The Intellectual Situation
Send in the Clowns
Centrists, leftists, Andrew Yang fans
In “Insider Baseball,” her account of the 1988 presidential election, Joan Didion catches the traveling press corps in the act of writing about Michael Dukakis as he throws a baseball on the tarmac during a staged photo op. After debarking from his campaign plane in San Diego, the candidate had spent sixteen minutes playing catch with his press secretary before a crowd of onlookers and television cameras. “What we had in the tarmac arrival with ball tossing,” Didion writes, “was an understanding: a repeated moment witnessed by many people, all of whom believed it to be a setup and yet most of whom believed that only an outsider, only someone too ‘naive’ to know the rules of the game, would so describe it.” Dukakis, the Democratic candidate, had been taking fire for appearing in photographs wearing jackets and standing behind a lectern while his Republican rival, George H. W. Bush, was seen in shirtsleeves. The ball-tossing was his campaign’s response. When an obliging reporter asked him to explain the ritual, he replied on cue: “What it means is that I’m tough.”
It’s easy to feel Didion’s frustration with the candidate and his press corps colluding to construct an airbrushed image of the kind of man they thought should be President; hard not to share her contempt for the limits of their political imagination. (Shirtsleeves and a baseball glove — really, that’s it?) Didion writes with the jaded eye of someone who has not been invited to see themselves reflected in the candidate’s persona. Her distaste for a certain type of professional-class masculinity — boyish, profoundly self-satisfied, convinced of its ability to charm the electorate — leaps off the page, as it does in her essays on the functionaries of the Reagan Administration. She does not record her reaction to the most famous moment of Dukakis’s campaign, when he clambered into an M1 Abrams tank and was photographed wearing a slightly oversize helmet, leading to mass ridicule, but I wonder if it satisfied her astringent sense of justice: live by the media, die by the media.
Still, Didion cheats in her own way. She begins with an appeal to authority, offering in contrast to Dukakis’s manufactured persona the men she knew growing up in Sacramento — real men, cowboys, who she must have known were her trump card against the soft-fingered journalists around her. These were men who hung out at gas stations, drove to Carson City to get married, lived in tract houses. Like John Wayne, another of her heroes, these men didn’t care about gestures or poses. They embodied the kind of mute authenticity that captivated Didion’s generation. They were outside the hall of mirrors of the Beltway insiders, outside “what we have come to call, when we want to indicate the traditional ways in which power is exchanged and the status quo maintained in the United States, ‘the process.’” It is from the imagined perspective of these men that Didion examines the Dukakis campaign and finds it wanting; and it is to them, or at least their avatars in her essays, that she grants the final power to distinguish image and reality, truth and fiction, original and counterfeit.
Since Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016, these men, and men like them — the white men without college degrees who swept Trump into office in a populist surge — have been the acknowledged center of electoral politics. Throughout the yearslong campaign for the 2020 Democratic nomination, Didion’s real men (or J. D. Vance’s) were an object of obsessive concern for the participants and spectators of what she called the process, a group in which I reluctantly include myself. What were these men thinking? Who were they willing to vote for? A woman, a gay man, a socialist? If in the past Democrats seemed pathologically focused on pleasing swing voters who existed only in their dreams, like the mythical Long Island couple Chuck Schumer literally invented to temper any left-wing fantasies harbored by his younger colleagues,1 this time the goal was to find someone, anyone, everyone could agree was more grounded than the single least grounded political figure in American history. It was probably always going to be a disaster.
The last time I made a deliberate choice to watch Donald Trump on television was during his inauguration. At the concert the night before the swearing-in, a military band played the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the least approachable of patriotic American standards. Like the Gettysburg Address and its honored dead who gave their last true measure of devotion, it has always struck me as belonging to another time, locked away in history, whatever power it held for its listeners lost. The religious ecstasy, the flowery language, the elevated sentiments: none of this can disguise that at bottom this is a song written to cheerlead a group of men getting ready to kill themselves. But still, those men had thought their lives meant something, and they had died thinking that meant something too. As the camera panned over Trump standing at the Lincoln Memorial, all that white marble lit up from below, it was clear that it hadn’t. It seemed impossible to deny that everyone present was participating in something obscene.
The key word was electability, obviously a euphemism for something, though what people meant when they used it was difficult to say.Tweet
“Battle Hymn of the Republic” was obviously not music Trump, a guy who complained that dating was his “personal Vietnam,” had chosen himself. His own taste was manifest in the first song played at the inaugural ball for his big dance with Melania later that night — a syrupy cover of “My Way,” a different kind of American standard, one whose bombast I’ve never been entirely able to resist, whose casual authority I’ve always felt a claim to despite all evidence to the contrary. Listening to its crooning snake charmer’s cadences as Trump swayed arrhythmically with Melania, like a seventh grader at a school dance, I could see this had been wrong. It was never my song; it was his.
America, Sinatra, heterosexuality: these are only a few of the institutions whose questionable foundations Trump has made impossible to ignore during his three and a half endless years as President. For the first two years of his term, Trump’s obscenity was the focal point of liberal outrage. People rose to prominence, made a name for themselves, on the strength of their responses to his unending Twitter feed. His tweets were blown up and printed out on poster board, hauled into Congress, commented on, refuted. His misspellings — covfefe, hamberder — were seized on. What was the Mueller report if not an attempt to express his grotesqueness in legal terms?
But Trump has continued to sit there through it all, inert, his approval rating more or less unchanged, his endurance made possible by a Republican Party that has increasingly come to resemble him, the way dogs and their owners begin to look alike. He has outlasted all the efforts to exorcise him, to categorize him, to ironize him. Like one of those plastic lighters found in the stomachs of dead seabirds, he is an unassimilable product of our society, waste matter that cannot be disposed of. Now that the novelty has worn off, there’s something almost gauche about commenting on him. You want to deny Trump the causal force he has accrued, to puncture personality with structure. And besides, what is there to say? Trump is always yelling about something, always up in the middle of the night tweeting, probably on the toilet, TVs blaring the emphatic voices of C-list Fox News personalities in every room in the East Wing, but empty threats and executive orders come out in the same vacuous tone. Adorno, writing on Chaplin, said that the meaning of the clown’s activity is to negate meaning; Trump, another world-historic clown, has similarly mastered the art of reducing all substance to inanity. He is foreground and background at once, an ever-present video on Twitter you usually mute, a source of new and newly shocking racism and cruelty you both register and don’t at the same time.
The 2020 Democratic primaries began in earnest just as Russiagate was petering out. The trauma of the 2016 election, an indelible collective experience we seemingly lacked the vocabulary to describe, hung over everything. The unspoken desire this time was to avoid repeating the fate of Hillary Clinton: the long slow decline punctuated by spikes of chaos; the creeping sense of failure; the anxious suspicion that things were slipping away, out of control, into the logic of a bad dream; the sensation of collectively participating in a public spectacle whose precise nature was impossible to pin down in words. Who knew what to say about the moment when Trump came up behind Clinton during their debate and her power visibly ebbed in real time? The frantic search for bad actors in the wake of Clinton’s loss reflected a sentiment that the election was a form of psychological warfare, in which subterranean forces were called up to help Trump win. Populism, misogyny, racism, Vladimir Putin: these were labels for expressing the idea that something inexplicable had come to Trump’s aid and was protecting him still.
Given this context, it was perhaps inevitable that the ground note of the 2020 election would be fear — fear of something difficult to articulate — and that the Democratic primaries would take place in Trump’s shadow. That Trump was in many respects a weak President, his victory a fluke, and that his hold on power was attributable as much to long-term trends in party polarization and the Republicans’ move further and further right was not going to convince Democratic voters justifiably terrified of four more years. The key word was electability, obviously a euphemism for something, though what people meant when they used it was difficult to say. Sometimes it seemed to mean that the nominee had to be as brutal, as ostentatious, as shameless about wielding power as Trump himself. At other times, it seemed to indicate a desire for a President who was the opposite of Trump in every way, both incorruptible and morally impermeable — someone like the Lincoln Memorial, smooth white marble you could rest your forehead against, who could erase everything that had happened over the last four years, the last four hundred years, reset the clock and let us start all over again.
The result was that the primaries were dominated by competing imperatives: the need for a candidate who was just like Trump and the need for a candidate who was nothing like Trump. The only immediate way for presidential hopefuls to rise above the pack was to put themselves in his position by aggressively exposing the weaknesses and potential vulnerabilities of their competitors. But anyone emotionally cathected to the Democratic Party by this point hated Trump on a visceral level — had his voice imprinted in their limbic systems — so every act of Trump-like aggression was met by a corresponding backlash by Democrats frantic to purge themselves of his influence. The oscillation between the desire for Trump’s power and the disgust provoked by him and everything associated with him accounts, I think, for the strange tempo of the primaries, the speed with which each candidate in turn was taken up and rejected by voters and the media, so that whenever one gained slightly they were almost instantly flung back down. The Democratic primaries, in their modern form, have always been a dance between imitating Republicans and rejecting them, rewarding politicians able to reconcile these two poles the most gracefully. But Trump heightened this tension to new levels, turning what had in the past seemed like a choreographed performance into a series of convulsions. All the customary moves were there — the turn to the left, the pivot to the center, the coming-together at the end — but the timing was off and no one seemed in control of what they were doing. If this was a dance, it was one that had gone badly wrong.
The main arena in which all this took place were the debates — there were so many debates, more than there had ever been before in a Democratic primary, and everyone I knew watched them compulsively. These were the most tightly controlled element of the primaries, orchestrated to give the illusion of immediacy, and the site of greatest anxiety, since it was here, during the 2016 debates, that Trump had taken control of the election. There was a general understanding that these were his native element, bound up somehow with his glamour. The televised primaries had always been rigged, as Didion pointed out, designed to deliver fixed outcomes and to favor certain candidates over others. In the unstaged photographs that occasionally circulate on social media — Trump rooting in the turf for a golf ball, struggling unsuccessfully to close an umbrella, refusing to walk down a flight of stairs — he is merely laughable. But like our first made-for-TV president Ronald Reagan, on a sound stage Trump comes into his own. The camera, as many dumb blonds before him have known, rewards exaggeration, transforming his orange face paint, his lewdly dangling red ties, his yellow fright wig into totems of crude vitality. Watching his performances in 2016, you could see how his years of experience humiliating Apprentice contestants as efficiently as possible had paid off. In Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, debaters win by speaking faster and faster, frustrating attempts to pin them down. Trump’s strategy is less sophisticated. He simply ignores whatever his opponents are saying and reaches around to take them apart from behind. The point is the look of surprise and pain on the other person’s face as they find themselves suddenly unclothed, reduced to a body, before an audience of millions.
The threat of Trump waiting in the wings set the terms of the debates from the start. Candidates were alternately celebrated and condemned for the same traits, often by the same people. In one of the first debates, Kamala Harris attacked Joe Biden, sparking a brief polling rise followed by a long drop. Pete Buttigieg went after Elizabeth Warren on how to pay for health care, winning praise for his performance of gravitas. By the next debate, Buttigieg was being dismissed as smarmy, arrogant; it was Amy Klobuchar whose stock had risen after insulting his competence witheringly. She seemed tough enough to take on Trump, analysts wrote. But then this, too, backfired: maybe she wasn’t tough after all, just a cruel boss, a tyrant — a Trump.
These alternating imperatives seemed to hurt nonwhite candidates in particular. They faced a greater demand to prove their toughness according to terms defined by white pundits, and a greater penalty for doing so, or for deviating from acceptable forms of doing so. These deviations, too, were policed by white pundits, for whom the range of appropriate political behavior could accommodate the wide scope of misdeeds and brutality committed by Trump (or Biden, who memorably and gratuitously insulted a supporter of another candidate as a “lying dog-faced pony soldier”), but not the incivility of a Black senator criticizing a white senator. The electability straitjacket hurt all the white women, too, and to some extent Buttigieg. Sanders and Biden were under less pressure to demonstrate their bluntness or their affability.
Bloomberg, after this debate, was neither loved nor feared. That left the third thing.Tweet
This dynamic reached its apotheosis in the candidacy of Michael Bloomberg. It’s hard to remember now the two-week period in mid-February when everyone suddenly seemed to assume he would be the nominee. Here was our own domineering billionaire from New York, a real one this time, swooping in at the last minute to save us. A number of commentators asserted that he was the only candidate capable of beating Trump precisely because of his Trump-like characteristics. An equal number asserted just as fervently that if the Democrats were prepared to elect Bloomberg they might as well just hand over the keys to the Republicans. You started to see an unhappily resolute look on people’s faces — a dangerous look, the expression of someone getting ready to hurt you or themselves for what they have been convinced is the greater good.
Bloomberg’s sudden fall was widely credited to Elizabeth Warren’s assault on his reputation in the February Las Vegas debate (another act of verbal aggression that received temporary acclaim followed by predictable backlash). But perhaps more important was his presence onstage, a diminutive man whose delicate features and high voice contrasted with his expensively belligerent campaign ads. Standing next to the other candidates as Warren read his words back to him, Bloomberg seemed like another weak imitation of Trump, a less powerful copy. No Democrat could play the politics of domination better than Trump himself, and attempts to mimic him made the person who did so seem contemptible. It is better to be feared than loved, Machiavelli said — but then added that, either way, one should take care to avoid being hated. Bloomberg, after this debate, was neither loved nor feared. That left the third thing.
The strange carousel ride resulted in a race where, for all the money spent and ink spilled, the two front-runners from the beginning were still leading when the first vote was cast. Of the candidates, Biden and Sanders were the most insulated from the media-driven cage fight, the ones least vulnerable to attacks on their right to speak. Their electability question revolved primarily around the word socialism, and specifically whether Americans would vote for a self-identified socialist like Sanders. Support for the two was split almost entirely along generational lines, with Bernie winning voters under 45 and Biden winning voters over 65.
From the beginning of the primary, it was clear to a casual observer that Biden, who had the old, had the edge, and that unless Sanders or another candidate made significant inroads with Biden’s boomer base he was going to win. But still, there were reasons to favor Bernie: He had the best organized volunteers, the biggest donor base, the most enthusiastic supporters. Biden was low on money and often seemed to be barely campaigning. Also his face was falling off: at one debate, a blood vessel in his eye visibly burst; at another, his dentures seemed to come out of his mouth. All Biden had going for him was the idea of electability itself — a fig leaf created by successive generations of political journalists from their ideas of what a candidate was supposed to look and sound like. Biden talked about how much he loved baseball. Though even for a politician he had a loose relationship with the truth (claiming, for instance, that he had been arrested trying to visit Nelson Mandela in prison), he told people he hated “malarkey.” His costume consisted largely of a pair of aviators and a motorcycle, in some kind of senescent Springsteen homage, but these were less important in themselves than as markers of the kind of person who might wear them, or the kind of person pundits imagined might wear them, or might feel some kinship with a President wearing them.
Socialism, with its suggestions of mutuality, vulnerability, and dependence (and for voters with memories of the cold war, its association with a foreign enemy), was never going to fit inside this narrow frame without a struggle. But if any candidate could have wrenched the primaries away from the electability trap, it was Sanders. He had an independent movement, his own media, the potential to set the terms of the contest in ways that would favor him. From watching other candidates try, with varying degrees of success, to take Biden apart, you could get an idea of what this might have looked like. You would need to tease the assumptions behind electability into words, move away from vague ideals of power and perfection to concrete demonstrations of ability and intent. Biden was boring; he lacked maneuverability, finesse, the ability to respond to shifting circumstances. Once reportedly a great if gaffe-prone talker, he had lost his range and now had two settings, tepid blarney and aggrieved barking. Like the other candidates he had released plans on key issues, but his promises were blurry and grandiose (“We’re going to cure cancer”), their substance more modest and less transformative than anything from the Warren or Sanders camps. As Kamala Harris’s failed debate sortie had shown, you couldn’t easily attack him head-on but you could draw him out, make him move around, make him speak, redirect attention from the imagined identity of the actor to the act itself — which in Biden’s case, to put it charitably, was limited.
But Sanders never seriously tried to puncture his biggest rival’s mystique. After the primaries it came out that he and Biden were friends, and maybe there are some offensives you can only launch from outside the clubhouse. That was not all: Bernie’s campaign embraced a similar strategy itself, choosing tactical vagueness over clarity wherever they could and using electability as an argument to set Bernie apart from the rest of the field. Every time they did so, they lent credence to the nebulous conceit of electability itself, sharpening a tool that in the event proved easy to turn against Sanders. The Bernie campaign’s theory, born in the 2016 election, was that the populist groundswell that had elected Trump this time would propel Sanders, and only Sanders, into office. The first sign of trouble was the Iowa caucuses. One day Bernie was promising record turnout, and then the news was reporting low turnout and general chaos.
By the middle of February, all of the worst parts of 2016 had returned: private information leaking like a firehose, trolls in full cry, fifteen-point polling swings. Perhaps as a form of punishment against its readers, the New York Times broke out its election needle. Envious of anyone else stealing the spotlight even momentarily, Trump held his own campaign rallies as counterprogramming, telling his supporters in New Hampshire and South Carolina to vote for a Democrat (“Pick the weakest one you think”). In Iowa, Republicans called in to jam the caucus reporting hotline. A British man following me on Twitter began to argue passionately with me about the American health-care system. (The Mueller report’s target was Russian trolls, but my trolls came from the Anglosphere: England, Canada, Australia. And why shouldn’t they be involved? We were modeling democracy for the rest of the world.) People were screaming the same things over and over as loudly as they could. Centrists, leftists, Andrew Yang fans: suddenly everyone was hurling accusations of bad faith, hunting for hidden meanings and secret enemies, ignoring the manifest content of what others were saying and trying to expose who they really were. In skin-care circles, there is a concept, of dubious scientific veracity, called the moisture barrier, which is supposed to take weeks to repair once broken. At a certain point that month it felt like we had breached the moisture barrier of the discourse. If Bernie’s 2016 campaign sometimes seemed like it was channeling Woodstock, this was Altamont.
As the mood of the primary shifted from anxious anticipation to full-blown panic, the Sanders campaign seemed to read the widespread fear and confusion as a sign of their candidate’s electoral prowess. Many on the left see Trump’s dominance of the discourse, somewhat justifiably, as a distraction from the trends he has accelerated and exacerbated, though hardly brought into being. But the failure to take Trump into account arguably blinded Bernie’s campaign to the source of the panic around them. This was not Sanders himself but, again, Trump, who by this point was diligently pushing Bernie as the candidate, tweeting that the election was being stolen from him. The more confident Bernie’s supporters grew, the more nervous the establishment became — nervous that Trump stood to benefit somehow, never mind that Trump’s own prognostication skills have always been overrated. Maybe it’s true that a left-wing candidate couldn’t win, that Sanders’s fondness for the Scandinavian model was too outré and too threatening, and that even in the face of a flawless campaign, a party in thrall to private equity, big pharma, big law, and big real estate would have found a way to tamp down its power. But in the end, we never had the chance to find out.
Being willing to be used as a prop can be a virtue.Tweet
It was probably inevitable once things reached a certain pitch that Obama, the Democrats’ own control freak in chief, who had scrupulously declined to intervene in the early stages of the primary, would step in to pull the plug. His intervention, by means of a characteristically well-timed phone call to Pete Buttigieg three days before Super Tuesday, seemed to represent, as much as support for Biden, a failure of the process. (Having spent the primary season gradually changing his voice and intonation to sound like Obama’s, did Buttigieg retreat into his old habits of speech when the real thing came on the line?) The last-minute rally by party leaders and voters around Biden looks now like a sign of desperation: the choice of a diminished, defensive version of the coalition Obama had assembled in 2008 over a new progressive coalition that had failed to emerge (though its potential could be seen in Warren’s popularity with suburban women and the Sanders’s campaign inroads with factory workers in Iowa, with Latino voters in Nevada, and with young people everywhere). Given the choice between a weak candidate who knew he was weak and a weak candidate who thought he was strong, the party establishment and the electorate settled for the first one. I used to think that putting Biden on the ticket was one of the biggest mistakes Obama made — he was a prosthetic, a concession to white identity politics. But this is unfair to Obama. He wasn’t wrong, after all, about the dangers of white identity politics. And perhaps this is also unfair to Biden. Being willing to be used as a prop can be a virtue.
Though the Covid-19 pandemic cut short both Biden’s and Sanders’s campaigns, widespread acknowledgment of the virus’s danger came too late to alter the course of the Democratic primaries. The rush to endorse Biden, four days after the first reported Covid death, in Washington state, may be something that those involved come to regret. As the death toll from the virus has risen, it feels like we are receiving an object lesson in the dangers of relying on hazy ideas like electability as a guide to whom voters should actually elect. If it wasn’t already, it is now much easier to imagine as President a socialist committed to universal health care than it is Joe Biden.
Since the onset of the pandemic, the presumptive Democratic nominee has been broadcasting from his basement rec room, appearing on-screen in discomfiting close-up for virtual rope lines and a Zoom happy hour. Even in lockdown, his verbal blunders, exaggerations, and outright lies have continued to flow unchecked. Republicans in Congress, who dropped the Burisma scandal when Biden seemed unlikely to be nominated, are beginning to resume their probe into Hunter Biden’s activities.
In addition to the seven women who accused Biden of unwanted physical contact last year, a former staffer, Tara Reade, has come forward with a sexual assault charge. The reactions to Reade’s accusations among Democrats — defensive, contradictory, anguished, enraged — seem to have had little effect on the Biden campaign’s determination to keep Biden prudently out of sight. But despite Trump’s more extensive and far better documented history of sexual assault, Biden’s resemblance to him in this respect is a weakness that will be easy for Republicans to exploit with women voters. If Biden wins the election this fall, it will be due entirely to the efforts of others (please vote for Biden).
Trump, meanwhile, is still yelling, still tweeting, emerging every day like an infant, washed clean, into the arms of another twenty-four-hour news cycle. The primaries have been over for a little over a month, but the tangle of competing emotions and aims at their center is already fading from view, vanishing from collective memory as it does at the end of every primary season. I can’t believe we have to do this all over again in less than four years.
Jeffrey Goldberg in the New Yorker: “Schumer says that he is accompanied everywhere he goes by two imaginary middleclass friends, who advise him on all manner of middle-class concerns. Their names, until recently, were Joe and Eileen O’Reilly. ‘For the book’s sake, we wanted them to be more national,’ Schumer said, ‘so they became the Baileys.’ The Baileys live in Massapequa, in Nassau County.” ↩