America had the greatest orator in modern presidential history working in the Oval Office for eight years, and millions of white people spent virtually all that time getting angrier. Violent right-wing extremism is bursting the nation at the seams, and has for generations now. We didn’t need last weekend’s twin mass shootings to know that dangerous rhetoric can end lives. The question for politicians, in the immediate aftermath, has been what words to use to try to save them. Or, perhaps, just to get elected.
Just after noon Pacific time on Monday, that orator, Barack Obama wrote down his message instead. His proxy pulpit was social media, where he published both a lamentation of the twin mass shootings last weekend and of the lack of prior action to stem the various forces that led to them. “We are not helpless here,” the former president wrote of America’s swelling gun problem, later adding that “both law enforcement agencies and internet platforms need to come up with better strategies to reduce the influence of these hate groups.” Though he never mentioned President Trump by name, Obama closed with a deservedly brutal coda about the birther king, writing that “we should soundly reject language coming out of the mouths of any of our leaders that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalizes racist sentiments.”
This was not the first time Obama, in a moment of crisis during the Trump administration, has had to remind us what a president has traditionally sounded like. It was a brief but substantive statement, a reminder for many of the kind of national salve that once came from the White House at times when the nation was grieving in unison. However, while it pushed both government officials and citizens alike to be better, Obama didn’t offer much in the way of policy proposals to fix the problems at hand. That is understandable, partly because he is no longer in elective office nor contending for one.
His former vice president, Joe Biden, certainly is, as are the others running alongside him for the Democratic nomination for president. Biden delivered arguably his most assertive address of the campaign thus far on Wednesday while campaigning in Burlington, Iowa.
Airing in full by all three major cable news networks, it all but drowned out an address by his rival Cory Booker earlier that morning in South Carolina. It also kept Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Congressman who has returned with a new fire to his hometown of El Paso since Saturday’s attack, off the front pages for a day (until Trump put him back there with an insult). (The press had already stopped focusing on Rep. Tim Ryan, who had suspended his campaign to return to help his fellow Ohioans after the Dayton shooting.)
Biden’s speech was excellent, when judged purely as political performance. Its problem is that his remarks had plenty of truth about Trump, but not nearly enough about the country.
Consistently harping on his theme of reclaiming “America’s soul” from Trump, the former vice president did not accuse him of directly inspiring the El Paso shooting that has claimed 22 lives to date. He did say that “we have a rising tide of white supremacy in America, and we have a president who encourages and emboldens it.” He recalled everything from Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” quote after the racist terrorism in Charlottesville two summers ago to the “Send her back” chant at the recent Trump rally in North Carolina, citing also the president’s support from public racists like Richard Spencer and David Duke.
There is an argument to be made that Trump being allied with neo-Nazis and former Klansmen is the headline, but it’s difficult to do that when he’s made ICE into a jackboot force that just yesterday rounded up 680 people in Mississippi, the largest single-state immigration sweep in U.S. history. Law enforcement is being used as a campaign tool. As such, the Trump administration has taken meaningful steps to shift federal law enforcement focus and resources away from the fight against domestic terrorism, particularly the right-wing white extremists whom this president only condemns when he reads off a teleprompter. A senior source close to the administration told CNN Wednesday that the White House directed Homeland Security to keep their attention “only on the jihadist threat which, while serious, ignored the reality that racial supremacist violence was rising fast here at home.”
While Biden did mention those sorts of policy moves briefly, throughout the speech he kept his emphasis on Trump’s words. Rather than echoing Obama’s statesmanlike tone, he focused more squarely on listing Trump’s offensive rhetoric in support of white supremacy. “The words of a president matter” is how he began, and he emphasized Trump as a “threat” to the nation.
However, I doubt that there was a bigger beneficiary of Biden’s speech about the nation and two major tragedies than Joe Biden. This is not to set him apart from his competitors: Booker’s speech was also political in nature, though a bit more grounded in its rhetoric and certainly more specific and immediate in its proposals — including recommending that the Justice Department and Homeland Security provide annual assessments of white-supremacist threats to Congress and the public. It was also confrontational, which was a good thing. “To love our country in this moment means that we have to step outside our comfort zones and confront ourselves,” he said, noting that the Declaration of Independence referred to Indigenous people as “savages.” “White supremacy has always been a problem in our American story — if not always at the surface, then lurking not so far beneath it.”
And yet, a lot of smart folks fell harder for Biden’s speech, which was a lot kinder to America. It seemed odd to regard Biden’s speech, in particular, as the example of What We Need From a President as right-wing extremism is on the march. His harsh condemnation of Trump and naming of white supremacy as the enemy was welcome. However, he also engaged in the kind of American mythmaking that doesn’t distinguish him from Trump much in terms of how it bathes the public in the false comfort of American exceptionalism for his political benefit.
Whereas Trump sells bigotry under the guise of patriotism and machismo, Biden represents stagnation dressed up as nostalgia and cliché. He all but promises Democrats a DeLorean, powered up and ready to go back to the Obama era so that we can erase Trump from our memories. In doing so, however, he fundamentally misunderstands the problem that Trump presents and the crisis of violent white extremism that he would have to confront as president.
As he has been wont to do, Biden characterized the Trump problem as an “aberrant moment in time,” which I would say is comically wrong if it were funny. The era in which murderous racists terrorized America started when America started, and while it certainly has had ebbs and flows, it has never ended. Biden suggests it would only become permanent if Trump were to serve another four years in office, which is disturbingly myopic. Another four years of Trump could certainly accelerate damage in any number of arenas of American life and on the world stage, but Biden once again positions himself as savior of the “American soul,” a concept which he yet again failed to adequately define.
In pouring a lot of flowery praise on Americans who are not the president or racist murderers, he inadvertently gave a pass to a lot of us who need to do some work on this country, and ourselves. A president should be here to challenge us to do better, not just to make us feel better. “We need to show them who we are,” Biden said near the end of his speech. Sixty-three million votes were cast for Donald Trump. What if who “we” are isn’t much better, and what is the indication that Biden truly understands the deeper issues that need to be addressed?
Still, Biden was nearly universally lauded for his content and delivery, especially by the Washington press corps. Headlines and copy gushed: he “reminded all of us of what a presidential president would sound like,” read one Washington Post column.
The question of what “presidential” even means anymore is wide open, when the current occupant of the office has abandoned any precept of its meaning. But at its core, though, is the word itself: to be described as such, one must win the election. One fortunate consequence of terrible events during the Trump presidency, though, is that we have had the opportunity to consistently revisit that definition. It was evidently out of date, because it didn’t steer us away from our current situation.
O’Rourke and Ryan, perhaps inadvertently, have modeled a different concept: leaders who, with their service on the ground, embody the “idea” of America that Biden celebrated so loudly — but who still manage not to lie to the public about the country in which they live just to secure their votes.
Ryan let his emotions loose on MSNBC on Sunday hours after the shooting, saying that “Republicans need to, quite frankly, get their shit together and stop pandering to the NRA because people are getting killed.” O’Rourke has been similarly direct, not hesitated to call the president a white supremacist — Sen. Elizabeth Warren later echoed him — and he reacted with loud and appropriately vulgar surprise when a reporter asked him if there was anything Trump could do to make the situation in El Paso better.
“What do you think? You know the shit he’s been saying,” O’Rourke said. “He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. I don’t know, like, members of the press, what the fuck? Hold on a second. You know, I — it’s these questions that you know the answers to. I mean, connect the dots about what he’s doing in this country. He’s not tolerating racism; he’s promoting racism. He’s not tolerating violence; he’s inciting racism and violence in this country. So, you know, I just — I don’t know what kind of question that is.”
I don’t know whether or not that behavior was “presidential.” Perhaps it should be. I’d take that over another shovel full of “America’s soul,” that’s for sure.