Joe Biden’s Descent Into the Maelstrom

The president’s first year has been marked by failure and self-delusion. Going forward, we should expect more and worse.

J.M.W. Turner (English, 1775-1851) A Storm, Shipwreck/Image Credit Wikimedia Commons

Why have our recent presidents insisted on being “transformative”? Nowhere do I find that Americans crave radical cosmetic surgery every four years—we just expect our leaders to take out the garbage. Yet between election and inauguration, the candidate who appeared to be a humble fellow-citizen on the campaign trail assumes the trappings of a divine emperor, expecting, with the wave of a mighty hand, to transform the world.

Barack Obama compared himself favorably with that ultimate transformer, Franklin Roosevelt. He at least had the excuse of his own unique backstory and the 2008 financial crisis. Yet American society and politics today are much the way Obama found them—only worse.

With typical modesty, Donald Trump professed he could make America great again by the simple expedient of draining The Swamp. Exactly what he meant by this is unclear, but in the end it was The Swamp that pulled the plug on Trump.

No president was ever elected on a less transformative platform than Joe Biden. Chosen by Democratic Party elites as a stopgap candidate to deflect the appeal of Bernie Sanders on the left and Trump on the right, Biden was supposed to be a conciliator and restorer—the equivalent of political Valium to calm the meth high of the populists. Yet minutes after entering the White House, he embarked on a frenzy of multi-trillion-dollar fantasies of change involving race and sex and climate and many other unyielding conditions.

The greater the claims of power by an elected official, the more bitter the disappointment of the public when the claims turn out to be mere noise. This easy formula, which our presidents seem unable to internalize, applies with particular force to our troubled moment in history. The collapse of presidential authority over the last two decades has been due, in large part, to a perverse cycle of arousal and failure of great expectations.

None have failed faster or more completely than Biden. For all his frantic paddling, the vortex of the digital age has already gulped down the president and all his transformations. Future researchers will tally up the debris: But just one year into his presidency, Biden’s failure already strikes me as beyond redemption.

I am less interested, here, in adding to the chorus of disappointment and mockery surrounding this national disaster, than in asking how a politician such as Biden could end up in such a pivotal place during such fateful times. The answer, I believe, will tell us something about the pathologies afflicting our democratic institutions—and what we, the public, can reasonably expect from them.

On the Joys of Being Biden

I would describe Biden as an elite of the elites, someone who has hovered, seemingly forever, right below the very top of our sociopolitical hierarchy, and has become important for just being there. Elected senator from Delaware at the tender age of 29, he clung to this position for 36 mostly drowsy years. Briefly, he tasted excitement by leading the assault on Clarence Thomas during the latter’s confirmation hearings—but even that nationally televised performance ended in failure when Thomas’ combative rhetoric turned public opinion against his accusers.

Crashing and Burning. Biden announces that he is withdrawing from the race for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. Image Credit: Jerome Delay/AFP via Getty Images

Biden’s ambition has always outstripped his ability. He ran for president in 1988 and again in 2008, crashing and burning early in both attempts. While not unintelligent, he seems to possess an intellect hemmed in by conventional wisdom, and his mind, at times, leads him down strange paths. He has been caught plagiarizing the words of others in his speeches, and he sometimes tells life stories about events that never happened. Such visible cracks in identity are unusual for the tightly scripted world of Washington, D.C.

His greatest asset has been longevity. Barack Obama, fresh from his victory over Hilary Clinton, picked Biden as his running mate because he was well-worn and comfy to the Democratic establishment. During the next eight years, Biden did what he does best: He hovered. There are no stories that he instructed President Obama in the ways of Washington, and there’s no sense that Obama felt for his vice president anything stronger than benevolent disdain. The most famous Obama quote on the subject of Biden may be apocryphal but is nonetheless telling: “Don’t underestimate Joe’s ability to f—k things up.”

He was never in the running to succeed Obama. It was supposed to be Clinton’s turn. He was never seriously considered as a challenger to Trump in 2020. Younger identity warriors like Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris were preferred for that job. It is remarkable how dismissive Democratic grandees were of Biden’s stature, right until the moment democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders, broke from the pack and took the lead for the nomination. With Warren and Harris stumbling, a desperate need arose for an establishment candidate—and there was Biden, as always, hanging around.

A presidential campaign conducted under lockdown conditions favored the slow and silent. The 78-year-old Biden spent much of the contest in his Delaware home. The public hungered for a reassuring figure to lead the country during the health crisis. Instead, it got Trump, who never managed to cope with a story that was bigger than he was. By 2020, Trump had exhausted the patience of a lot of American voters—but the country was prospering and at peace. Absent the pandemic, he could very well have won. From the perspective of Biden and the Democrats, God had visited his retribution, like the plagues of Egypt, to bring a sinful antagonist down.

But that perspective could be flipped and still hold true. An extraordinary series of fortuitous events had propelled Biden, the uncharismatic hanger-on, all the way to the White House. Given the probabilities involved, he could be described, quite accurately, as an accidental president.

Politics as War on Reality

Biden assumed office in dangerous and tormented times. The digital battering of the institutions had entered the recurrent nightmare phase: less a tidal wave than a maelstrom that threatened to swallow the entire system of politics and government. An angry public remained fixated on negation to the edge of nihilism. The old order looked to be on the brink of disintegration. The elite class that Biden now headed found the atmosphere of the 21st century too toxic for survival.

His mandate was reaction: a trip back to a happier past when elites ruled from the heights. His political allies associated the horrors of the digital age with Trump: Biden would be the anti-Trump. In this effort, he enjoyed certain advantages. Trump’s distempered rejection of the electoral results, and his incitement of the mob on January 6, 2021, allowed the corporate masters of the digital platforms to silence a great deal of pro-Trump opinion as “misinformation.” Biden began his term under an unusually favorable information regime. And the public, sick of Trump’s antics, at first gave the new-old president solid approval ratings.

Democratic presidents from the last century are always portrayed as activists; no doubt that’s what Biden expected to be. Here a difficulty intervened. What would his activism be about? In the past, Biden usually leaned on conventional liberal nostrums—but now none were to be had. The Boomers and Gen Xers at the top of the administration, never the most imaginative bunch, scarcely knew the nation they governed. They had nothing left to say. All the words, all the energy, all the causes belonged to the young identitarians who wanted so badly to purify American society. It was to them that the president turned, or was persuaded to turn, to inform his agenda—and suddenly he was asking for trillions and trading “activist” for “transformative.”

In the end, Biden has contorted himself into an impossibility: He’s a transformative reactionary, I want to say, or maybe a progressive-regressive. His presidency is stuck on that contradiction like a bug on a pin. Standard-issue liberals and identity progressives espouse different degrees of the same thing, which is that power and money can be applied to reengineer human relations. But Biden’s variant of liberalism rests on a fantasy: that he can return to a Camelot that is forever lost. And the cult of identity dreams of a utopia of perfect racial, sexual and climate outcomes that can never be fulfilled, and thus requires ever more power and ever more money, until the machine explodes from overheating.

On both sides of his awkward straddle, Biden is at war with reality. And reality today is that digital maelstrom, moving at the speed of light, devouring the world.

The President in His Own Words

I won’t attempt a list of administration failures. In an age of near-infinite information, we know what they are and where we stand on them. I do wish to note, however, that all follow a repetitive pattern.

First, the catastrophe is denied, as if the sound of words spoken in authoritative tones could somehow obliterate reality. That’s true only in “Harry Potter.” Second, as a flood of distressing information on the crisis of the day—Afghanistan, inflation, supply chain disruptions—overwhelms the web, a discreet silence is enforced, often abetted by the news media. But a news silence is meaningless in the clamor of the digital environment.

Lastly, as crisis piles on crisis and ever more failures ensue, some somber denizen of the White House fetches Biden out of his hiding-hole and places him in front of the cameras. He then proceeds to say something alarming, dotty or just plain weird—and the controversy careens in a new direction.

Despite all of that, I think it’s useful to listen to what Biden has to say, so long as we hear it on his own terms: the viewpoint of someone who, late in life, has been teleported to a place of fantastic power far beyond his level of competence, there to deal with a world he can’t fully comprehend.

Here he is on the subject of Americans who were left behind during the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan: “Since March, we reached out 19 times to Americans in Afghanistan, with multiple warnings and offers to help them leave Afghanistan—all the way back as far as March.”

Here he is, addressing the unvaccinated in his big Covid-19 speech: “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin.”

Here he is, challenging the opponents of his voting bill: “Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”

Here he self-assesses in his latest press conference: “I have probably outperformed what anybody thought would happen.”

Who is the audience for these words? Biden has always desired to please the elites—and elite opinion today is in thrall to the young progressives of the cult of identity, whose lifeways the president has no clue about, and whose articles of faith, I’m guessing, baffle and intimidate him. So, the kind interpretation for the words is that he lacks insight into his audience.

I confess to being less kind: In my opinion, this is a case of an internal monologue that keeps leaking out into the public square. The audience is Joe Biden. “We reached out 19 times,” “our patience is wearing thin,” “I have probably outperformed”—like many persons of a certain age whose grasp on reality is slipping, the president manifests a peevishness, even anger and certainly denial, against the facts that give evidence of an inexorable decline. That includes stranded Americans, the unvaccinated, his political opponents and the terrifying maelstrom, whose roar he can surely hear, that is the form of reality itself.

The consequences of this sad predicament are all around us. We should expect more and worse. The public’s trust in the new administration had been granted tentatively, more as a token of hope after the tribulations of Trump than as a judgment based on confidence or loyalty. That trust has vanished and is unlikely ever to return. The institutions of democracy that are themselves bleeding out trust and legitimacy will be represented during the next three years by a feeble, accidental figure who inspires a certain amount of pity but universal contempt. The damage to these institutions, and to the public’s faith in democracy, will empower and embolden the most sinister types of our disordered times—the ranter, the vandal, the nihilist.

Welcome to Our Nietzschean Future

The protracted agony of the administration may take down the entire edifice of identity, whose puritanical strictures constrain every aspect of society and are very unpopular with the public. The process would feel like an inoculation: Biden, worst conceivable spokesman for the movement, as anti-woke vaccine.

The effect will be a tremendous release of political energies—an explosion of the will to power that will set war-band against war-band, tribe against tribe, in a struggle for domination that will likely burst out of the digital realm into the streets. A Nietzschean future of artist-tyrants and barbarian chiefs is hurtling, fast-forward, toward us. Once the clock strikes midnight, the sound and fury of the Trump years will seem like cloistered reflection in comparison.

Globally, perception of the U.S. government as a ship of fools has led to the increasingly aggressive postures of China, Russia and Iran. Powers hostile to our interests and our ideals detect an opportunity. As I write this, Vladimir Putin threatens war with Ukraine. China has openly drawn parallels between our abandonment of Afghanistan and our willingness to defend Taiwan. Nobody would profit from a conflagration, but the probability of misjudging how the world works and stumbling into a conflict isn’t zero.

The next three years will be rough going. Much will be lost to the maelstrom: Chunks of Chicago and all of San Francisco are practically gone already. The question is, what comes next? Whether we emerge from our decrepit stupor will depend on the integrity of the political system and the wisdom of the American electorate: And I find it telling that I can’t arrange those words in any order that does not sound ironical.

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