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A 'Return to Normalcy' Should Scare You
The rapturous praise for 'boring' and 'normal' President Biden proves that we didn’t learn anything from the Trump presidency.
In the days leading up to President Biden’s inauguration, it was clear that the public discourse surrounding his swearing-in was going to be exhausting—not just because all discourse around all political events is exhausting, but because everything about the Trump presidency seemed to engender the very worst in people, and there was no way his public termination would be any different.
Indeed, the groundswell was apparent from miles away. You probably heard it yourself. What’s that? Oh yes, the deep undulations of a nation desperate to feel okay. And though many of us saw it coming, we probably should have learned by now that nothing is ever bad in exactly the way you think it will be. It will be different, and it will be worse.
Nothing could have prepared me for the utterly insane levels of cringe posting, political horniess, unhinged posts involving children possessed by the spirit of cheesy rhetoric, overstatements, and Aaron Sorkin ripoffs that went out into the world yesterday.
Ah yes, it’s a new day, America. Although honestly, it didn’t actually seem like those ecstatically cheering on Biden and Kamala Harris cared specifically about it being a new day. In fact, they seemed more interested in welcoming a day that felt a lot like one from over four years ago....when Joe Biden himself was in the White House. Mmm, yes, the warm blanket of regression.
Mostly though, there was a simple, overwhelming sense that Joe Biden’s base—moderates, Democrats, libs, whatever you want to call them—were not only present, but very, very happy to return to a little something called “normalcy.”
That was another word that was used a lot this week: “boring.” For many Biden voters, it was a thrill to watch a “dull” ceremony with a boring speech followed by a "normal” White House press conference. Honestly, I agree! As someone who has openly admitted to fully not being able to listen or look at Donald Trump for the first few months of his presidency, I can relate to the sense of comfort that comes from not being assaulted by an aggressive, racist, fascist, and cruel administration at all hours of the day for years on end. I am sincerely looking forward to an era when we won’t have to constantly wonder about the depths our government will go to at the expense of its citizens, or how willingly our leaders would display their crimes of humanity. I will sleep better at night, I’m sure! But there was something genuinely terrifying this week in the riotous celebrations of the very “norms” that led us to the last four years.
I don’t even have the desire to dunk on these expressions of joy, though of course many of the above posts were unbelievably dunk-able. Amid the fist pumps, my primary feeling wasn’t “hahahaha these fools,” it was “....well, shit.” I’m not here to repeat the shame and blame cycle that played out on the day that Joe Biden secured the electoral votes to win the election—of course everyone is allowed to take a beat to inhale the deepest breath known to man and scream “BYE BITCH” to the high heavens. You can applaud the incremental progress, the moves already being made that suggest something better, and the sheer fact that Donald Trump is no longer present, and also stay critical and angry as hell. You can #resist the urge to follow the path of political appeasement. A constant refrain over the last four years was "this is not normal." That may have been true, but "normal" is its own hell.
The relief is absolutely real, particularly for those who were under immediate threat from the Trump administration. But treating Joe Biden and Kamala Harris like the fundamental solution to our country’s ills is like thinking Trump was the fundamental problem. Pinning either thing on specific people is taking away your own agency—or, perhaps, your own culpability.
Of course, the completely insane energy happening this week also had a lot to do with the particular moment we’re in. The last four years and specifically the last year during the coronavirus pandemic has been a period of cycling through trauma, terror, mourning, and recovery. For many, that has plateaued into a state of sheer numbness. The need to feel any amount of real, palpable promise and joy was so deeply present in the proclamations of hope. The need to be obsessed with the fashion, the need for some level of earnest joy, and the need for simple appreciation that nothing horrible happened. The bar was so very low and it still felt pretty incredible to clear it. And had it just been a simple sense of communal relief, that would have been one thing. But the jubilation reached crests that morphed in record time from corny to disheartening. From calm to delusional.
The unnerving nature of the praise had already started to creep in as I watched NBC's inauguration broadcast, in which anchor Savannah Guthrie pounced on any opportunity to treat the entire event like an act of god made flesh in the form of political tradition. She was so insistent on a narrative of unification and hope that at one point, she actually had the chutzpah to ask Senator Bernie Sanders if he would be willing to meet Republicans in the middle on climate change and the other problems facing working class families.
This is exactly why the ecstasy over the dawning of a “new era” and a “return” of any kind felt so surreptitiously unsettling. It was that same behavior in the beforetimes that helped lead us here in the first place.
It all feels a little too much like an attempt to erase the last four years and the hundreds of years that paved the way for them—a time when the horrors of American life and the people who perpetrated them were more underground. A time of “bipartisanship,” and peacekeeping among those in power, and mass complacency among large parts of the electorate. A return to normalcy is a return to a time when many (privileged, white Americans) could pretend that the government was functional and people were taken care of, and civic engagement and anger could be compartmentalized, and the problems facing millions of people weren’t active and weren’t ours. Any sort of return would be revisiting the neoliberal ethos that still runs on racism, capitalism, imperialism and other hallmarks of oppression. We’ve already had to confront the reality that there are far more Trump supporters among us than we’d like to believe, and now it’s time to confront the damage of a Democratic mindset that upholds conservative values in better packaging.
The glee over Biden—much like the deification of Ruth Bader Ginsburg—is a particularly scary moment for the left, a group that our new president has already shown he’s not terribly interested in courting. As his presidency plays out, the liberal mindset will further entrench at the expense of progressive policies. The administration will undoubtedly try to suppress activists and meet critiques of their leadership with indifference if not outright scorn. This has been the fight all along. A Biden presidency isn't the end of that fight. One battle has ended and a new one has begun.
But being critical should really be the bare minimum for a guy who doesn’t support Medicare For All, already walked back his COVID stimulus check promise, betrayed immigration activists, insulted the anti-policing movement, and who’s made establishment hires, anti-labor hires, pro-business hires, straight up irresponsible hires, and displayed the kind of dangerous faux progressive behavior that at this point, should absolutely scream THE CALL IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE (WHITE) HOUSE to anyone who is paying even the slightest bit of attention.
Even so, people will continue to say, bizarre, incongruous shit as we readjust to a government that is “business as usual.”
As my colleague Jack Mirkinson said to me the other day, “nobody yearns to be pacified as much as Americans.” That could not have been clearer this week. We are a young country, and we are also a country of babies who just want everything to be all right—to the point of literally referring to politicians as the "adults" in our lives.
Discomfort is a hard pill to swallow, and blinders are easy to put on.
It is also a deeply, weirdly American thing to treat our politicians like celebrities, pop culture figures, or benevolent rulers. We love to stan (no, Discourse Blog is not above this), and we love to foster delusions of grandeur that spiral into a collective belief that this country is sacrosanct. Personally, I had fostered a small, but hopeful belief that the Trump presidency—and rampant police violence and a botched response to a global pandemic—might have shattered that impulse, but now I’m not so sure.
Sure, the launch of the Biden era deserved a certain amount of celebration. Trump is gone, we have our first woman of color to hold the office of vice president (though she is still a cop, and holding her up as a straightforward symbol of progress, as we did before with Obama, is its own complicated thing), and it still feels a little novel that the president is no longer a cartoon villain. But it’s a dangerous and slippery slope to salute “normality.” Far too often, conservative impulses are a reaction to fear, and for far too long the more timid conservative impulses in this country have gone under misnomers like “moderate.” Good is the enemy of great, and compromise is the enemy of progress.
It will be interesting to see how the Biden/Harris fandom and the celebrations of normalcy settle as the administration begins its work, but make no mistake, any victories happening at that level aren't a result of decent and pious politicians. They’re because of activists and movements. And activists will continue to do what they do best: work for change and hold the feet of the powers that be to the fire. There’s been a lot of talk about accountability ever since Biden took charge of the Democratic Party. I frankly don’t have much faith that the constituency at large or the majority of elected officials will hold Biden accountable to the necessary extent. After all, after four years of terror, why not settle for fine?
Another talking point that got a lot of play this was that our democracy had been restored. Biden said it himself: "Democracy has prevailed." I'm sure the removal of a wannabe dictator was part of that, but I also wonder how much people think about their own role in the democratic process beyond a simple VOTE every four years. Our votes are meaningless if we fail to hold our government and officials responsible for what comes next. And fandom over politicians, over normalcy, over the "boring" political process, distracts from that role and the work still left to do, and it's a disservice to the suffering so many have experienced under a system that simply doesn't work.
Maybe someday in the future we'll have actual victories to stan over. Maybe we're uniquely poised to push the Democratic agenda to the left and see substantive change over the next four years. Maybe "normalcy" will give way to a new era. I doubt it, but I'll be happy to start cheering once the new administration actually gets something done. In the meantime, yesterday served as a good reminder that the work will continue, and will in fact take on a new dimension. One set of horrors will dissipate, and now we can start anew at chipping away what America calls "normal."