknesses, while having the reverse effect on his opponent. He was lucky, finally, to be watching in silence from the sidelines while President Trump, who was going to be a pain in his neck for the next four years, self-detonated to smithereens.
Like Hillary Clinton in 2016, Biden campaigned on the self-evident fact that he was not Trump. Unlike Clinton, he faced an electorate that had four years of Trump in the White House to reflect on. Biden called it a “season of darkness in America” and promised to be a light-bringer for the nation. That probably played well with the Democratic base. But the average voter, I suspect, was less interested in light than in calm and quiet, and enough of them turned out for Biden because they saw in him—in his lack of vision, in his middling qualities—the possibility of a return to normalcy after the exhausting free-for-all of the Trump years.
I thought that Biden faced a tough challenge in delivering on what was, after all, only an implicit promise. What does a return to normalcy mean? But after the events of Jan. 6 on Capitol Hill, we have a good idea of what it means. Or at least we know how it must begin: with the excision of Donald Trump from American politics. I am on record as saying that Trump is a symptom of a far deeper sickness. That remains entirely true and should be kept in mind by the new administration as it inches toward its definition of normalcy. Sometimes, however, you have to treat the symptoms before you can cure the disease. Call it political triage.
The question now is what to do with the man. Some are calling for another impeachment or the invocation of the 25th Amendment. That would be insane, as it would place Trump and his flying circus on center stage during the early days of the new administration. Others want the president prosecuted for sedition or inciting a riot. This would have to hinge on a sober look at what transpired on Jan. 6, and on an assessment of what is best for the country.
Some have labeled the disorder at the Capitol an aborted coup, but it was nothing of the sort. It was the sacking and vandalizing by a nihilistic mob of the edifice that, much more than the White House, represents the might and majesty of the American people. The perpetrators, as always, openly planned their actions online but gave no thought to consequences, other than enjoying the mayhem. This sort of attention deficit nihilism is too unfocused for sedition, though other crimes were committed that should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
But did Trump incite the riot? When I parse his words, I don’t see how it’s possible to refute the accusation. If the president of the United States declares the democratic process to be fraudulent, as Trump has done for weeks, including when he addressed the mob on Jan. 6, an assault on the Electoral College is not an unreasonable response. Any fair-minded person, in my inexpert opinion, would conclude that he has laid himself open to charges of incitement.
The dilemma is that if you prosecute Trump, you will never get to normalcy. It’s that simple. Sometimes what is right collides with what is best, and the better part of wisdom, let me suggest, is to build on the future rather than seek redress for the past.
If the objective is to cleanse our politics, then Trump shouldn’t be impeached or tried for incompetence or prosecuted, all of which would reward him with the thing he loves most—attention at the highest levels—and would allow him to play the victim as well. Instead, he should be placed inside a cone of silence. With regard to reporting his statements or responding to them, he should be banished to the netherworld of American politics, where he can abide as a minor deity to QAnon and the lunatic fringe.
Last week Twitter blocked him permanently. If Facebook does the same, so be it. I am a fundamentalist on freedom of speech, but this is a punishment for incitement, not a ban on opinion. In any case, given the vastness of the information sphere, he will find a way to communicate—only not with us.
Republicans and Democrats, torn by very different temptations, must find a way to resist and set the example in placing Trump inside the cone. Whether the media can live without him remains to be seen. Donald Trump, I repeat, is merely a symptom of a widespread malady. His enablers, who include most of his putative opponents, must be made to take the cure until the addiction is broken.
On the assumption that this can be achieved, Biden’s path to normalcy will become relatively straightforward. The first order of business will be uncontroversial. The new administration must provide the framework for rapid vaccination of the population against COVID-19. While implementation will devolve to state and local authorities, the White House can use the bully pulpit and the power of the purse to increase vaccine production to the largest levels consistent with safety, and to persuade the public that distribution is being carried out on the basis of some transparently fair principle.
And the new president should set deadlines. If front-line workers, essential personnel and everyone over the age of 70 haven’t been vaccinated by the Fourth of July, there should be hell to pay. If the entire public hasn’t attained immunity by New Year’s Eve, the entire project will have failed.
But if we once again assume success, we enter a new age. With Trump and the pandemic in the rearview mirror, the question will suddenly shift to the kind of normalcy to which we should aspire. I have no doubt that the people around the president will push him toward lofty and expensive schemes. I am equally certain that the Democratic Party, now in control of the White House and Congress, will spend great sums of the taxpayers’ money—to be sure, for the purest and most virtuous of reasons—on their favorite constituencies. That is the way of the world, and, when not carried to an extreme, can be said to constitute normalcy of a sort.
But here I wish to return to my assessment of Biden as president. It’s only my opinion, but I can’t envision that he will ever be lofty like Lincoln, or eloquent like Kennedy, or visionary like Reagan, or even smooth like Obama. Any pretense by his people that he does possess these traits will strike a false note of self-glorification, alienate the public from his presidency, and summon forth new Trumps to positions of authority and new mobs into the street. Joe Biden is mediocre and boring. I say, let Biden be Biden. It may just be what we need.
The reality is that the public, not the politicians, will determine the style of normalcy after the pandemic. Biden can hold the door open or bar the way: we will pour through regardless. What the public will want is probably the most important question nobody is asking right now. Alas, I lack prophetic powers, so I don’t have the answer.
But it seems at least possible, and even likely, that after dwelling like grizzly bears in surly isolation for two years, the public will desperately crave to do the things human beings do together: woo, wed, work, make families, buy homes, study, raise hell, and go to a bar or a movie theater or a baseball game—all of it, delightfully, without having to hide our faces behind masks. Getting drunk with a large crowd of friends may seem more important than fighting over politics. Making money to enjoy a good life may seem most important of all.
What kind of president would best suit this exuberant mood? As it happens, the country has been here before. After the horrors of World War I, the puritanical austerities of Woodrow Wilson and the corruption of Warren Harding, the ideal leader was found in our first attempt at a “return to normalcy.” And though he presided over an age of tremendous social and economic exuberance, he was, himself, far from an exuberant personality. Let me quote from Frederick Lewis Allen’s indispensable guide to the 1920s, Only Yesterday:
Calvin Coolidge was unobtrusive to the last degree; he would never try to steer the ship of state into unknown waters; and at the same time he was sufficiently honest and circumspect to prevent any unseemly revelry from taking place on the decks. Everything was, therefore, as it should be.
Coolidge didn’t cause the effervescence of the Roaring Twenties. He held the door open and let the public through, while avoiding political scandal and egocentric distractions. Historians have never considered his to be an epic presidency—but the last thing we need at the moment, in this age of turbulence and revolt, is epic. We need calm and integrity and sanity.
Coolidge provides an interesting model. If, decades from now, Americans look back on the kind of normalcy that followed the pandemic and think of it as the “Roaring 2020s,” it would mean that Joe Biden’s great good luck happily rubbed off on his fellow citizens.