Tawdry Season in America
This autumn was always going to be a tawdry season in America. The past couple of weeks have been a jubilee of below-the-belt viral content: a photograph of the former vice-president’s son leaning down apparently to snort powder off a woman’s bare buttock; a still from the new Borat movie of the former New York mayor in a hotel room with a young woman, leaning back on the bed with his hands in his pants; a story of a journalist pleasuring himself during a Zoom conference in the sight of his colleagues (he said he thought he’d turned the camera off). Sleaze and perversion are now the permanent backdrop of US politics. The world turns its eyes away from a hegemon whose henchmen can’t stop pulling their dicks out.
By contrast, the final debate between Trump and Biden was almost decorous. With mute controls on the candidates’ microphones, there was none of the rudeness, interrupting, bullying, and name calling of their last encounter, when unknown to all the president was in the early stages of a Covid-19 infection. In boxing terms, it’s hard not to say the match was a draw. No longer unhinged, Trump seemed, it pains me to say, more competent than usual, though as crude as ever. On the environment: ‘China – look how filthy it is!’ On Obama’s immigration policies: ‘Catch and release is a disaster. A murderer would come in, a rapist would come in, a very bad person would come in – we would take their name, we have to release them into our country.’ On his own policies of deportation and turning away asylum seekers: ‘Less than one per cent of the people come back … Those with the lowest IQ, they might come back.’ Such is the president’s vision of the world, and it’s nothing new. After three and a half years on the job, though, he can now thread his vulgarities through an almost nuanced discussion of policy. Late in the debate he spelled out what must have been his intended campaign strategy before the pandemic killed more than 200,000 people and flushed the economy down the drain:
I will tell you, go back before the plague came in, just before, I was getting calls from people that were not normally people that would call me. They wanted to get together. We had the best Black unemployment numbers in the history of our country, Hispanic, women, Asian, people with diplomas, with no diplomas, MIT graduates, number one in the class – everybody had the best numbers. And you know what? The other side wanted to get together. They wanted to unify. Success is going to bring us together. We are on the road to success.
A soaring economy and a tight labour market have never really figured in the arguments made by Trump’s opponents. If they did, they were leftovers from Obama, and indeed Obama took credit for them at a drive-in rally in Philadelphia this week. On stage on Thursday night, Biden repeated Obama’s signature rhetorical flourish: not red states and blue states but the United States. There was nothing of the senile to Biden’s performance, but beyond ameliorative policy prescriptions he has little to offer except a sentimental liberalism: ‘What is on the ballot here is the character of this country. Decency. Honour. Respect. Treating people with dignity.’
Wave away the platitudes, though, and what’s on the ballot is a choice between Trump’s adversarial nationalism or the restoration of a pursuit of globalisation with America as the dominant partner. That’s why, when Trump talks about China or North Korea, he makes a certain sense: he’s trying to beat them and get what he wants and he’s doing it for you. The system Biden has come to restore is beyond his powers of description. If Biden could really explain it to them, most voters probably wouldn’t like it. Instead here’s some decency, respect, and dignity to tide you over as the economy advances into realms of abstraction you’ll never understand. Trump offers more straightforward transactions, to do with money, which is why Ice Cube announced last week that he was sitting down with the Republicans to discuss his Contract for Black America.
Since Trump’s ‘unity through success’ message is another casualty of Covid-19, he’s reverted to his primary political tactic: delegitimisation. Obama was a foreigner, Clinton a criminal, and now Biden is the head of a crime family. (Whether that makes him a suitable puppet for the radical left, Trump’s other line of attack, is an open question.) Nearly half an hour of every Trump rally is now devoted to Hunter Biden and ‘the laptop from hell’, almost as much time as Trump spends retelling the story of his 2016 victory and asserting that the polls are wrong again. There are several reasons to believe the strategy won’t work this time, not least that Biden doesn’t have a pre-existing reputation for corruption. There’s also the unseemliness of scapegoating his dewy-eyed drug addict son.
Hunter Biden’s business career, such as it is, is another matter. Whether or not there has been a quid pro quo – in Ukraine, China, Russia or anywhere else – there is the appearance of conflict of interest. Hardly any aspect of Hunter Biden’s career has been without it, from his job with a bank headquartered in the state his father represented in the Senate, to his appointment by George W. Bush to the board of AmTrak, to his globetrotting enterprises as an alleged peddler of multimillion dollar ‘introductions’. The business partner who advised him not to sit on the board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma was Chris Heinz, the ketchup heir and John Kerry’s stepson. Are these scions doing anything beyond trading on their family names? Perhaps, but they are certainly doing a bit of that too. If Hunter Biden, as the alleged emails indicate, kicks half his money ‘to Pop’, he’s just being a loyal son. When Hunter’s older brother, Beau, was stricken with cancer and resigned as Delaware attorney general, Joe Biden was reduced to borrowing from his boss. Obama had the money because his political career had brought him millions in book royalties. After his presidency he and his wife have struck book deals with Random House and production deals with Netflix. This, too, is a form of trading off your name. And as for the sons of George H.W. Bush …
It’s what Trump calls ‘the Swamp’, and whether or not it’s legal, it has become the norm. Trump, a famous violator of norms and veteran brand entrepreneur, offers in its place blatant grift: booking foreign dignitaries in his hotels and renting their governments office space they never bother occupying. He is not a politician, he asserts, and doesn’t even draw a salary as president. The politicians of the establishment, Democrat and Republican, are hypocrites. He is shameless. Dignity has never been associated with his name.