It is becoming increasingly likely that former vice president Joseph Biden will be the Democratic nominee for president. Biden’s lead in the delegate count represents a triumph of the moderate and establishment wing of the Democratic Party over both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. During his long history as a loyal Democrat culminating in serving for eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president Biden has proven himself a liberal, decent and smart voice in Washington. He has certainly made mistakes, for example his vote on the Gulf War, but much more often than not he has cast his vote on the progressive side of major issues, while almost never playing a leadership role in crafting genuinely progressive solutions.
A central part of Biden’s comfortable old shoe appeal is that he will return the US to a more normal pre-Trump time. This has been an implicit, and at times, explicit, theme of Biden’s campaign. It is one of the reasons he frequently cites his close relationship with Barack Obama as well has his ability to work across the aisle in what he presents as the halcyon bipartisan days of a previous era. It is not hard to see why older and more moderate Democrats are drawn to this idea, but unfortunately it is not only impossible, but even dangerous to act as if we can simply unring the bell of the Trump administration and pretend it never happened.
Although President Biden would undoubtedly conduct himself decently and respectfully, reground the government in reality, and return to the norms and appearances of the Obama era, the damage that Trump has done to American institutions and civil society as well as the widespread criminality and corruption that has characterized his presidency is not the kind of thing that can, or should, simply be forgotten or ignored once there is a new president.
Although President Biden would undoubtedly conduct himself decently and respectfully… the damage that Trump has done to American institutions and civil society as well as the widespread criminality and corruption that has characterized his presidency is not the kind of thing that can, or should, simply be forgotten or ignored once there is a new president
The distrust that Donald Trump has sown among his most loyal followers, for whom it is axiomatic that any criticism of Donald Trump is fake news, is not going to reverse itself simply because there is a new president. Similarly, the hollowing out and weakening of government institutions, where loyalty to the president rather than intellect, competence and respect for the rule of law, has determined promotions and leadership for almost four years, will require a comprehensive strategy to be reversed. The evolution of the Republican Party from a conservative party in a democratic system to a party dedicated to protecting a criminal as they turn a blind eye to foreign interference in our elections will also have a lasting impact on American politics.
Perhaps most significantly, the first post-Trump president cannot simply ignore the criminality and corruption of the administration or the relationship between the Kremlin and the Trump political operation since the 2016 campaign. Addressing these questions will require an approach to transitional justice that has no precedent in American politics. Simply doing nothing will not only send a message that criminal behavior at the highest levels of government is acceptable but will infuriate a large segment of the electorate that believes in rule of law. However, it is likely that any attempt to restore rule of law and hold people around Trump, and even Trump himself, accountable for their actions would lead to an angry reaction from the right. There is no easy way to resolve this dilemma, but ignoring it and pretending we can go back to normal easily won’t solve it either.
If Joe Biden is elected, he will inherit a crisis of democracy, rule of law and public trust of massive proportions that will require a comprehensive strategy
If Joe Biden is elected, he will inherit a crisis of democracy, rule of law and public trust of massive proportions that will require a comprehensive strategy. Part of that strategy will include the president conducting himself in a more measured, mature and lawful manner than Donald Trump has. There is no question that Biden, as president, would do that, but that alone is not close to being enough. The problem Biden faces is that whatever he does to address the lingering impact of the Trump years will not be seen as normal at all. Setting up a special commission to determine who should be prosecuted, finding a way to deprogram millions of Americans who will be more angry and distrustful than ever after their cult leader is defeated and doing all this in the face of obstruction from a Republican Party that is nothing like what it was in 1976, 1996 or even 2006 will be an extraordinary challenge that will be anything but normal.
The desire to get back to something normal that has been so essential to Joe Biden’s success in the Democratic primaries so far has its roots in an unwillingness to recognize how bad the crisis of our democracy is. We cannot fix this with one more Democratic victory-although without one more Democratic victory the crisis will likely grow exponentially worse. Rather, all of us, including the man who has a good chance of being president next January must recognize that we are in deeply uncharted political territory and nostalgia for something normal is not enough to get us back on a democratic course.
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