One of the animating ideas behind former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign is that a Biden presidency will be a “return to normalcy.” It is a pitch that relies not only on the assumption that the Trump era is not normal, but that President Trump has weakened our institutions and undermined norms, and that the cure for what ails America is a return to the halcyon days of Obama and Biden.
Most of that is pure fantasy, but the Biden campaign at least has this right: the Trump era is not normal. But the Trump era’s abnormality is not a passing thing, a clock that can be wound back. Trump’s presidency inaugurated a populist era on both the right and the left. It is the new normal, no matter who wins the White House.
In fact, a Biden administration would accelerate this change, and by comparison might even make the Trump presidency seem quiescent. Setting aside the impossibility of normalcy during a global pandemic, there is nothing normal about what Biden and the Democrats are proposing to do if they gain power.
Packing the U.S. Supreme Court is not normal. Creating new states as a way to pack the Senate is not normal. Abolishing the Electoral College is not normal. Establishing a South African-style “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” is not normal. Codifying Roe v. Wade into law and forcing taxpayers to pay for abortions is not normal. A ban on fracking—or, as Biden likes to put it, “transitioning out of fossil fuels”—is not normal. Passing any version of the Green New Deal is not normal. Raising the top income tax rate to a level not seen since the Carter administration is not normal.
These things are radical, and Democrats broadly support all of them. Biden has been disingenuously cagey about some of his plans, like whether he would try to pack the Supreme Court, but often he has been candid about going along with the leftward lurch of his party, like his abrupt about-face on taxpayer funding for abortions.
Part of Biden’s schtick has been to style himself a pragmatist and a moderate—a working-class Catholic kid from Scranton, Obama’s steady right-hand man, no malarkey! His defensiveness about the riots this summer is a case in point. In a speech back in August, after months of widespread rioting with hardly a peep from Democratic leaders, Biden said, “Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?”
It was a weak attempt to hide the plain truth: Biden and Democrats were hesitant to criticize anything about the protests or the Black Lives Matter movement because that is their party’s base now. Any law-and-order posturing on Biden’s part was a feeble attempt to hide a radical agenda espoused by BLM and left-wing Democrats, far to the left of Biden’s old boss and alien to whatever moderate pragmatism Biden once espoused.
You Can’t Repeat the Past
Beyond the question of whether a Biden presidency would be normal is a larger question of whether American politics can ever go back to anything resembling normalcy. A few weeks ago, Peggy Noonan wrote a profoundly myopic and misty-eyed column arguing that if Biden wins in a landslide on November 3, it will be because “he is normal. And people miss normal so much.”
Do they? Normal is what voters rejected when they elected Trump president. Normal is what Democrats rejected by twice elevating Sen. Bernie Sanders, forcing Biden to negotiate the party’s platform with avowed socialists. The choice of Biden as the Democrats’ nominee should be understood as a rejection of the status quo because, as Rep. Pramila Jayapal said, he “is moveable” on issues—Biden can be and has been bullied by the left. It is one of the reasons he got the nomination.
Amid the ongoing pandemic Americans might want normalcy in their personal and professional lives—they want to get back to work and get their kids back to school—but that should not be confused with a desire for normalcy in politics. The good old days of the elite establishment running things as they see fit, enriching themselves and their friends, telling voters one thing and doing another, are over.
This is hard for the establishment to accept, which is why lately we have seen Noonan-style nostalgia in predictions about the future leadership of the GOP if Trump loses. Will Ben Sasse emerge as the party’s leader? Nikki Haley? Maybe John Kasich or Marco Rubio will come roaring back to the national stage
No. As Abraham Lincoln said a few weeks before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.” The plain fact is that the future of American politics will not be marked by a return to an era of establishment rule because the establishment has failed.
Our institutions are not weak because of Trump, they are weak because our elites failed to maintain them. Our norms have not been undermined by Trump, they have been undermined by ordinary Americans who came to realize those norms were merely a cover for rank hypocrisy from our leaders. All of this has been decades in the making, and now it has come to pass.
And none of it can be wiped away by an election. The bell that sounded with Trump’s election four years ago, heralding a new populist era in American, cannot be un-rung.
That’s why Biden has had to repudiate much of his 47-year career in politics. That is why he selected the hardest-left Democrat in the Senate as his running mate. That is why he and other Democratic leaders were so timid in speaking out against violent protests and rioting throughout the summer. That is why his presidency, should he win, will not be a return to normalcy.
The new normal is right in front of us, right now: populist right versus populist left. Choose your fighter.