Joe Biden’s campaign announcement video—he’s running for president, of course—begins with Charlottesville, Va. It’s a choice, and the construct it reflects is an interesting one. It says a lot.
“Charlottesville, Virginia,” Biden says to the camera, “is home to the author of one of the great documents in human history.” He’s talking about Thomas Jefferson, naturally, and Biden goes on to recite a chunk of the famous second sentence from the Declaration of Independence: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. “It’s who we are,” he says. “We haven’t always lived up to these ideals. Jefferson himself didn’t. But we have never before walked away from them.”
The video cuts from there to footage of the 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, a de facto Donald Trump fan meet-up at which hordes of torch-bearing white conservatives attacked anti-racist protestors; a neo-Nazi named James Alex Fields, Jr. drove his car into a crowd of the latter group, killing an activist named Heather Heyer. “It was there,” Biden says, “in August of 2017, we saw Klansmen and white-supremacists and Neo-Nazis come out in the open. Their crazed faces, illuminated by torches, veins bulging, and baring the fangs of racism, chanting the same anti-Semitic bile heard across Europe in the ‘30s.”
Biden goes on to salute the protestors who showed up to confront the rally; he rightly calls out and condemns the moral equivalence Trump drew between the two groups with his infamous “very fine people on both sides” remark. All of this is elementary politician stuff that’s notable mainly because Trump was unwilling even to attempt to do it. It’s the rhetorical framing of that first bit that’s the key part.
In many ways, Biden is offering both an appeal to and a balm for Silent- and Boom-generation white people that prefer to look at Donald Trump, himself a boomer born in 1946, and imagine that they are seeing not a creature of the same past to which they themselves belong, but a strange and different sort of monster that’s native to the future they fear. So: America is the Declaration of Independence, high ideals imperfectly but devotedly lived and pursued by courageous, well-meaning people—don’t you remember? “We know it by heart,” Joe Biden says. “We’ve heard it so often it’s almost a cliché, but it’s who we are.” The bad stuff that freaks you out isn’t the America you remember; it’s some hideous new thing called into being from elsewhere.
It takes some forced perspective to carry this off. It requires that the specific horror of Charlottesville be not violent white supremacy, which of course is the founding material of the American way of life, but rather those right-wing racists out in the open, their faces illuminated, baring—actually and unashamedly showing—their fangs. It’s all that out in the open and undisguised by the usual costuming—not fiscal conservatism or family-values conservatism or even generic populism, but something bloodier and emblazoned with swastikas. They weren’t doing that on the cable TV in 2015, remember? Back then, the Civil Rights movement had chased the bigots into hiding, right-thinking white people were feeling good about themselves for having helped elect a black president. Now this new thing is out there, chanting and fang-baring and generally screwing it all up.
America now faces a “threat to this nation ... unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime,” Joe Biden intones. “History will look back on four years of this president, and all he embraces, as an aberrant moment in time.” These phrasings are not accidental, and the clips that follow drive the intent home. We see iconic images from American history, all of them in black and white. The message, again, is that It Was Better Then. Now it’s bad. It should go back to being what it was like before. Somebody needs to make it go back.
This is a very appealing idea. As some asshole wrote last August, even a healthfully skeptical eye toward the American past...
...doesn’t stop me from longing, desperately, every single day, for, uh, what it was like in 2015. What it was like in 2016! What it was like on the morning of November 8th, 2016, when I made tea in my kitchen and allowed, privately, the consolation that dismal neoliberal continuity would suck for lots of reasons but would almost certainly be better than handing Donald Trump the power to destroy the earth!
I get it. In the most practical sense, which is the only one in which political campaigns deal, Biden’s is probably an effective campaign pitch. Aging white people love being told things were better when they were younger, and there are lots and lots of those people in the electorate. Many of them may well like the idea of being offered the choice of an avatar for themselves and their generation who thinks Donald Trump is bad (Joe Biden) rather than one who thinks Donald Trump is extremely good (Donald Trump).
The most obvious and immediate problem with this is that it’s dangerous, ahistorical, fundamentally conservative fable-making. It’s a comforting story about America, and one that a certain type of person (white, afraid) can opt into believing. From this perspective, the fix is clear: Everybody But Me Changing How They’re Doing Everything becomes the solution to all the problems. At its most basic level, this is the exact same top-line campaign pitch Donald Trump himself made three years ago: America was great before. Now it’s all screwed up. Make it great again.
But America’s problem isn’t that it’s a fine place that just happens to have awakened one morning to discover that Donald Trump was somehow president, and what’s wrong with it—what is not working and has not worked for a very long time—can’t be fixed by replacing Trump with another swinging-dick old white man selling a slightly different backward-looking myth about the better times he alone can restore. Donald Trump isn’t the ugly future that showed up to violate America’s virtuous past. Donald Trump is that past, the lurid blossoming of the most poisonous and most deeply rooted old-growth fixtures in American life—white supremacy, patriarchy, feral and all-devouring capitalism. Trump is the embodiment of those original American sins, and he was elected on their behalf, as a response to a society that was just tentatively showing the flimsiest superficial signs that it might be thinking of leaving those sins behind.
Joe Biden isn’t the future, either, of course. Nothing demonstrates it more clearly than his choice to announce his entry in the campaign through this message. Biden is making a wager that the surest approach to defeating Donald Trump is by mirroring him—by giving aging white people an avatar that flatters them even as it amplifies their self-image. The vanity and self-regard of old conservative white people isn’t going to save the world; it is hard to think of anything less suited for that task. But it has already proven itself capable of winning an election, and Joe Biden trusts nothing if not the past.