Stories do have consequences, and following Trump’s American Carnage, truth will out in the larger American narrative. This James Fallows essay is worth reading, made important by the trial balloon of making Andrew Cuomo the AG nominee.
For Biden personally, as president, the best thing he can do for most of the needed inquiries is simply get out of the way. He has too many other things to contend with. Criminal proceedings require neither his instigation nor his help.
There are two tasks, however, where his involvement is essential.
One is stemming, and then beginning to reverse, the corrosion of the executive branch. The methodical destruction of the government’s competence and integrity has been nearly invisible but is one of Trump’s most consequential legacies.
The second task is launching—but not running or controlling—independent investigations into three national catastrophes:
- the mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic, whose toll continues to rise;
- border policies under which U.S. officials intentionally separated children from their parents, and in more than 600 cases have not been able to reunite them; and
- purposeful or negligent destruction of the norms of government, the most important being the electoral process, pushing a diverse democracy close to the breaking point.
Over the past generation, rules and norms have eroded. There is a reason books on guarding against autocracy—for instance, On Tyranny, by Timothy Snyder, and Twilight of Democracy, by Anne Applebaum—have become popular. The erosion was transformed into deliberate policy during the Trump years. Even before he was installed in office, and with no evidence, Trump called into question the popular vote in the 2016 election, alleging that millions of ballots had been cast fraudulently. Trump created a task force to look into the matter, which generated headlines (but quietly disbanded when it found no fraud). Elections are in the hands of the individual states. Now emboldened, many state legislatures have used fraud as an excuse to erect new barriers to voting by the poor, by members of minority groups, and by immigrants—reversing the gains of half a century. When the pandemic hit, prompting a shift away from voting in person, the Trump administration falsely equated mail-in ballots with fraudulent votes. When Biden won a decisive victory in both the popular vote and the Electoral College, the president refused to concede and launched a war of attrition against the legitimacy of the electoral process itself.
There is one further thing Biden can do: frame all of the above in terms of the larger American narrative. The specific steps he should take are not about payback, whatever some will say. They are not even about Donald Trump as an individual. They are about the never-ending mission of forming a more perfect union. As Philip Zelikow has observed, every part of the national experience, tragic or triumphant, lives on most powerfully in story. And stories have consequences. Presidents are often most powerful as storytellers, giving citizens a way to think about themselves, their neighbors, their country, and their times. Barack Obama, who came to national attention before holding any national office, did so with his “red states and blue states” speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Donald Trump told a very different story—of us versus them; of a hostile and cheating world beyond our borders; and of treacherous, devious interests here among us at home—in his “American carnage” inaugural address.
Biden likes to say, of the American-carnage era, “We’re better than that.” In practice, we haven’t been. In theory, we could be. Biden has a chance to tell a different story—a story about our potential—with the first words he utters after taking the oath of office.
Because if Biden does nothing, there will be a government in exile.
— Mark Leuchter (@MarkLeuchter) December 12, 2020
Just as “capitalist society was founded upon forms of exploitation which are simultaneously economic, moral and cultural”—that’s E.P. Thompson, drawing on the 19th century socialist and textile designer William Morris—so are the politics of living in such a society being worked out along multiple axes at once, at different tempos. This is something people understand on an intuitive level, then seem to forget somewhere between the street and the CNN studio. Maybe you have a shitty job and a shitty wage, but in the roiling mix out of which you make your politics there are also all the rationalizations for the shittiness, the privileges you earn for accepting them, the larger sense that your freedoms, however meager, gain strength in contrast to the unfreedoms of others, and so on.
In such a world, the material cannot be so easily cleaved from the cultural.
— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) December 13, 2020