Biden, Trump, and the Question of Leadership in the 21st Century

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Hi. How’s everyone? I hope you’re all doing really well. Today we’re going to discuss Biden, Trump, and the tricky issue of leadership. And by the way, if you haven’t already, head over to my new publication, the Issue — there’s tons to read there already, including on this very topic, so peruse, have a browse, check out the conversation, I’d be delighted if you joined us.

Now. There’s a strange thing happening in America, going almost unremarked upon. Even though you might think there are daily headlines about it, they aren’t really about it at all. Despite it all, nearly a hundred criminal charges and counting, January 6th, the coup attempt, the abuses of power, Donald Trump is being accepted as a leader by more and more people every day.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden, despite being a pretty good President, isn’t. Let me qualify that before some of you erupt, because it’s part of what I want us to talk and think about. “Good” here is relative, not absolute, and we’re talking about progress, not perfection, and at the very least, not regress.

Context. The world is in an incredibly perilous position, and in disastrous shape. The statistics, which too few people know, because they don’t make the news, are eye-popping. Democracy’s decline from over 40% of the world to under 20% — in just two decades. And a world that’s just 20% democratic, at that rate of decline, which is 10% per decade — the writing’s on the wall, and the twilight of democracy is appearing right before us.

The world is full, these days, of shockingly, astoundingly poor “leadership,” and I put that in quotes because the sorts I’m talking about are so dismal that make a mockery of the world leadership. Bad leadership? Consider Britain, which is suffering the sharpest fall in living standards since the Great Depression. Then there’s any number of European countries, who’ve turned to far right that are “formerly” Nazi, as if that somehow made everything acceptable and OK. Leadership is something between a joke and a scandal in this dystopian rerun of the gilded slash authoritarian age.

In that context — can I say it? — Biden’s been a pretty good President. I’m as repelled by the horror in Gaza as any thinking person, and I can fault Biden for any other number of flaws, from debt onwards. And if that’s a deal-breaker for you, that’s OK — this isn’t an exhortation to vote for anyone, or not. We’re just talking about leadership, and two things, by now, are strikingly clear: that Trump’s being accepted as a leader, and Biden’s not. And that’s a remarkable thing, because…

Nobody should be losing to Donald Trump, and nobody much outside a handful of lunatics and fanatics should be accepting Trump as a leader, after all he’s done, like attempting a coup that was broadcast to an incredulous world. Nobody. Surely attempting a coup should be enough to disqualify you from the Presidency, if not to the Supreme Court, then at least in the mind of the average person. If it isn’t, what could be?

So why is this happening, this curious disjuncture, Trump being accepted as a leader, while Biden isn’t? It’s true, of course, that Biden’s made some serious mistakes — we just discussed Gaza and debt — that have had the effect of causing fissures to grow in the fragile coalition between center and left. But I think the story’s deeper, bigger, and more revealing than that, really — I think even if he hadn’t made those mistakes, he’d still be in something like the same position, especially vis a vis Trump. So what gives here?

There was a remarkable article in the Washington Post today. It basically — to paraphrase — said something like: “Joe Biden’s obsessed with facts, figures, and details. What kind of a loser does that? And meanwhile, he’s boring.” The contempt was palpable. Is this…news? Even newsworthy? It’s not too hard to see by now that the media hates Biden, and the question is: why? What did he ever do, and it’s not as if they hate Biden for Gaza, remember, because they’re hardly out there defending poor innocent kids from being bombed to bits. Yet there was another post, in the same paper, that interestingly made the point that it can’t be the media’s fault that Biden’s ratings are so low, because (ironically) barely anybody reads the news, anyways.

So what’s really going on here?

I think that something very much like 2016 is happening, all over again. In those days, Trump was legitimized, and the warnings were ignored, minimized, even mocked. Meanwhile, the media played into the hands of “but her emails!,” and shredded Hillary’s chances, and her warnings, of course, turned out to be prescient.

What’s happening this time around is that Trump’s being legitimized as a leader, versus being portrayed as a demagogue. Meanwhile, Biden’s being delegitimized as a leader — by articles like the above: note how as the attack line “but he’s old! Frail! He can barely walk!” was laid to rest by his scorching State of the Union, where he was in full command — as soon as that one was disproven, a new one hit, which was: Biden’s a boring dork, nerd, and he can’t inspire anyone, subtext, he’s a weakling.

So. Let me simplify that. Trump’s being legitimized as a leader. Meanwhile, Biden’s being delegitimized as one. It’s incredibly rare, even at this point, for media to really carry commentary on how dangerous another Trump term would be for America, or the world. What’s “newsworthy” is amplifying his latest rhetoric, lies, taunts, etcetera. Once in a while, there’ll be fact checking, but of course, by then, the damage is done. Meanwhile, Biden barely makes the news. See how quickly headlines about that scorching State of the Union vanished? In this relentless, obsessive 24 hour news cycle, where yesterday’s news is barely hours old, keeping up with the pace of it only really possible for someone like Trump, who’ll repeat the same lie a thousand times. Rapid-fire demagoguery is tailor made for it.

Even all of that, though, only really raises the question: why? What’s with this weird bias, in the first place? You get the sense that Biden could pass a New New Deal, and there’d barely be positive coverage for a day, while baseless criticism of it would linger for months. It’s like a kind of mountain that his team seems unable to surmount. Here’s how this game really works.

American culture is sort of bereft because its news traffics in what are called “narratives.” And once a narrative sticks, that’s it. Game over. It can almost never be changed — in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one change. “Narratives” are just myths, and they’re not created by dogged journalists, who, for the most part, do good work, but by their bosses, editors. Editors in America, unfortunately, think their job isn’t just to edit the news, but to create these things called “narratives,” because that’s the only way people can understand the news.

So for example the New York Times has this narrative of “both sides,” which infuriates everyone in sort of equal measure. The Post has a narrative of institutionalism, which is that America’s institutions are inherently good and just and wise. On and on it goes. Narratives aren’t inherently bad — these ones can be pretty innocuous, at times — but when it comes to people, narratives are the kiss of death. They flatten. They kill nuance. They destroy subtlety. They prevent knowledge. They stifle depth and richness.

Who thrives in that sort of reduced, two, or maybe even, one, dimensional environment? Demagogues do. If you’re trying to tell a complicated story, or be a complicated person — forget it. Impossible. The only thing that cuts through the Iron Curtain of The Narrative is the Demagogue’s Eternal Fairy Tale: we good, they bad, we pure of blood and true of faith, they impure, annihilate, destroy, exterminate. The simpler a story is to understand, the more Narrative-Worthy it is — and there’s nothing simpler than the Demagogue’s Eternal Fairy Tale.

So in this narrative, a sort of story of progress, with all its human complications, subtleties, trade-offs, harder choices — it has absolutely nowhere to go. Think back about how Hillary was flattened to a one-dimensional being by The Narrative: all that mattered was “her emails,” and maybe her husband, not…her ideas, accomplishments, agenda, vision. I’m not saying that any of those were perfect, or you should have gotten behind them, just that this process of being crushed into a two-dimensional being happened, and what resulted from that? Trump won.

Because Trump is one dimensional. There’s nothing there but what meets the eye. The rage, the spite, the hate, the vitriol. What he promises today, he’ll surely deliver tomorrow, from dictatorship, to politically motivated prosecutions, to isolationism, fascism, and authoritarianism. And behind all this is only one simplstic, childish, idea, which isn’t even an idea, really, at all, just a mirage: the Demagogue’s Eternal Fairy Tale. Trump wins, thrives, because he’s one dimensional, and this environment crushes anyone and anything who isn’t.

Now think of the more complex story of how progress actually works, and what it is. We try, we fail. Trade-offs are made, hard choices. Who’s going to receive climate funding tomorrow? Civil rights, yesterday, proceeded in a series of difficult, painful, step-wise advances. The idea that people should have anything at all as basic human rights — that took millennia to achieve, precisely because first we had to admit that we had things in common, and weren’t just different species or what have you. It’s an incredibly complex, subtle, nuanced story, this thing we call progress, or civilization, because it involves all the mess and despair and triumph of the human experience.

All of that’s why we don’t have leadership these days. Look around. What do we have? We have influencers at mega-scale, playing the role of fascists and authoritarians, who have become modern day demagogues. Trump is really an influencer in thin disguise, and so are his ilk across the globe. Meanwhile, at a more mundane level, kids are now glued to literal influencers, making some last ditch search for guidance in a world gone haywire. Influence is what we have now, and it’s rewiring our world, but not usually in good ways. Do you really want your kid to read a Great Book…or watch a YouTube video by some…

You probably thought I was going to tell you what leadership in an age like this. I’m not. Rather, I want to point out that all of these conditions together make it difficult, maybe even impossible, for leadership — the real thing — to emerge. Biden currently has the most thankless job in the world, and we all know it, no matter our feelings about him, that he’s not really in it for reasons of ego. We live in a flattened world now, where even being a two-dimensional being is rare, and most of us are reduced to one-dimension: good, bad, pure, impure. That’s the world the demagogues want — not the subtle, complex, messy, beautiful one of complication.

And the demagogues are getting that world because the more that institutions and systems cede to their paradigm of flattening, of reduction, the more they win, because of course, the more one-dimensional things get, the easier it is for them and them alone to win.

We need to rethink all this, this approach, this paradigm. We need spaces and places, institutions and systems, that are different now. Where we can reflect, learn, appreciate, grow, and become three-dimensional beings again. Otherwise? This is how it ends, my friends. Democracy winks out, civilization goes with it, and all that’s left in the end is the vanishing point. What’s one dimensional? A dot. A pinprick. All that’s left at the end of implosion.

Come on over and join us at the Issue, if you haven’t already. There’s plenty more to read, so have a browse. I’ll see you there.

Umair
March 2024

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