There’s a big way, though, in which the high-minded rhetoric falls flat. Biden isn’t only far more focused on the past than on the future — he seems to think the past was satisfactory.
Biden’s speech starts 243 years ago, with the Declaration of Independence. It uses Thomas Jefferson’s self-evident truths to set up a dichotomy in contrast to President Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” equivalence: the bad Charlottesville of two summers ago, and the good one of nation’s founding.
Biden anticipates the obvious criticism. “We haven’t always lived up to those ideals,” he admits, and of course “Jefferson himself didn’t.” But that acknowledgement looks perfunctory against the thrust of his oration: Donald Trump is an interruption in a great American story — and Trumpism, as Biden puts it, is “an aberrant moment in time.”
The problem is, you can’t pull Trump out of time, and you can’t tell America’s story while ignoring the bits you don’t like. Biden claims in his coda that this nation “instills in every person in this country the belief that no matter where you start in life, there’s nothing you can’t achieve if you work at it. That’s what we believe.” But plenty of people don’t believe that, and they’re right.
Those neo-Nazis did not emerge from Richard Spencer’s head fully formed with torches lit. They’re the most dramatic expression of an ideology that has always been latent here, from the days when Jefferson and his cohorts failed to “live up to those ideals.” Trump didn’t come out of nowhere, either. He’s just shouting out loud what has always been the quiet part of modern Republican racism, cast in terms of keeping communities safe or protecting the integrity of the vote. Even Democrats of this generation have touted their tough-on-crime credentials in the ’90s and beyond.
Should we take Trump as an aberration? Or is he an alarm blaring at Americans to pay attention and stop pretending the United States is on a steady march toward justice? Is he a wake-up call to actually pick up our feet — to take action to dismantle the lasting elements of white supremacy in our society, not all of which come conveniently illustrated with bulging veins and fangs; or to reverse structures that keep poor people of all races poor; or to ensure our kids’ kids don’t have to figure out how to live underwater? Answering that call requires recognizing that the bad Charlottesville and the good Charlottesville aren’t as far apart as Biden might like to think, and the years between Jefferson and Trump were not so rosy.
There’s a case Biden could present: that experience matters, that being pragmatic does not mean being unprincipled, that he can tell you based on how America has changed already in his time in politics how it needs to change now, that he has an anchor in all those ideals and values, but that he also has a vision. This is not the case Biden chose to present in his opening video. Instead, he chose to make Trump the protagonist. That might play well in the general election, if Biden gets that far, but it doesn’t do much for anyone who actually wants to know how a candidate plans to change the country, besides that Donald Trump won’t be in charge of it anymore.
Maybe that’s because Biden is not especially interested in change. The case he presents in his video is not for himself, but for America — setting up the election as a contest between the nation he has always known and the man who’s currently running it. But many of us don’t want the nation Joe Biden, veteran of the ’70s Senate, has always known. We want something better.
“We’ve heard it so often, it’s almost a cliche,” Biden says after quoting those Jefferson lines he insists we know by heart. Almost?