There Will Be No Return to Normality

There Will Be No Return to Normality

Nostalgia might help Joe Biden win the presidency, but the crisis he’ll face will require boldness.


One of Donald Trump’s singular achievements is to drive political commentator George F. Will out of the Republican Party. The very personification of bow-tied Toryism, Will voted for every Republican presidential candidate from Barry Goldwater in 1964 to Mitt Romney in 2012. But Trump’s vulgarity and overt racism were too much for Will.

In his most recent Washington Post column, Will made an affirmative case for Biden, which rested on the claim that after the chaos of the Trump years, the Democratic candidate would be good for “an exhausted nation” that is “eager for manifestations of presidential normality.” Will quoted an anonymous Biden confidant who argued that the former vice president’s appeal rested on his ability to provide voters with reassurance “that the world as they know it is recoverable.”

The great thing about Biden, to judge by Will’s endorsement, is that he wouldn’t do much. He’d refrain from the sweeping policies like Medicare for All advocated by Bernie Sanders. He’d be eager to work with Republicans, as he often did as senator. He won’t tweet or debase the presidency with childish feuds. He’d be a captain who runs the ship on an even keel.

Former Republicans like Will are, of course, only a small sliver of the coalition that Biden is assembling. But Will has fairly and accurately described qualities that a broader range of voters, including centrist liberals, find attractive in Biden. After all, Biden’s campaign has rested on a nostalgic appeal for the pre-Trump world where America was less polarized. Speaking to donors at a fundraiser in June, Biden promised that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he’s president.

Biden’s vision is fundamentally one of restoration and recuperation. It’s a liberal counterpart to Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again”—except that the great America is not Trump’s dream of the white America of the 1950s or 1920 but the more tolerant America of the Obama years. If Trump won in 2016 as a novelty candidate who would shake things up, Biden’s most convincing pitch is that he’s the opposite: Far from being an outsider, he’s a Washington fixture going back decades. His major credential is that he belongs to the past that people yearn to return to.

The politics of nostalgia are politically potent and could help Biden win the White House. But they are also politically unfeasible as a governing strategy.

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Ed Yong, a staff writer for the magazine, has an important and comprehensive chronicle of the Covid-19 emergency. “Despite its epochal effects, COVID-19 is merely a harbinger of worse plagues to come,” Yong notes. “The U.S. cannot prepare for these inevitable crises if it returns to normal, as many of its people ache to do. Normal led to this. Normal was a world ever more prone to a pandemic but ever less ready for one. To avert another catastrophe, the U.S. needs to grapple with all the ways normal failed us.”

In his survey of the pandemic, Yong draws up a long and blistering indictment of Trump’s actions as a president:

No one should be shocked that a liar who has made almost 20,000 false or misleading claims during his presidency would lie about whether the U.S. had the pandemic under control; that a racist who gave birth to birtherism would do little to stop a virus that was disproportionately killing Black people; that a xenophobe who presided over the creation of new immigrant-detention centers would order meatpacking plants with a substantial immigrant workforce to remain open; that a cruel man devoid of empathy would fail to calm fearful citizens; that a narcissist who cannot stand to be upstaged would refuse to tap the deep well of experts at his disposal; that a scion of nepotism would hand control of a shadow coronavirus task force to his unqualified son-in-law; that an armchair polymath would claim to have a “natural ability” at medicine and display it by wondering out loud about the curative potential of injecting disinfectant; that an egotist incapable of admitting failure would try to distract from his greatest one by blaming China, defunding the WHO, and promoting miracle drugs; or that a president who has been shielded by his party from any shred of accountability would say, when asked about the lack of testing, “I don’t take any responsibility at all.”

Yong has written as damning and accurate an indictment of Trump as one could want. Yet Trump occupies only a small part of Yong’s longer diagnosis of why the Covid-19 pandemic has hit America so much harder than many other countries.

To his credit, Yong is not content to blame everything on Trump, with the implication that getting rid of Trump will solve America’s problems. As Yong explains, the larger roots of America’s botched Covid response are systematic:

A sluggish response by a government denuded of expertise allowed the coronavirus to gain a foothold. Chronic underfunding of public health neutered the nation’s ability to prevent the pathogen’s spread. A bloated, inefficient health-care system left hospitals ill-prepared for the ensuing wave of sickness. Racist policies that have endured since the days of colonization and slavery left Indigenous and Black Americans especially vulnerable to COVID-19. The decades-long process of shredding the nation’s social safety net forced millions of essential workers in low-paying jobs to risk their life for their livelihood. The same social media platforms that sowed partisanship and misinformation during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa and the 2016 U.S. election became vectors for conspiracy theories during the 2020 pandemic.

If Biden wins, he’ll be inaugurated next January and find himself presiding over a deeply broken country. It’ll have one of the worst Covid-19 death rates in the world, if not the worst. It’ll be riven by huge disparities of class, race, and gender, all of which will be exacerbated by the pandemic. As the Black Lives Matter protests prove, there is now a large part of the population alienated from mainstream society and on the verge of revolt.

Biden will no doubt govern more competently than Trump has. But even simple technocratic solutions will run into the problem of a polarized society. If an effective Covid-19 vaccine is created, there will be millions who distrust the government and will refuse to take it. Nor is it obvious that the American health care system as it currently exists is capable of distributing such a hypothetical vaccine.

Ultimately, Biden will find that the promise of normality is useful in securing the votes of centrists and conservatives, but isn’t adequate for the needs of the time. Biden will have to govern boldly, with comprehensive overhauls of health care and economy. If he doesn’t, his presidency will be doomed from the start.

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