In a timely new book reflecting on the inner springs of Joe Biden’s biography and personality, New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos notes a central contradiction that has long animated the new president. During the campaign, Donald Trump and most Republicans tried to associate Biden with a malevolent plan to smuggle socialism into the United States. As an electoral strategy, it was unconvincing, flying in the face of a long and distinguished career marked by the kind of relaxed centrism which has now become unfashionable. Biden has been careful to stress those moderate inclinations even after the election, as he prepared to assume office, but the concern goes back to the very beginning of his Senate career. In 1974, having supported civil rights and opposed the war in Vietnam, Biden received a high rating from a progressive group and immediately complained about it. Those ratings, he thought, could get him in trouble.
And yet there was another strain to his victorious 2020 campaign, and it had nothing to do with coaxing the Republican Party into its recent excesses. Running at a time when a record number of Democrats are happy to self-describe as socialists, and when the embers of street protest are still glowing across the land, Biden had to avoid appearing too picayune and narrow-minded. And he understood this. “He is very much a weathervane for what the center of the left is,” a senior Obama administration official told Osnos. As he puts it, “by the time Biden effectively clinched the nomination, in March, he had begun to describe his candidacy as a bid for systemic change on the scale of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.” Franklin Foer in the Atlantic argued that Biden has inverted the historical template of every Democratic nominee. Biden’s politics only began to flirt with revolutionary romance after he won the nomination.
The evolution confounded critics. Consider Osnos once again: “Biden was simultaneously accused of being a socialist puppet and a neoliberal shill.” It was a productive contradiction. The problem now is how to continue exploiting it. Just as Trump—often with undeniable success—attempted to convince his supporters that they already lived in a nationalist utopia, Biden will have to convince Americans that they already live in the America promised by progressives. They are like Frenchmen of the Belle Époque, the trials of the Revolution long forgotten. If the country is already united around ideals of social and racial justice—if every cabinet secretary provides evidence that sexual and racial minorities have genuinely overcome their past oppression—President Biden could be a centrist and a progressive at the same time. Progressive ideals would be realized with no need for the struggle and conflict of the progressive movement. After the events on Capitol Hill in early January, Biden confidently affirmed that “this is not who we are.” As some commentators noted, the sentence would be much more convincing had he said “this is not who we should be.” But on this question Biden will brook no compromise. It reminded me of the main element of his campaign during the primaries: Trump did not reveal anything about contemporary America and Trumpism would disappear once Trump had lost the election.
Like other presidents, Biden has of course presented his cabinet choices as symbolic proof that America has come a long way since its darkest days. What stood out was the methodical and perfectionist character of the current iteration of identity politics. At some point, it began to look like the president-elect was trying to solve an especially complex puzzle, a Rubik’s cube of many colors and genders. When Biden nominated the first black man to run the Pentagon, women cried foul. Asian American activists became increasingly concerned that their minority groups would not be sufficiently represented in the top tier of the Biden administration. Sexual minorities expressed their disappointment that Biden had not yet named a prominent member of their community to his cabinet, something he proceeded to correct. It then became apparent than he had not awarded a sufficient number of key jobs in his cabinet to black women. In principle there should be at least five Latinos in the cabinet, including of course Latinas. And so on. The need to ensure ethnic, gender, and sexual orientation diversity has meant hammering some square pegs into round holes, while allowing for many degrees of freedom in selecting political insiders from each lane of the diversity pool.
As Nesrine Malik wrote, the exercise was revealing because it showed how committed Biden is to Dreampolitik—in this case, the promise of diversity as cosmetic change without deeper transformation. Selecting the cabinet was not a means to address the structural inequalities that produce the marginalization of minority groups in the first place, but an exercise in “mission accomplished,” a kind of “end of history” for those who no longer believe in history and, in their quiet moments, may even disbelieve in progress. Kamala Harris explains: “When Joe asked me to be his running mate, he told me about his commitment to making sure we selected a cabinet that looks like America—that reflects the very best of our nation. That is what we have done.”
The example is, I think, reflective of a broader strategy. Forced to bring together very different sensibilities within the Democratic Party, Biden has found a way to reconcile political opposites. He can promise the progressive and more radical wing a final victory over the forces of evil, while reassuring the centrists that he has no interest in the struggle, the fight to realize that victory. It is the fight, after all, rather than the final victory, which leads one into political danger.
Trump’s Domestic Dreampolitik
Commentators such as Jeet Heer have argued that Trump promised his followers the return to an earlier and simpler era. Nothing could be further from the truth. Trump was not a traditionalist politician. On the contrary, he took existing trends in modern American society to a kind of natural but nonetheless extreme conclusion. Trump is not a figure of authority but a figure of freedom—freedom understood as the realization of every desire, no matter how extreme, in the here and now.
Nor was Trump a symbol of perennial possibilities in democratic politics: the demagogue, the tyrant, the “face in the crowd.” No, he represented something new: the moment when, drunk with the possibilities of technology, we start to dream that human beings can actually live a fantasy life. We used to have fantasies. Now we live them out. The effect is intoxicating, like chocolate or candy for creatures whose biology prepared them for life in the savannah. We saw that in the now infamous events of January 6, where the political fantasy of endless victory was enacted with tragic consequences.
In his interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Barack Obama offered some fascinating reflections on this question. Perhaps influenced by the media consensus on Trump, he initially tries to see him as an authority figure—the prototypical protofascist—only to confess his puzzlement: “I think about the classic male hero in American culture when you and I were growing up: the John Waynes, the Gary Coopers, the Jimmy Stewarts, the Clint Eastwoods, for that matter.” But is that Trump? No, rather the opposite. Not incorrectly, Obama sees Trump as a more childish or at least juvenile figure, someone much closer to the characters of Dreampolitik so vividly captured by Joan Didion: the bikers who no longer regard the small irritations of life as something to be tolerated, the aspiring actresses who regard the future as somehow managed by a Hollywood divinity with its benevolent providence. “Anything less than instant service in a restaurant constitutes intolerable provocation, or hassling: tear the place apart, leave the owner for dead, gangbang the waitress. Rev up the Harleys and ride.”
How did Trump succeed then? Later in the interview Obama comes close to the truth, although predictably he still recoils from accepting it. Perhaps Trump pointed towards the future rather than the past. As Obama puts it:
It’s interesting—people are writing about the fact that Trump increased his support among Black men, and the occasional rapper who supported Trump. I have to remind myself that if you listen to rap music, it’s all about the bling, the women, the money. A lot of rap videos are using the same measures of what it means to be successful as Donald Trump is. Everything is gold-plated. That insinuates itself and seeps into the culture.
It does seep into the culture, to the point where Dreampolitik becomes just as powerful on the left as on the right.
There are, to be sure, different dreams, different fantasies, and thus different and often opposed Dreampolitiken. Trump and Biden are perfectly opposed archetypes. They represent the perennial life alternatives for the average American. New York Magazine journalist Margaret Hartmann mused, while watching Joe Biden carry his infant grandchild around a stage, that she had never seen Trump hold a baby. But she had seen him tell twenty-four thousand Boy Scouts a story about a real estate developer hosting wild parties on his yacht. “I won’t go on any more than that because you’re Boy Scouts so I’m not going to tell you what he did,” Trump said, drawing boos from the audience. “Should I tell you? Should I tell you?” the president teased. “Oh, you’re Boy Scouts, but you know life. You know life. So—look at you. Who would think this is the Boy Scouts, right?”
There are fantasies of wild parties with models in yachts, fantasies about the bling and the money and endless victory, fantasies about not having to play by the rules and be politically correct—all of which are immediately recognizable and appealing as fantasies. But there are many other fantasies which look like reality to those who inhabit them. Some fantasies take the possibilities of freedom to their limits. Others celebrate reconciliation and decency. After all, one can be reconciled with the world either by defeating everyone else or by removing the need to fight. Fantasies of the latter sort have powered romantic comedies for at least as long as all the darker genres of Hollywood. Instead of imagining a world with even more cruelty and passion than the real one, they imagine one that is kinder and more innocent. A world where emotions can be fully expressed and where happy endings do sometimes take place. As Osnos puts it in the concluding line of his book on Biden: “For a people in mourning, he might offer something like solace, a language of healing.” Or as Biden himself eloquently said in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president: “The current president has cloaked America in darkness for much too long. Too much anger. Too much fear. Too much division. Here and now, I give you my word: If you entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us not the worst. I will be an ally of the light not of the darkness.”
Biden’s Dreampolitik Abroad
Dreampolitik is no less tempting on the global stage, although it is primarily there that it encounters its limits. I often like to start with the idea that, as J. G. Ballard once put it, the fictional elements of political life have little by little completely masked the real elements.
At the level of language and symbol—the fictional world—a Biden presidency will be a completely different universe. The storyline will shift. That is actually the advantage of living in fantasy life: without much change in “material realities,” it is possible to start anew and weave completely different myths. The characters will be rearranged. Some of the bad guys will become the new heroes. Others will recede to the background.
Thus, relations with Europe are likely to receive a remarkable boost—remember, however, that so far I am talking only of the world of fiction. People close to Biden have suggested to me that he will quickly remove the steel tariffs against Europe. His powerful narrative of national rejuvenation will fit well with a digression on the rejuvenation of the hallowed concept of the West. Behind the scenes, however, there are tensions and some will keep pushing against the official line. The European Union has just announced it will be signing an investment agreement with China, even after the incoming national security advisor Jake Sullivan formally asked them not to (the request was made on Twitter, which is as formal and as public as it gets). The new chairman of Germany’s Christian Democrats represents, at least for now, a break with Merkel’s transatlanticism, being a bona fide representative of that current of opinion in Germany that wants better relations with Russia.
Other countries will suffer a reversal of fortune, what the Greeks called peripeteia: the Saudi crown prince, Erdoğan in Turkey, Modi in India. Erdoğan has already been snubbed, finding it impossible to get on the phone with the president-elect. Looking at the names he picked to help design his foreign policy, it is also obvious that Biden does not regard India as a priority. The shining knights of the last four years will look less shiny in the new Biden production. Trump picked Saudi Arabia as his first foreign destination. Biden will almost certainly be calling on Justin Trudeau.
Now to the “real” elements: Even though Americans live in fantasy life, world politics obeys a stricter system. That system has changed rather dramatically since Biden perfected his foreign policy ideas. As the Chinese authorities now like to repeat, we live in the age of a great realignment. Bigger changes are afoot than humanity has seen in many years. This world is not conducive to multilateralism and cooperation. In a revolutionary period, everyone’s priority is to spot the chances to get ahead and turn events in their favor.
The main problem for Biden will be to reconcile these new facts with his strong desire to return to a simpler world. He is attracted to the finished product of a global liberal order governed from Washington—but seems uninterested in the geopolitical processes that precede it. Obama saw the reduction in American power with some clarity. He applauded a few changes: it was good news, for example, that so many Asians were becoming prosperous, even if that meant the United States had a smaller share of the world’s economic output. The ones he did not like he trusted history would eventually resolve.
Now Biden, to all indications, disagreed with Obama on both these points. He is not as open to changes in the global order and he is not so eager to trust or even understand that strange goddess, history. But in a way he has no use for Obama’s solutions to the problem of order. His solution is to actively believe in the existence of an American-led global order and through sheer belief bring it into some kind of existence. We shall have to wait for Gabriel Debenedetti’s forthcoming book on the winding arc of his complex, but also remarkably close, relationship with Obama. All evidence points to the question of realism as the dividing factor between the two men. Obama never stopped doubting whether his vice president could act in the real world. To which Biden might reply that, like everything else in life, it is by acting as if a global order already exists that we can make other state actors believe in it as well. A certain red line in Syria comes to mind.
Biden’s China Policy
What I would call the Biden gambit—the attempt to project a global liberal order into existence—is particularly relevant in the context of China policy. I would suggest the following: Biden will quickly recover the language of values and numerous commentators will applaud it as a toughening of American policy on China. In practice, this toughening up will mean that Beijing will get a cold shoulder but little else. If you believe in the global liberal order, your tendency is to think that those not sharing the same values should be left out—isolated, not legitimized, as they say in the State Department.
As Jake Sullivan and Kurt Campbell put it in an essay published last year, the new policy will marshal the soft coercion of the global order: “If China hopes to enjoy equal access to this new economic community, its own economic and regulatory frameworks must meet the same standards. The combined gravitational pull of this community would present China with a choice: either curb its free-riding and start complying with trade rules, or accept less favorable terms from more than half of the global economy.” Similarly, China’s growing technological clout will require some enhanced restrictions on the flow of technology investment and trade in both directions, but these efforts should be carefully targeted to prevent permanent damage to the global liberal order. “Failing to do so,” Sullivan and Campbell write, “could Balkanize the global technology ecosystem by impeding flows of knowledge and talent.”
Even though the “global liberal order” is very much a tool used to project American power, it does nonetheless impose some constraints on the United States. For example, an outright ban on certain Chinese companies might be regarded as incompatible with the upholding of certain rules and principles. Or forms of economic coercion against allies might be excluded, but without them the United States might not be able to force those allies to reduce economic links with China. Trump did not prima facie exclude any method or tactic, because the contest did not take place under a normative order.
In a second essay, this time coauthored with Hal Brands, Sullivan returns to the notion of the global order as the arena where the contest between China and the United States will be decided. Sullivan and Brands are less worried about whether the United States might have left its flank in the Pacific vulnerable than they are with the possibility that China could leap directly to the role of managing and leading the global order. Its efforts to assume such leadership came at a time when the United States, during the Trump administration, stepped back from its traditional role as guarantor of the international order. Whoever occupies that role has the critical advantage. Biden will try to use the “global liberal order” against China. Trump always favored a direct clash, one taking place in a fundamentally chaotic or disordered world. For Biden, world politics still follows an organized set of values and rules. China will be asked to at least pay formal tribute to that order or then be sanctioned in accordance with the rules. If forced to choose between the liberal order and an open conflict with China for relative power, Biden will always choose the liberal order, even if it is no more than a pale reflection of its former self and China’s substantive compliance is by now impossible.
What Dreams May Come
Oscar Wilde pointed out that the trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings. Usually it took a lot more, and a real socialist would be someone who was willing to pay that price in order to bring about a better and more just society. But perhaps there is a shortcut after all, and we can build a society that feels just like a socialist paradise with none of its costs.
Joe Biden, who like the centaurs of old Greece is something of a mythological creature—a hybrid between socialist and neoliberal as Osnos put it—might be just the president to do it. His presidency may come to represent a particular moment in the history of American power, the stage when its foundations are weaker than ever but the surface looks polished and new. It is often like that with our most treasured dreams. They look better than life.