It is perhaps the strangest spectacle in history. The most powerful country on the planet, whose economy and – zooming out now and looking at it in the longest historical perspective – whose porous society remains the envy of the world, is now seemingly set to make a choice between two possible leaders: a man with sociopathic tendencies under four criminal indictments and an octogenarian with rapidly declining faculties.
In this place where any civilian can buy a weapon of war and murder their fellow Americans in great numbers, where another American can then say it never happened on Twitter/X, where civil peacetime society bears the afflictions of war – murder, rape, violence and predation of every sort – where anyone seems free to do anything to anyone else or, lacking that, to seek retribution for one reason or another in court – in this place where freedom is tipping over into its opposite and posing the greatest threat to freedom – in America now, 280 million adults watch helplessly as their fate is being decided by two men who seem, by even the most generous standard, out of their minds.
In a country where, in effect, popular uprisings achieved women’s right to vote, empowered unions, a social safety net, civil rights, rights for gay people, an exit from the slaughterhouse in south-east Asia – in this once vibrant cauldron of change, Republicans are too afraid to renounce Donald Trump as their standard-bearer and Democrats are too afraid to ask Joe Biden to step aside. The nation’s fate is being decided by subterranean currents of power, threats, promises and money.
On 8 February, the country was stunned by revelations about President Biden’s mental condition that emerged from the report of a special prosecutor investigating Biden’s handling of classified documents. Biden, concluded the special prosecutor, Robert K Hur – a Trump appointee chosen by Biden’s attorney general, Merrick Garland, to conduct the investigation – “was a well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” who had “diminished faculties in advancing age”. The media accompanied this shocker with accounts of Biden recently confusing Angela Merkel with Helmut Kohl, Emmanuel Macron with François Mitterrand and, just at the moment when he was trying to prove his mental alertness, mixing up the president of Egypt with the president of Mexico. Biden could not, according to the report, remember the years when he served as vice-president, or – poignantly recorded by the ruthless prosecutor – the year his son, Beau, died. Hur decided not to pursue criminal charges because, he implied, a jury would regard Biden with pity, as mentally incompetent.
The press conference Biden hastily arranged to refute this startling picture of him only made matters worse. A reporter told him, “Many American people have been watching and they have expressed concern about your age.” Biden snapped back, shouting, “That is your judgement. That is your judgement. That is not the judgement of the press!” clearly intending to say “people” instead of “press”. When the assembled reporters began shouting their questions to him simultaneously, he froze for a minute, with something like fear in his eyes, unsure of how to proceed. Biden’s character seemed to dissolve along with his faculties: instead of displaying “the buck stops here” dignity of his office, he defensively blamed his mishandling of classified documents on his staff.
Americans sat stupefied before their screens, perhaps fearing that their president’s sphincter nerve would fail him next, even as Vladimir Putin was forcefully micturating upon Tucker Carlson, the right-wing provocateur who had travelled to Russia to interview Putin, reducing Carlson to silence as Putin lectured him on Russia’s greatness and prerogatives. And as Carlson’s interview was posted on X, now run by a billionaire who is said to spend his days in a psychotropic and Ambien-induced haze. Compared to all this, Slim Pickens riding an atomic bomb at the end of Dr Strangelove seems like a reassuring prank.
Snapping angrily at reporters, wandering through repeated phrases, speaking in mechanically willed cadences, nervously fidgeting with the papers on his lectern in front of him – all symptoms of dementia – Biden declared: “I am the most qualified person in this country to be president of the United States.” That was imprecise. He is the most symbolic person in the country to lead this country.
Biden is the vanishing president. In this sense, he is the very opposite of the type of figure Americans desire to see in the White House. He is not that proverbial person you feel you could sit down next to at a bar and have a heart-to-heart with because that person shares your most elemental experience of life. On the contrary, Biden presents to the country the shock of recognition – he is the vanishing president who reflects a vanishing America. A vanishing world power. A place where accelerated cultural trends, driven by the marketplace, eat away at whatever is stable and familiar.
And it is not simply that American power is vanishing. No one seems to know any more just what American power is, what its function is, how it should operate, what its basis is in either morality or raison d’état. When Biden froze, in what looked for all the world like terror, before a chaotic room animated by self-interested reporters, each one guided by their own agenda, he might have been confronting a world that is on fire.
His mental frailty makes him vulnerable to the strongest external pressure. After the very hawkish Senator Tom Cotton called Biden a “coward” for not immediately retaliating after three American soldiers were killed in Jordan by an Iranian proxy group – an astonishing thing to say about a sitting president – Biden retaliated – pointlessly and futilely. The situation is downright Skinnerian. You wonder what other types of negative reinforcement might impel Biden to take heedless action, in perhaps an even more perilous context.
It is true that America right now is doing far better than Americans think it is. The economy is booming, the unemployment rate is at an historic low, Biden deftly steered the country out of the pandemic. Americans’ perception that the country is economically floundering is largely the creation of a shameless press. Not long ago, the New York Times ran two successive articles purportedly showing that America’s air-traffic control system was in such chaos that an aviation catastrophe was just around the corner. Shortly after that, the Wall Street Journal published an article showing that America’s air-traffic control system was among the safest in the world. An irresponsible, schizophrenic press can create its own reality of political despair.
Still, though the American economy is flourishing, the economy is cyclical, and Americans want to know that there is a steady hand at the helm, not multiple pairs of hands guiding a faltering leader. Things change, crisis happens all of a sudden, and an ageing president who does not function effectively is not just an insult to the people he is supposed to represent, but an insult to anyone in the world who looks to American power for signs and portents by which to navigate. Gertrude Stein called America “the oldest young country in the world” not “the most cognitively impaired young country in the world”.
Biden was elected in 2020 in order to still the chaos that Trump, abetted by a hysterical liberal media, had unleashed. Biden, who had been in the highest echelons of American politics for decades, presented a steady hand, rooted in American history and traditions. Trump, by contrast, was the postmodern figure par excellence, a cubist-like simultaneity of personality fragments, none of which seemed continuous with the other.
That dynamic has now been reversed. Far from being the embodiment of stable and stabilising American values, Biden is the hologram president – a fabricated mirage of American idealism and strength. He is the perfect emblem of the digital age. Memory in America has been fragmented, splintered by the ubiquitous screen. In a country where you routinely see people driving at high speeds while looking down at their phones, it makes perfect if depressing sense that a computer-generated simulacrum of a president, rather than a real president, should be wending his way through the world’s traffic.
Postmodern Trump, on the other hand, has become the analogue answer to the disorienting misery of simulacra. His very lewdness, vulgarity, viciousness, mendacity, is, to many, a breath of fresh air. Ecce homo! At the very least, a human being. Unlike distracted, confused Biden, Trump is fixated, intense, obsessive. Biden is an automated playlist created by Spotify that has no actual connection to anyone’s sensibility and taste. Trump is good, old-fashioned vinyl. He allows you to take him out of his sleeve and play him whenever you are feeling nostalgic or blue. Trump is the vanished world of album liner notes. He leaves nothing back and lets you read him, transparently, as you listen to him perform his familiar tune.
It is a conundrum alright. You look in vain for the editorial writers to shame Biden into stepping aside, to tell the truth about the reality of an increasingly incompetent president. You search futilely for some comedian’s devastating impersonation of Biden. But the liberal media, who at the height of cancel culture showed themselves capable of destroying their own at will, are nowhere to be found. Yet all it would take is to point out how Biden, the great saviour of democracy, is holding a gun to its head by not stepping aside, either by opening the door to a second Trump presidency, or by putting the country itself into grave peril.
There will, for sure, be a reckoning at the polls. The fact is that behind the woke turn is a generational conflict. What is really the bane of every young person? Deindustrialisation? Racism? Sexism? Inequality? Inequity? No. Statins. The older generation simply will not step aside. Soon, the veils of idealistic cant about domestic policy and foreign policy will fall away from Biden and he will be seen as the grotesquerie that he is. A dilapidated old man aping the sentiments and values of idealistic youth even as he steps on their dreams and their futures. The backlash, on the part of young people who feel obstructed and betrayed, will be furious.
But Biden is indisputably the man of his moment. Like the president, America has its own memory lapses. The country has forgotten what it was like to act in unison, beyond narrow self-interest, for the good of all. Enter Biden who, seemingly loosing his memory, is now, like the society of immediate gratification that he presides over, the plaything of scattered impulses and sensations. A man entirely of the vanishing present.
[See also: Alastair Campbell is still wrong about Gaza]