Terrifyingly Normal

The Unimpeachable Joe Biden

Terrifyingly Normal

Illustration by Lucia Gaia

On the afternoon of November 8th, four years ago, I set myself up in the corner of my neighborhood coffee shop in Harlem. I ordered a small drip coffee and a large iced jasmine green tea, the second to wash down the first, and I started writing in my diary:

In 2008, a few weeks before my 20th birthday, I harbored genuine joy when I witnessed the election of a new president. By the next round, I did not quite care who won. I followed the spectacle like I would a particularly consequential Academy Awards season. This is also how I have watched the last 18 months — the last 500 daily caricatures of American waste and simplification. To maintain political perspective, I’ve realized, one must concern oneself less with the names of those in office and the parties that prance upon stages, less with the broadcasts and billboards and theatrics that season the stew of deceptive participation — and more with the stubborn systems prevailing beneath the wallpaper.

I was grim. The Democratic candidate for whom I’d zealously campaigned had lost the nomination. Still, the city was electric, preparing for a changing of the guard. Election Day was always like this, even three continents over, where I grew up, less because policies were about to change and more because a new name and face were about to accede to the fore of the political imagination.

I was a spectator that day, not yet a naturalized citizen and thus not yet able to vote. Perhaps under this cover, I ended with a confession. When repeated to friends at a bar later that night, it nearly led to blows:

Despite this, I must say that part of me wishes now that the more controversial of the two candidates wins today. Cracks in the machinery, glimpses of the unexpected, would give some hope to this weary young leftist.

Unfortunately, I have always known that the establishment is effectively established — that there is no chance at all she will not win. So I suppose I am prepared for her forcible entrance into my zeitgeist as puppet-in-chief — for four years of a frosty smile, a graceless sheath of the ruling class.

The annexation of the zeitgeist was worse than I expected. Because that night’s surprise winner became the most famous living person in modern history — in the words of Farhad Manjoo: “the medium, the ether through which all other stories flow” — his election drove the political conversation further away from clarity and further into the hands of the neoliberal bureaucrats who, for 50 years, have dismantled the working class, eroded living standards, instituted an iron-clad plutocracy, and, since non-Americans continue to rank eerily low on the list of lives that matter, killed and displaced millions of people worldwide.

Still, not one of these bureaucrats has been excoriated or bemoaned to a fraction of the degree to which our sitting president has (save maybe for Nixon). Quite the opposite — they are celebrated and revered, and, yet again, one of the most entrenched and culpable of the lot has nabbed the nomination to lead the country’s “liberal” party.

In an era of stifling public horror at an administration and leader who are no doubt mortally incompetent, the most tragic fact of all as we approach another general election might be this: If we are to examine the historical record without the veils of nationalism or sentimentality, the Democratic nominee for president, Joseph Biden Jr., seems to be responsible for more death, more ruin, more hardship, and more dysfunction than the man deemed by our papers and pundits to be the very end of democracy itself. Biden has, of course, had decades to wreak such damage — and if he’d been given a similarly lengthy career, there’s no question our sitting president could’ve reaped just as much — but, objectively speaking, the damage is colossal. The ineptitude, the fecklessness, the venality, are unforgivable. The impunity is shocking. The gloom that awaits is disheartening. And yet, this all seems invisible. Though the facts are on public record, my words seem exaggerated, my ideologies fanatical, my analysis doomed to occupy only the fringiest magazines, waved off as naiveté by our nation’s most prominent and eminent journalists, commentators, and scholars.

There is, I believe, an explanation for this.

I realize that I’m obligated, before I proceed, to utter certain obvious shibboleths — that our current president is a buffoon, a tempest, a danger, unworthy of our votes — but the textual and televised chorus already doing this might be the loudest and most populous one in the history of the Western hemisphere. So instead, I’ll say that the Democrats, Republicans, and Independents voting for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris this year, among whom I’ll number, have little reason to celebrate, little reason to pull levers or lick envelopes with anything more than a funereal grimace. I’ll vote for them anyway, and not just because I’ve had family members recently barred from entering this country, or because civility and science at the highest levels of government set a considerable example for the rest of the nation. I’ll do so because while there’s no chance that our incumbent will absorb progressive ideas, it seems possible — imaginable — that an executive Biden might finally acknowledge the crush of citizens who yearn for sensible reform.

But the danger and darkness of a reversion to politics as usual is this: Decency and dignity in the Oval Office have done nothing for the working class. The status quo for which the Left longs is not merely unappetizing — it’s normalized the worst quality of life in the industrialized world. Indeed, the democracy we’re hoping to “save” is one long broken, long unjust, long deadly — one that nevertheless continues to evangelize fables of American greatness and American heroes.

“The liberals thought I was holding back,” Biden told the Wilmington Morning News in 1972, after his first Senate election. “Little did they know, I’m not that liberal.” His sentiment, distilled later that year into a more accurate confession — “I was probably one of those phony liberals” — reflected a mix of dispiriting (albeit ordinary) qualities in a politician: ambitious, but also opportunistic; extroverted, but also fraternal, chummy with grim reapers like Senator Mitch McConnell; interested in seizing the reins of structural consequence, but also duplicitous in a remote sort of way, and thus untethered from any firm ideological commitments or uncompromising points.

Politicians inevitably administrate oppressive and incorrigible systems. Some maintain perspective, even as they swallow the bitter medicine. Some try to resist. The majority, of course, get swept away by intramural priorities and interests, further and further removed from the citizens whose representation in Washington ends at ballots cast and letters written, operating with a flippancy that gets easier as this distance grows, like drone pilots in the Nevada desert who wipe out villages on a different continent. But even among politicians swallowed by bureaucracy, there is a contingent of enthusiastic careerists for whom the pageantry of increments, the dopamine drip of pandering, and the perpetuity of limelight become the very purpose of politics.

It is tedious but entirely possible to thumb through Joe Biden’s record. Or through a book that puts his decisions in one place, like Branko Marcetic’s exhaustively researched Yesterday’s Man, to which this essay is deeply indebted. Do so, and one will find the essence of this sort of careerist: a flip-flopper, a hypocrite, a folksy compromiser, an impulsive bandwagon jumper, in short, a perfect vehicle for lobbyists and special interests and right-wing tantrums and, not least of all, the seduction of a gleaming re-election war chest.

Quotations over the years reveal Joe Biden’s wayward tenure as a D.C. heavyweight, one in which the dishonorable, the pernicious, and the cruel were often quiet or even unconscious, shrouded by the parlance of governance and patriotism, by sombre displays of repentance, by a family man besting personal sorrows.

“The Reagan tax cuts have ended growth of the social agenda; it’s all come to a screeching halt... There’s nothing [Democrats] can do but keep what’s there,” Biden said in 1986, railing against President Reagan’s cataclysmic nullifications of social programs undergirding the New Deal. But Biden had actually voted for them five years prior and was now, in true fashion, capering between convenience, disaster, and revision. During his next election, lured by centrist voters and donors, Biden proposed cutting billions more from the budget than even Reagan had planned, dipping into Social Security and Medicare funds. When his proposal failed, he instead became one of the Democrats to pass Reagan’s 1986 tax overhaul, sealing a federal ethos of company over citizen.

When President George H. W. Bush proposed spending billions on jails and prisons to take on drug dealers, Biden felt that, “quite frankly, the President’s plan is not tough enough, bold enough, or imaginative enough to meet the crisis at hand.” As an ally (and architect) of the prison industrial complex, Biden wanted more police officers, more prosecutors, more judges, and more prison cells “to put them away for a long time.” So he floated his own crime bill, one that applied the death penalty to 60 new offenses — surpassing Bush’s bill in extremity. This partly inspired President Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which funneled money from public housing and welfare into the penal system, “trading...bureaucrats for cops,” Biden happily noted, as the U.S.’s incarceration rate per capita became the highest in the world.

He summed up his record on the Senate floor: “The truth is, every major crime bill since 1976 that’s come out of this Congress, every minor crime bill, has had the name of the Democratic senator from the State of Delaware: Joe Biden.” (He’d apologize for this later.)

Having spent a career opposing universal healthcare while being handsomely funded by health insurance companies, Biden warned President Clinton in 1993 that his healthcare plan’s “benefit package may be too generous.”

That same year, he chided organized labor for opposing NAFTA, saying it was “the thing they fear because they have nothing else” to target. The agreement ended up costing the U.S. 700,000 jobs.

He called Henry Kissinger, one of the country’s most prolific exporters of mass slaughter, “the most brilliant Secretary of State the United States has ever seen,” commenting on his 1974 confirmation hearing.

There are many more such gems of imperialist contempt.

About Reagan’s invasion of Grenada: He “did the right thing.” (At least 24 civilians were killed, 18 when a mental hospital was accidentally bombed.)

About George H. W. Bush’s war on Panama: It was “appropriate and necessary.” (Around 300 civilians were killed, though mass graves made it hard to calculate a complete death toll.)

About arming and funding death squads in El Salvador: “I think covert aid makes sense. I believe there is a need to send U.S. military equipment to the region.” (Tens of thousands were raped, tortured, and killed.)

About Israeli-backed forces massacring and mutilating thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in 1982: “Israel’s presence in Lebanon is vitally important.”

About Bush’s invasion of Iraq during the 1990 Gulf War: “For that he deserves credit. That’s leadership.” (111,000 civilians were killed, 70,000 under the age of 15.)

As it happens, for 30 years Biden has (often eagerly) promoted chaos in Iraq. During Clinton’s presidency, he encouraged the use of aerial bombing to send a message to Saddam Hussein, a man formerly armed and funded by the United States. The consequent attacks, starting in 1998, killed hundreds of civilians. “Better a devil you don’t know,” Biden later explained.

In 2002, as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, he oversaw a hearing about the possibility of WMDs in Iraq, though it was hardly a question for Biden. He was instrumental in convincing the party and public that Iraq was worth invading. Experts were left off the hearing’s witness list. A former weapons chief inspector accused Biden of having “preordained a conclusion that seeks to remove Saddam Hussein from power regardless of the facts.” A former UN assistant secretary general said that “the deliberate distortions and misrepresentations...makes it look to the average person in the US as if Iraq is a threat to their security.”

On the day the hearings began, Biden even co-authored an op-ed in the New York Times, embracing a coup d'etat and doubting the efficacy of inspectors over military force. There was, of course, no consequent staff uprising at the Times, no public outrage at the op-ed, despite Biden’s successful push for a war that would end up killing over one million Iraqi civilians and deluging neighboring countries with millions of Iraqi refugees.

He later said, “I voted to go into Iraq, and I’d vote to do it again.”

Some more “abouts” in this tenor:

About the Patriot Act: “Measured and prudent.” (After Edward Snowden revealed that the U.S. government was illegally spying on its citizens, Snowden says Biden convinced dozens of countries not to grant him asylum.)

About George W. Bush’s presentation to the UN about invading Iraq in 2002: “Brilliant.”

About Colin Powell’s infamous presentation, a few months later, of WMD evidence in Iraq: “Very powerful and I think irrefutable” — also, “I am proud to be associated with you.”

The gusto with which he pushed for Iraq’s invasion didn’t retrospectively diminish into pacifism. Rather, his approach to matters of, and I use these quotation marks ironically, “national security,” merely drew upon subtler, less censurable means. Under President Obama, Vice President Biden advocated for a “counterterrorism plus” strategy, replacing ground war with drone strikes that killed an untold number of people in at least seven Muslim-majority countries, and deploying special-operation forces to some 138 countries (or 70% of the world, as The Nation kindly calculated). While the rhetoric pertaining to the current president’s “Muslim ban” has been suffused with impressive fury and bluster, little seems to be said about Biden’s decades-long promotion of wiping out Muslim civilians en masse.

The same sort of disparities in rhetoric seem to characterize Biden’s contributions to immigration policy. After helping President Clinton ignite widespread violence in Colombia in the 90s, Vice President Biden helmed Obama’s “Alliance for Prosperity”, a plan to reduce mass migration to the U.S. from Central America. It ended up sending hundreds of millions of dollars to brutal security forces in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, causing more families to flee, all while ramping up deportation in Mexico and the U.S.

“It was this deportation machine that fell into Obama’s hands upon becoming president, and he used it — to the disappointment and outrage of his Latino supporters — to deport unprecedented numbers of immigrants, breaking apart families and detaining even children in cages and other deplorable conditions,” Marcetic writes in Yesterday’s Man. “According to a 2014 lawsuit filed by the ACLU, migrant children were deprived of medical treatment, shackled, sexually abused, and forced to drink toilet water by border agents.” Sadly, no Super Bowl halftime shows during Obama’s tenure featured children in incandescent coops.

Biden’s reputation for compromise and outright submission (or as he’d call it, “reaching across the aisle”) has for decades made him a desirable point of contact for Republicans. This was most apparent in his capitulations as Vice President to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Leading the negotiations over a 2010 tax deal, Biden consented to provisions, like hacking away at high-income tax rates, that embittered Democrats. He even proposed trillions of dollars in cuts to retirement funds, Medicare and Medicaid, and food stamps. “When Biden’s team reminded him that doing away with it would force states to cut services to the poor, he replied that ‘we’re going to do lots of hard things’ and so ‘we might as well do this,’” Marcetic reports, citing Bob Woodward’s The Price of Politics. After the budget passed, he gave a speech in McConnell’s honor in Kentucky, telling the audience that “we basically agree on the nature of the problems we face” and “the process worked.”

Before they left office, Obama and Biden agreed to two parting taxpayer-funded gifts — a $1.2 trillion nuclear weapons upgrade and a $1.5 trillion order of F-35 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin — that exemplified the spectacular profit multinational corporations reap from endless (rather than swift) wars, not to mention the damage we do by mindlessly “blessing our troops” and by cherishing the false idea that we face outside threats that we have not directly incited.

Perhaps it makes perfect sense that Biden assured donors at the Carlyle Hotel in New York last summer that his vision for the elite was one of happy stasis. His institute’s Policy Advisory Board is staffed with former and current executives of Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan, and so on. His campaign has lapped up money from oil, tech, and corporate donors.

“I mean, we may not want to demonize anybody who has made money,” he told the donors. “No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change.”

When I was in third grade, I came home from school one afternoon to find a German Shepherd puppy curled up in our kitchen — a surprise from my father. I begged him to let me skip school the next day so I could spend it with her. He refused. But the next morning, my father woke me up with a terse smile. I’d gotten my wish. President Clinton had bombed Iraq, and school was cancelled.

We lived in Dubai, and the American school I attended was considered a high-risk target for regional actors seeking retaliation for U.S. bombs, sanctions, occupations, and regime changes. After 9/11, the neighborhood took a drastic turn. Guards with AK-47s flanked the school’s entrances. Trick-or-treating on Halloween was suspended. My Iraqi classmates started evacuating their relatives from Baghdad before it was too late.

I had a foot in both worlds. We had American accents. We read The Scarlet Letter and Of Mice and Men. We played Duke Ellington and songs from The Blues Brothers in jazz class. I knew I was destined for New York City. But I also grew up with friends from Palestine, Sudan, and Pakistan. We took class trips to Egypt and Kuwait. The ramifications of American foreign policy were never in question. Neither was the value of non-American lives.

When I moved to New York, I realized my outrage over the likes of Libya and Yemen were shared in a rhetorical sense by my liberal friends. But there was a golden line drawn around America — a disconnect powerful enough to relegate “foreign policy” to the same stratum of the public imagination occupied by “space travel” and “ancient history.”

Even when wars are decried, I’ve noticed a deep, almost congenital hesitation to unconditionally inculpate a fellow countryman — to concede that one of our civilizational counterparts might be responsible for the sort of barbarity that we reserve for the wickedest of dictators and most godforsaken corners of the earth. I’ll admit that after living here for thirteen years, I occasionally fall under this sway, even as I desperately try to cling to perspective.

The implicit demotion of non-American lives comes, no doubt, with the business of nationalism — it is not unique to this country. Still, no nation is as involved in the world outside of it and as consequential to the lives of non-citizens.

But more curious might be the extent to which the likes of Clinton, Obama, and Biden have maintained cultural prestige despite eroding the wealth and power of so many millions of American lives, and jailing millions more. The difference, of course, between the bombast of warfare and the disempowerment of the working class is the latter’s drip, drip, drip, through the thick fog of bureaucracy.

“I know Joe,” Michelle Obama said at the Democratic National Convention in August. “He is a profoundly decent man, guided by faith.”

Testimonies of Biden’s bottomless decency were mainstays of the convention:

Former governor John Kasich called him “a good man.”

Former representative Susan Molinari called him “a really good man.”

“Barack Obama,” Senator Amy Klobuchar said, “leaned on Joe for his strength and decency.”

“He will govern,” Michelle Obama added tearfully from her $11.75 million mansion in Martha’s Vineyard, “as someone who’s lived a life that the rest of us can recognize.”

What should we think about a political system that permits and even incentivizes a seemingly affable man to facilitate large scales of injustice and violence? How does it bear upon truisms of representation and liberty when one man’s pen and handshake forces another, thousands of miles away, to work 16-hour days, or go hungry, or have a diabetic leg needlessly amputated, or go bankrupt because of the amputation, or have a house blown to smithereens?

Does it make the man evil? Is Joe Biden evil? Or is it simply that, as Hannah Arendt wrote in her famously inflammatory 1963 Report on the Banality of Evil, “most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil”?

Covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann, whom she deemed a quintessential bureaucrat, Arendt concluded: “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” The point is not that Eichmann and Biden are the same, but that the uncritical espousal of a fatally flawed system of governance has produced some of the past century’s greatest atrocities.

This anonymizing and assimilating fog of bureaucracy, alongside nationalism’s inherited biases, might account for the hesitation to incriminate our fellow countrymen. And it should be clear by now that it’s not just the Right that lets them off the hook. Our liberals, our papers of record, our esteemed scholars and newscasters all have trouble meaningfully connecting the consequences of policy, both foreign and domestic, to the individuals responsible for them. Instead, the weight tends to be diffused into the nation’s moral debt, often with the air of inevitability, to be mocked on South Park and late night shows without any decisive cultural internalization.

Individuals thus slip away into history’s embrace, and bouts of horror play second fiddle to the reverence with which both sides of the aisle ultimately regard institutions like the White House, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon, Exxon Mobil, the Department of Homeland Security, AT&T, Citigroup, McKinsey, the State Department, and Cigna. The implausible definition of “terrorism” goes unquestioned. John McCain and George H. W. Bush receive pious obituaries by the same journalists who wring their hands over the flagitious business deals of our sitting president, journalists who would in a heartbeat indict leaders from Eastern Europe or Africa if they committed half as much bloodshed. George W. Bush even dances on Ellen, 14 years after invading Iraq, to promote a new book of drawings, and Ellen DeGeneres defends their friendship, saying, “I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different and I think we’ve forgotten that that’s okay.”

Perhaps our insistence upon the exceptionalism of this era is what makes the enduring precepts of life in an empire interesting to me today. DeGeneres’s — indeed the public’s — recent embrace of Bush was done partly in the spirit of relief: “He may be a Republican, but at least he’s not….”

I’ve refrained from writing his name up until this point, not because I find him singularly repellent, but because I loathe to draw any more attention to the man who’s so deeply distracted the body politic, who’s made Bush seem endearing, Obama the exemplar, Hillary the heartache, Biden the savior. What makes President Donald Trump interesting and this era exceptional is the extent to which we — the Left — are at long last truly offended and disgusted by a political leader. And this is not because Trump has harmed more people than Reagan or Bush or Clinton or Biden — though most Democrats obviously believe he has — but due to the way he’s conducted himself.

In an era of images, inflamed if not defined by the digital age, our approach to politics is uniquely vulnerable to its spectacle. President Trump is undoubtedly more incoherent than his predecessors. More unpredictable. More nakedly reproachful. More exploitative, in the most performative ways, of the sort of right wing provincialism fulfilled by catchwords and antagonists. His damage, of course, extends beyond spectacles. The full human costs of his garbled response to the pandemic are still unknown. But if we are to step back far enough to render the clamor inaudible, an underlying irony might be culled from the decades: The Democratic party is not simply not that much better — it is in specific but numerous respects just as bad, and the increments by which it claims superiority fall far too often within the same tired microcosm of blight.

Our extraordinary present revulsion doesn’t seem to have been stirred by the past half century’s nadirs of American governance, or else many past presidents and congresspeople would too have faced our wrath. Instead, we have been most galvanized by President Trump’s spectacular lies. His inconsistencies. His incompetence. His illegal corruption. His words. These are all deplorable traits in a leader, but strangely enough, they are generally not the fronts on which the worst policy is enacted. Our more destructive presidents were much better liars. They were more consistent, more competent in the performance of governance. They were legally corrupt. Trump has singularly botched his response to the pandemic, but Biden helped write the laws that rendered our hospitals among the least capable in the developed world, our healthcare apparatus among the most likely to kill or bankrupt patients. Trump may be accused of asking a foreign leader for assistance with a domestic election, but Biden funded and colluded with overwhelmingly murderous regimes. He signed declarations of our generation’s greatest violence.

So, to those who’ll trudge to the polling booths this November with contempt and gloom, impelled by the paltry but precious possibility that a Biden-Harris administration might actually listen to progressives: you have my absolute sympathy and solidarity. But those for whom I’m really writing? Those running into the arms of Joe Biden, or sighing with relief? To those who say “Yes, but” when confronted with Biden’s or Hillary’s vote for Iraq? Those who say “Anybody but Trump” with almost erotic melancholy? Those who write, “I’m hopeful that if given power, Biden, Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer will forge a new conservative radicalism” (as did David Brooks in the New York Times)? They give me as much cause to alarm about the fate of our republic as any.

I’ll admit it: I’ve always wanted to have a beer with President Obama. His charisma and dignity are irresistible, and they firmly endeared him to the liberal and centrist establishments. I’ll also admit that I’d probably quite like Joe Biden if I ran into him at a dinner party or nursing home. But the dangers of niceness reflect the broader dangers of accepting politics in terms of its spectacle, its imagery. It is extraordinarily important not to humanize our politicians — whether as decent fellows or as petulant narcissists — and to focus instead on the difficult work of assessing their decisions, allegiances, and capacities to give us what we’re due.

Unfortunately, in addition to all the things driving perspective away from the Left, there is an additional politics exacerbating the pitfalls of imagery for its own sake: the politics of identity and representation.

That good things have come out of identity politics is indisputable. That the Democratic Party (and a slew of corporations) are shamelessly exploiting them is indisputable too. In few places this year were the paradoxes of politics as iconography more lavishly embraced than at the Democratic National Convention.

Mourning a time when “we were respected around the world,” Michelle Obama said: “Internationally, we've turned our back, not just on agreements forged by my husband, but on alliances championed by presidents like Reagan.” ...Reagan! Few seemed inclined to point to the blazing contradictions, the epic carnage both her presidential paragons dispensed worldwide, or the overall platitude fest of her speech. Instead she was lauded as an “instant highlight” and for her “unmatched call to action.” A National Politics Reporter for the New York Times expertly enacted the superficial politics of our time with his live analysis: “The delivery is really something – almost a controlled whisper at times – projecting urgency in every line.”

Perhaps no one at the convention more fully captured the hypocrisies of imagerial politics than Colin Powell, who earlier in the summer decried President’s Trump’s insults to immigrants and racial minorities. It’s almost funny that the General — whose fraudulent testimony about government intelligence launched a catastrophic war against a dictator — ended up telling the convention that Biden “will trust our diplomats and our intelligence community, not the flattery of dictators and despots.” It’s a little less funny that a man whose war killed millions of brown people can speak today on behalf of minority lives in America. It might be said to exhibit the very height of appearances — of the way one looks — superseding reason.

I dare say our prioritization of appearances has also led to Kamala Harris’s nomination over a much more promising vice presidential candidate, just as intramural scheming led to Biden’s own victory over Bernie Sanders. Since Harris’s prosecutorial and senatorial records merit their own essay, I’ll simply say that her inconstancy on issues, combined with her preference for inadequate increments, make for the sort of politician pervious to Biden and the Democratic establishment’s darkest tendencies.

Harris also has an affinity for the comical irrelevance of theatrical politics. One of her campaign slogans (and t-shirts) during the presidential primaries was: “Dude gotta go.” At the convention, a similar strain of wisdom was palpable: “Donald Trump does not understand who we are as Americans. He really doesn’t.” That was it. That was one of the only things she said on Night One.

The glowing reactions to her nomination as an identity rather than for her ideas betray the priorities of a politics steeped in imagery, one oft unconcerned with the fundamental functioning of a nation. My mother, who is Indian, called me excitedly from across the Atlantic Ocean to ask if I was inspired. Neil Makhija, executive director of an Indian-American political organization, told the New York Times that Harris would sympathize with an Indian accent being misunderstood in American neighborhoods. Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, told The Atlantic that Harris’s selection “created a deep contrast between the pettiest of men and a man who obviously has no pettiness within him.”

That Harris assured an interviewer last year that “I’m not trying to restructure society” might have been missed by those reveling in her bloodline. But Wall Street and Silicon Valley executives were quick to rejoice. “I think it’s great,” Marc Lasry, the CEO of investment firm Avenue Capital Group, told CNBC. “She’s going to help Joe immensely. He picked the perfect partner.”

In an essay for Jacobin published shortly after the announcement, Branko Marcetic boiled away all needless optimism: “Put aside the superficial differences, and Biden and Harris are essentially the same politician. Both have been chronically on the wrong side of history; both pursued cruel, right-wing goals for most of their careers in order to advance their personal ambitions; and both have a habit of misrepresenting their beliefs and records. It’s fitting: Biden, after all, is one of the old-school originators of the corporate-friendly Democratic politics that Harris has pursued her whole career.”

Funnily enough, Joe Biden wrote a letter to Hannah Arendt in 1975:

Dear Miss Arendt,

I read in a recent article by Tom Wicker of a paper that you read at the Boston Bicentennial Forum.

As a member of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate, I am most interested in receiving a copy of your paper.

Thank you.

Joseph R. Biden Jr.

He was referring to her lecture “Home To Roost”, in which Arendt explored the role of “image making” — in the emergent style of Madison Avenue agencies — in duping the public about the horrors of Vietnam and dysfunction of Nixon’s presidency. Images and vague theories, she noticed, were obscuring the “stark, naked brutality of facts, of things as they are.”

Something tells me Biden never read the essay. Arendt concluded it with a warning:

While we now slowly emerge from under the rubble of the events of the last few years, let us not forget these years of aberration lest we become wholly unworthy of the glorious beginnings two hundred years ago. When the facts come home to us, let us try at least to make them welcome. Let us try not to escape into utopias — images, theories, or sheer follies. For it was the greatness of this Republic to give due account, for the sake of freedom, to the best in men and to the worst.

Forty-five years later, images and “sheer follies” possess our conversations. Pointing to the “naked brutality of facts” doesn’t accord one the respect of political dialogue. More often than not, it’s not that Democrats disbelieve the historical record. They’re simply too hypnotised by the wallpaper to regard it as much more than the incidental course of history, the price of a nation. And thus, at a time when the majority of citizens in the world’s wealthiest nation have been robbed of their civic prerogatives, Joe Biden concluded his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention with terrifying praxis:

May God protect our troops.

Shaan Sachdev

is an anti-hysterical writer based in New York City. He covers politics, culture, and ontology; he moonlights as a sexual raconteur. Shaan's also written for The New Republic, Reason, and The Progressive.

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