by Akim Reinhardt
People are basically good.
God, what a tiresome trope.
It is a desperate and naive sentiment, often advanced by those who can’t bear the truth. I say this as a historian who has studied genocide, ethnic cleansing, slavery, vast, violent, exploitative colonial systems, and more mundane expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism. But if you’ve neither the time nor the inclination to brush up on 10,000 years of human history as a background for this discussion, then allow me to point you towards the present.
More than 70,000,000 people just voted for Donald Trump. Again.
After four years of observing, on a near daily basis, his presidential grotesquerie. The racism, the sexism, the vindictiveness, the endless vitriol, the knee-jerk authoritarianism and ceaseless attacks on and erosion of American constitutional mechanisms and democratic norms.
The number plagues us like a cancerous tumor unfazed by chemotherapy or radiation, and too large for a scalpel to carve away without disfiguring the corpus: 70,000,000.
The selfish, the nasty, and the naive: seventy million of them without enough savvy to notice his dictatorial yearnings, without enough empathy to recognize his racism and sexism. Or, if they perceive any of it, without enough decency to care.
Don’t you ever talk to me about how people are basically good. You fucking child. Do not insult me with promises about Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy, with fairytales of generous kings and beloved queens counseled by wise men and talking animals who dispense lessons with a wave of the hand or a nod of the beak. Do not badger me with your hazy dreams of paradise or your sad fantasies of heaven. Don’t you dare talk to me about how we can fix the problems.
We are the problem.
Since 1992 I have spent part of each presidential election night on the phone with my friend David. We grew up together, but for the last quarter-century have lived on opposite sides of the country. We don’t see each other more than once every few years, yet each and every quadrennial we find some time to talk it through.
This is the seventh election we’ve commiserated about as it unfolds, and it reminded me of the first.
We were on the phone in 1992 when Bill Clinton won. For us it felt like a real changing of the guard. At the time we were 25 years old and Republicans had been president since we were 13. We were now adults, fumbling through the early years of our careers, in serious relationships, and there hadn’t been a Democratic president since we were in junior high school. When Clinton won, for us there was a real air of Finally!
But as I stared at the TV with the phone to my ear, and watched Bill and Hillary, and Al and Tipper Gore smile and wave while the balloons fell and Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” played over the conventional hall PA system, an odd and wholly unanticipated feeling came over me. It was somewhere at the intersection of déjà vu and Be careful what you wish for because it might come true.
All these years later I still don’t really understand what spurred it. Perhaps the song? It was jarring. Every prior president going back to before we were born had been of the World War II generation, and they most certainly did not choose 1970s pop rock for their campaign theme songs. It was refreshing. Yet also a bit off; on some level it was either shallow and pandering, or spoke to the fact that this young, supposedly hip foursome hadn’t really listened to music in about 15 years, and perhaps they weren’t as forward thinking as all their Democratic supporters wanted to believe. Just some more dull, unimaginative, crypto-conservative, middle aged Baby Boomers
But whatever the trigger, my sense of celebration and joy was suddenly replaced by foreboding.
I struggled to communicate this feeling to David. He didn’t get it, and understandably so. He was eager for the chance to see what it would actually be like to have Democrats in control of the White House and Congress, something which had not happened since we were children. And I felt that exact same excitement right up until the moment I didn’t, watching a convention hall full of loyalists celebrate amid the fluttering confetti and blaring “classic rock” (that term was very new and telling).
The feeling was akin to an old, long forgotten memory coming back. Like some flashback about life during the Jimmy Carter years having been disappointing and frustrating. Of course I had no such memories to speak of; I was ages 8 – 12 during Carter’s presidency.
So on that election night in 1992, I struggled and failed to articulate to David my emotional pivot. Nonetheless, it proved prescient, at least for me.
It did not take me long to dislike Bill Clinton. Not in the irrational and rabid way that many Conservatives did. After all, I was ostensibly happy about his election and willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But there had been plenty not to like from the git go. The philandering, the lying, the Slick Willie hucksterism. As the presidency unfolded, Clintonianism soon mushroomed into a phony liberalism that never moved much beyond abortion rights and gun control, while dragging Democrats and the nation rightward with its endless triangulations designed to steal Republicans’ thunder by scooping their issues. NAFTA, capital gains tax cuts, banking deregulation, telecommunication consolidations, welfare reform, and mass incarceration: all of it stuff Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan would’ve happily signed into law. And most of it, in retrospect, wreaking a full blown shit show.
Some good came out of some it, but there’s no denying how it all contributed to de-industrialization, income and wealth disparities, the Great Recession of 2009, the outrageously priced cable and internet bills you cringe at each month but can’t do anything about because of corrupt monopolies, and 2.3 million Americans in jails and prisons right now, including a staggering 2.2% of all black men incarcerated by 2006.
Last week as I watched the election returns roll in from precincts in various swing states and, like the half of the nation that hasn’t joined the cult of a bloated, orange, totalitarian monster, I fretted at Trump’s early lead, and then marveled as mostly African American, Native American, Mexican American, and white suburban female voters tallied more and more votes for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
And then it hit me. I was reminded of that first election night phone call with David 28 years ago. Once more that odd feeling overtook me. I remembered how I felt watching the Clintons basking in their victory. And as it became apparent that Joe Biden really did have a good shot to win the presidency, a different but not entirely dissimilar feeling came over me.
It was not exactly Be careful what you wish for. After all, removing a racist, sexist, tin pot dictator from the White House was and is my paramount electoral goal for 2020. I will never regret wishing very hard for Donald Trump to lose, and I will never not be deeply gratified that he finally did lose.
However, I have very little expectations for Joe Biden, and not just because he will probably be hamstrung by a GOP-controlled Senate led by monumental partisan hack Mitch McConnell. Rather, it’s because this time I am old enough to remember. Remember that it was Biden who fed Anita Hill to the wolves, or at the very least just stood idly by and watched as a bunch of old white men growled and snapped at the black woman confiding her experiences of workplace sexual harassment. Or that it was Biden, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who signed on to the irredeemable mire of the second Iraq War. That it was Biden who sternly waged the War on Drugs. That it was Biden who helped build the modern mass incarceration system.
And he’s done some great stuff as well. Fine.
But as the prospect of a President Joe Biden began to materialize, as it started to seem real, a new version of that 1992 feeling took root within me.
Subtract some of the Be careful what you wish for. Concretize the déjà vu. Add a more sophisticated understanding of American history and politics than 25 year old me had. The result was a healthy dose of Sadly, this is the best you can hope for. That my apex of realistic expectations is nothing more than settling for the south end of mediocrity.
Thankfully, Donald Trump has lost. However, I cannot muster any celebrations for Biden’s victory. Just the sense of relief that comes from a major catastrophe being averted before the damage is fatal, and then returning to the daily disappointments of not seeing American political leadership direct this nation towards a fundamentally better future.
Joe Biden is a lot older than when he abandoned Anita Hill, helped build the carceral state, and rallied us into a war built on lies, and he is seemingly wiser. He has stated his regrets on all of those matters. I deeply value any human being’s admission of mistakes, and am pleasantly surprised when a politician owns up to them. But it seems to me Biden has perhaps not learned enough.
I still disagree with Joe Biden’s centrist vision in a nation that has lurched substantially rightward since 1980 and where the “center” is now decidedly center-right. But even on matters where I agree with Biden, which are plentiful, I doubt the executive effectiveness of an aged man whose political career was forged long ago when he and his fellow Senators still treasured a culture of mutual respect, occasionally engaged in something approaching serious debate, and valued bipartisan compromise. It seems woefully clear to me that Biden pines too much for a bygone age of reaching across the aisle, an era that no longer exists because one of the two parties, the Republicans, have spent the last 25 – 30 years destroying it.
I fully expect that President Joe Biden will waste what little political capital he has bending over backwards to satiate an opposition party that now loathes and despises him nearly as much as it loathed and despised presidents Clinton and Obama for no other reason than that he is the opposition. And in the end, the compromises he forges with them will resemble surrender more than the erstwhile bipartisanship he so treasures and espouses. such bipartisanship will not return to American politics until there has at last been a generational shift and the Baby Boomers and the wrong half of my own Generation X are no longer in charge.
The returns are in and the parades have begun. But I am not jumping up to celebrate. I am doing the only thing I can do. I’m settling in.
Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com