Last September, I wrote a bit about the frustrating rhetoric of novelty that surrounds this presidency. There are frequent claims–sometimes from the president but especially from his critics–that he is a norm-shattering figure, untethered from the historical rules and codes of conduct of the American presidency. The cry since the 2016 election of the “resistance” has been never to normalize this administration. But it is normal, at least with regard to its positioning in the grand flow of American presidential history. For every horrible (or, if you’re so inclined, laudable) thing he has done, there is a clear precedent or analogue in administrations past. He is not the corruption (or, again if you’d prefer, metamorphosis) of the US presidency, he is “its culmination–historically and morally the distillation of everything it stands for and has always stood for.”
Nevertheless, the rhetoric persists, and it appears to be born from a delusion that American global authority is rooted in virtue rather than force, exceptionalism rather than triumphalism. Neurotic though it may be, this collective self-deception has been an effective political tool for both parties for at least a century (as far back as Woodrow Wilson’s “moral diplomacy”) and probably longer. The fact that this president has thrown open the curtain–or, to recycle my metaphor from last fall, wiped the lipstick off the pig–may leave us uncomfortable with what we see, but it doesn’t change what we’ve always had. The “wizard” was always a con-artist; the pig was always a pig.
That didn’t stop the narrative from reappearing in this past week’s Democratic primary debates, where once again historical blindness came into service of political rhetoric. Former Vice President Joe Biden–who by all accounts had a rough night and who will almost certainly not suffer for it–doubled-down on the rhetoric of norm-shattering novelty in his closing remarks. See if you can catch the bogus history in the following:
I’m ready to lead this country because I think it’s important we restore the soul of this nation. This president has ripped it out. It’s the only president in our history who has equated racists and white supremacists with ordinary and decent people. He’s the only president who has, in fact, engaged and embraced dictators and thumbed their nose at our allies. I’m, secondly, running for president because I think we have to restore the backbone of America, the poor and hardworking middle class people.
If you guessed “all of it,” then you’re right. The appeal to America’s exceptional virtue is clear and utterly nonsensical. The “soul” (now lost) of the US is, for Biden, it’s racial inclusivity and its repudiation of authoritarian governments. On a night when Biden got raked over the coals for his insensitivity toward the lingering pain of America’s racial history, it is telling to me that no one has called him out on the first of these claims. Every American president at least through (and including) Abraham Lincoln would have equated southern slave owners with “ordinary and decent people.” Say what you will about a brief and radical period of Reconstruction, but most presidents since would also have embraced what the contemporary left considers “racists and white supremacists” as perfectly regular folks. When we have had eighteen American presidents who owned slaves–eight of whom owned slaves while in office–it’s pretty ridiculous to say that this president is the first to consider racism ordinary.
But pointing that out does a disservice to the narrative that this president (rather than America itself) has a pretty consistent and universal race problem.
The idea that the US had a clear and steadfast policy of opposing authoritarian governments prior to 2016 is equally absurd, as any even remotely honest reading of the Cold War in Latin America will reveal. Support for Cuban authoritarian Fulgencio Batista (a support which helped provoke Castro’s communist revolution) and the overthrow of democratically elected leaders in Guatemala (Arbenz) and Chile (Allende) in favor of brutal military dictators are just the beginning. From the détente with Papa Doc to Operation Ajax and the installation of the shah in Iran, the US has a long and proud history of engaging and embracing dictators. In fact, the rise of modern dictatorships coincides–not entirely coincidentally–with the end of isolationism as a viable US foreign policy. If this president has decided to do his cozying up to dictators in public rather than through covert agencies, that is again a change in window dressing not substance.
Biden knows what he is saying is ridiculous. Or someone on his staff does. I don’t believe that no one in the whole machine of the current Democratic field is smart enough to see the patent historical absurdity of the claims being made. The problem is that bad history has always been good politics. Because “that’s not how we do things” has more resonance than “that’s not how we do things lately,” and “that’s not who we are” is more comforting than “that’s not who we pretend to be.”