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Jews Drinking Coffee and Watching the Democratic Convention

Tablet staff and contributors’ rolling commentary on the Democratic National Convention, as it happens

Tablet Magazine
August 13, 2020
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Joe Biden delivers his acceptance speech on the fourth night of the Democratic National Convention from the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, on Aug. 20, 2020Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Joe Biden delivers his acceptance speech on the fourth night of the Democratic National Convention from the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, on Aug. 20, 2020Win McNamee/Getty Images

This article will be updated throughout the convention.

Instead of presenting you with the hard-hitting and in-person team coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions that we planned back in January (a big shout-out here to Tablet’s Airbnb hosts in Milwaukee and Charlotte, who gave us our money back), we will proudly be sharing our remote impressions of this year’s Democratic and Republican Party-branded Zoom calls—which for all we really know are Deep Fakes produced by Kremlin agents or by a high school kid in Tampa, Florida.

It’s August, and our brains are fried by six months of anxiety about the pandemic and the prospect of ever-wider social collapse, and by watching baseball games with no people in the stands, and ballooning credit card debt, and the knowledge that we are all wholly owned subsidiaries of Google and Amazon. None of us wants to begin thinking about what happens after Labor Day, when schools will attempt to reopen and flu season starts.

So why not enjoy the rest of our social distanced summer at a national park or drinking vodka with Xanax? Well, because no matter which party you believe poses the most immediate danger to America, this year’s election seems likely to have a profound effect on the future of the country that most of us are stuck living in even after the Canadian border reopens. It therefore goes without saying that the 45% or more of our fellow citizens who will vote for the wrong party in November are corrupted traitors who should be canceled, banned, and hopefully fired from their jobs, if they are lucky enough to still have them, before being sent to reeducation camps. That’s what it means to be an American.

Take it away, gang. —The Editors

Jump to our continuing coverage of the Democratic National Convention:

A View From California by Jonah Raskin
Tag-Team Champions by Paul Berman
The Light Isn’t Enough by Armin Rosen
The Obama-Biden Democrat by Sean Cooper
Biden’s Wasted Opportunity by Jacob Siegel

Biden’s Challenge by Jacob Siegel
Award Winning Convention? by Paul Berman
Obama’s Forgotten Crisis by Sean Cooper
The Competence Campaign by Yair Rosenberg
The Beloved Community and the Circus of Politics by Jonah Raskin
Doom and Gloom by Armin Rosen
Obama Still Stands Above the Rest by Wesley Yang

The Entire Election in 50 Seconds by Yair Rosenberg
The Forgotten Epidemic by Sean Cooper
The Emperor’s New Mask by Noam Blum
Candida and Candidate: Footnotes for the 2020 DNC by Jonah Raskin
Biden Being Biden by Armin Rosen
The Jargon Jugglers by Wesley Yang
The Women Around Joe by Jonah Raskin
The Democrats Are the Beautiful People Now by Michael Lind
The Great Restoration by Jacob Siegel

The Trump Distraction by Paul Berman
Four Reasons 2020 Is Unique by Jonah Raskin
Cuomo’s ‘Sublime’ Way by Armin Rosen
Bernie’s New Line by Paul Berman
The Secret Playbook of the Democrats by Michael Lind
Bernie Changed America by Yair Rosenberg
The United States of America by Jonah Raskin
The Beautiful People by Wesley Yang
What Will Biden’s Normalcy Look Like? by Sean Cooper

This article will be updated throughout the convention.


CaliforniaA View From California

Wildfires have been raging all around me in Northern California. At any moment, I might have to grab my backpack with a toothbrush, a change of clothes, and my laptop, and drive to San Francisco an hour away. Watching the DNC during the fires over the course of the last few days, has enabled me to escape from the immediate crisis, and to think about the big crisis that the whole nation is facing. I enjoyed watching the Warriors and Steph Curry and his family, and laughed with comedian Sarah Cooper, though I would have appreciated more ridiculing of Trump, who is after all a buffoon and a clown as well as a dangerous authoritarian. Writing several times a day and with deadlines has been a challenge.

Reading the words of other members of the Tablet DNC tribe has been inspiring. Though I was thousands of miles away from Wilmington, Delaware, where Biden spoke, I felt that he came into my California living room and spoke to me directly, especially when he mentioned civil rights activist Ella Baker, evoked President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, quoted from the Declaration of Independence, and spoke the words of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. I feel like I now know who Joe Biden is. It helped enormously that he explained that he decided to run for president after watching the events that took place at the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, three years ago, in August 2017. I’m stoked about this election as I have never been stoked before.

Donald Trump and the Republicans? Bring them on!

TagTeamTag-Team Champions

Obama’s very fine speech on Wednesday and Biden’s equally fine speech on Thursday were a tag-team defense and exposition of the generally forgotten but immensely powerful ideological foundation of the Democratic Party, which reaches back to Andrew Jackson and the party’s earliest days in the 1820s and 30s. The ideological foundation was a progressive interpretation of the American Revolution of 1776. The American Revolution has come into bad repute lately, even in the pages of The New York Times, whose “1619 Project” managed to present it as a reactionary movement to preserve slavery.

But Obama argued otherwise, and he gave his argument a theatrical twist by delivering it at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. In Obama’s presentation, the American Revolution created the tools with which slavery and all kinds of additional horrors and oppression could be opposed and defeated. His jabs at Trump attracted most of the attention. But the historical observations served to reaffirm the Democratic Party’s allegiance to the Revolution, and to the idea of the Revolution as a principle of American progress. This is an argument that Hillary Clinton should have made in 2016, but failed to do so, except perhaps in passing phrases. (At the Democratic convention in 2016, it was Cory Booker who touched on the argument.)

And Biden took the argument to its next stage. He conjured the Revolution directly by saying, “All men and women are created equal” (with the phrase “and women” an annoying addition that is mandatory today, though everyone understands that “all men” was a universal statement). But mostly he spoke as if patriotic ardor and progressive aspirations were one and the same. He made plain that, in his judgment, the mood of the country is ready for major social reforms. And the doctrinal basis for those major reforms will be patriotismwhich is to say, patriotism as understood historically by the Democratic Party, in its origins: patriotic loyalty to the American Revolution, which requires ever more forward steps toward an ever more democratic society.

Obama’s speech was unusually emotional. Biden’s speech was likewise emotional. The emotion, in both cases, had to do with these ideas. The speeches were superb. They augur well for the remaining period of the campaign. And they suggest that, if Biden is elected, an age of major social reform may be upon us.

LightThe Light Isn’t Enough

There he is, the man we’re all settling for. Everyone from unreconstructed neocons to members of various DSA steering committees are united in their lack of enthusiasm for their inevitable Biden vote. Yet to have earned this loyalty-by-resignation from such a spectacularly vast range of the American political spectrum proves that the former vice president has pulled off something far more subtle than simply meeting a semicoherent series of minimum thresholds. For the past two years, the former vice president has been operating from a counterintuitive theory of the electorate that’s been correct at every turn. In a remarkable acceptance speech, we heard its clearest articulation yet.

Biden believes that Americans want a president that they won’t be afraid of. This isn’t quite as obvious as it might seem, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s election. Four years ago, America opted for a wild experiment in governance—a revolt against a cross-partisan elite that was alleged to care little for the priorities or lived experiences of the normal folks whose fates it governed. The appetite for such experimentation was so overwhelming that many voters didn’t care if the person they backed was a maniac. For some, Trump’s impulsiveness and general unpredictability were actually the clincher, since they were proof he really was as different from his adversaries as he claimed to be.

For a while it seemed like the embrace of political exoticism had spread leftward as well: Bernie Sanders also promised an exhilarating clearing of the decks. But Biden was correct in realizing that most Americans, while comfortable with some limited and highly nebulous notion of “change,” actually don’t want the president to be a Lord of Misrule or a tormentor. “We can choose a path of becoming angrier, less hopeful, more divided; a path of shadow and suspicion,” Biden said toward the middle of his speech, “or we can choose a different path and together take this chance to heal, to reform, to unite.”

So part one of the theory is that the American nervous condition has just about passed, and that people will vote for an unexciting 77-year-old who has been in elected office since his late 20s if they think he can bring it to a blessedly sudden close. Part two of the theory is that despite all appearances, Americans across ideologies actually do buy into their country’s mythology and will therefore back a president who appeals to their core belief in an inherent national goodness.

“We can and we will overcome this season of darkness in America,” said Biden at the top of the speech. Not an era, not a century—in the life of a great nation this whole mess constitutes a mere season in hell. The beginning and end of the speech both contained several almost rhetorically parallel references to a battle between darkness and light. Thus, toward the very end: “In this dark moment I believe we’re poised to make great progress again, that we can find the light once more.” Such language doesn’t root national virtue in any historical process or in a scorecard of things America has and hasn’t done. Ours is instead an innate worthiness, an inner essence that would guide us even—and maybe especially—if the country lost its way. I imagine most Americans, including a lot of very liberal ones, hold this decidedly unhip and vaguely spiritual idea of patriotism, even if they’ve never thought about it in those terms. Americans want to believe, despite or maybe even because of the overwhelming negativity that has recently seized so much of the country (and long stretches of this very DNC). A lot of them believe already and just want to believe with less fear and guilt than they’re currently feeling. Biden grasps this reality, which is why he made it this far in this particular year.

Of course Obama understood it too: He won landslide electoral victories in part because of his uplifting and sophisticated rhetoric of patriotism, which he was also skilled in deploying during times of national dread and exhaustion. But a theory of the electorate is not a theory of governance or of power. Once in office, Biden will have to keep his project from falling victim to its various internal contradictions long after Trump has left the scene. He’ll have to guide things skillfully enough that Americans won’t be tempted into a Trump- or a Bernie-like rejection of what he represents. The light won’t be enough. It arguably wasn’t enough the last time around.

ObamaBidenThe Obama-Biden Democrat

Last night’s Joe Biden was quite different from the dour and confused Joe Biden that came out late and left quickly after he delivered wandering and, as I wrote at the time, incoherent remarks this February in New Hampshire. There’s been a cognitive-decline narrative that’s swirled about Biden since he entered the race, and though it’s been exaggerated and amplified unfairly against him, it originated because of appearances like that one during the primaries. To anyone who watched that Biden on the trail it was difficult to not see him as a candidate hardly up to the task at hand. His strong debate against Bernie Sanders this March, and again his competent and at times effectively emotive acceptance speech last night at the convention, should solidify that counterimage of a strong candidate in the minds of most voters who doubted he had the endurance for the fight through November.

What became clear as well last night was to what degree Biden will position his campaign as an extension of the Obama administration, like a bridge that carries America over the toxic, troubling waters of a Trump presidency. Biden has billed himself recently as an “Obama-Biden” Democrat, which is to say Biden is here as the affable, likable, familiar custodian of an executive branch orientation that consolidated 52% of all economic growth among the top 1% while prioritizing mutually beneficial relationships with big business, monopolies, and the banks.

Biden’s propensity for sentimentality, and the general American desire for anything that soothes or comforts, means that we’ll continue to hear little till the election of what Obama’s administration was actually like in terms of its responsibility for the financialization and privatization of many of our public and civic institutions, hear little of how much Obama instigated the massive income inequality that still haunts our economic situation. And we will hear false interpretations of how the Obama-Biden doctrine saved America after the last recession, of that Band-Aid of pervasive gig work and nonunion jobs which was slapped over the wound of terrible unemployment. We will hear, and many will believe, it was so much better then, and because of how bad it feels at the moment, what we remember to have been true will likewise save us tomorrow.

OpportunityBiden’s Wasted Opportunity

My colleague Yair Rosenberg has repeatedly and rightly insisted that the Democratic convention can’t be judged by how well it satisfies ideologues and activists, or by how much approval it wins from the media class. The only thing that matters is how many undecided voters are swayed by its appeal to cast their ballots for Joe Biden.

It is difficult for me to see how the carefully stage-managed vacuousness of the proceedings over the last four nights, big on well-groomed celebrities and often resembling a Hollywood awards show, was a success. Neither Biden nor his VP pick Kamala Harris conveyed a grasp of the precarity and powerlessness of the tens of millions of service sector and gig workers whose prospects for economic and social security get dimmer the longer the lockdowns continue. Instead, they focused on moral and sentimental appeals. Harris recounted details of her personal background. Biden, in his speech last night, invoked the grotesque and pathetic 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville as if it was a pivotal event in the memories of average American voters. There is nothing wrong with condemning a parade of Nazi goons but if the point is to swing the swingable voters, those minutes from the speech may have been better spent on matters closer to the day-to-day concerns of ordinary people.

Day4Day 4

BidenChallengeBiden’s Challenge

Yes, Joe Biden is the Democrats’ nominee and Kamala Harris is his running mate. Yes, they and countless other celebrities and political leaders have spent the last few days gravely urging the American people to vote as if their lives depended on it. But all that being what it is—standard fare for a party convention—the fact remains that Joe Biden is, future president or not, part of the same locked-down alternate world as the rest of us, and as long as that continues he’s just along for the ride while Donald Trump runs against his own record.

For all that it counts in the election, Trump’s record may begin sometime around the start of 2020. His handling of the conjoined crises that began with the pandemic and lockdowns, and now includes ongoing protests and street violence as well as looming economic disaster, will be at the front of voters’ minds.

When Biden comes out tonight, his goal will be to project that he is not Donald Trump. He can’t help but succeed. But he will also need to show that he is capable of overcoming Trump’s preternatural force-of-nature-ness, and there his success is less assured.

AwardAward Winning Convention?

Peter Marks, the drama critic of the Washington Post, brought me up short this morning by writing: “For your Emmy consideration: The Democratic National Convention. Seriously, Wednesday night was far and away the best full evening of political television I have ever witnessed.” But my view is different.

I have watched the live TV broadcasts of every Democratic and Republican national convention since 1956, and honestly the present convention is the worst I have ever seen. I missed the 1952 conventions because my folks had not yet bought a TV. But the big wooden TV box was in place by 1954 to watch the Army-McCarthy hearings, which were great, from a TV-watching viewpoint. And the box was in place for the conventions.

The conventions seemed to me instructive, moving, fascinating, inspiring, and intensely dramatic. Agog I watched a Distinguished Somebody from the Great State of Somewhere stand at a microphone and address the chairman at the podium, who, in my memory, was invariably a stocky and decisive-looking woman known as “Madame Chairman.” The political maneuvers were maybe hard to follow, but I did catch on to the fact of maneuvers, otherwise known as politics, and their history, and their potential consequences.

But this present spectacle––this, what is the word?––this thing which people call a convention? It is watchable, but it is not really political, and very little in it is learnable. Some good speeches, yes, buried beneath the gimmickry.

But I agree with Wesley Yang and Michael Lind, both of whom have been horrified by the Beautiful People who dominate the scene. The spectacle of Eva Longoria as emcee on the first night was nauseating to me. Eva Longoriabeautiful, slender, except where she shouldn’t be, sexy, and glamorousis the very actress who ought to play Melania Trump in the biopic. And her role, followed by that of the other slender and attractive actresses on subsequent nights, is an outrage to the feminist achievement that is otherwise being celebrated so relentlessly.

The distinguished ladies whom I remember chairing the conventions of long agothose people, whoever they were, must have been formidable persons. Even children could see it. Those people were not lovely and charming. They were people who knew how to fight their way to the top, and looked like they knew it. Nothing theatrical about those people. They brought down the gavel with an air of dull procedure. And lo! the Honored Delegate of the Great State of Wherever had to shut up and sit down.

Real conventions have a theme, which is comprehensible even to 6-year-olds. You don’t need hoopla to express the theme. Hoopla expresses something else, which is the joy of politics. But the theme is power.

HousingCrisisObama’s Forgotten Crisis

We often think better of the dead than we do the living, forgetful or at least generous in our nostalgic interpretations of the past. Certainly this is true of Barack Obama, who gave his speech for the Democratic convention on a live feed from the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. Of course, the former president is alive and well, looking fit and satisfied in his fruitful retirement, but there are episodes from the life of Obama’s White House tenure that have seemingly vanished from our collective memory.

While Obama gave his prepared remarks in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood, over in the downtown’s western end, a few hundred of the city’s residents were huddled in a sea of ripped tents and makeshift shanties which have popped up in a homeless encampment along Philadelphia’s Museum Mile. Down the street from the Barnes Museum, which holds $20 billion in exquisite impressionist works of art, the homeless camp sits down the hill from the state’s largest Whole Foods location, where the massive green logo of Jeff Bezos’ food emporium glows a soft neon green over the field’s makeshift sanitation sinks and bathrooms.

In the Revolution museum, Obama spoke eloquently of representative democracy, a notion which serves as the Constitution’s north star and a “guide [for] future generations … through which we could better realize our highest ideals.” On the subject of Donald Trump’s faulty realization of those very ideals, Obama was right to criticize the current president’s failed stewardship of the Constitution, his inability “to feel the weight of the office and discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care.”

Yet it was that representative democracy which Obama professed such a reverence for that likewise failed so many millions of Americans during his administration’s housing crisis—a catastrophic rupture in the social fabric which devastated not only the economy but the faith that many Americans long held in our nation’s public institutions. (A dissolution, one might note, that also helped sow the seeds of discord and resentment that greatly aided Trump’s election.) Counted among the Philadelphia homeless camp were city residents who lost their homes during the housing crisis and who haven’t been able to obtain a steady residence since. A few days before Obama’s surprise arrival to the city, encampment members were using plastic traffic barriers as shields, training themselves to become human barricades against police forces which promised to soon sweep in and destroy their temporary shelter.

During Obama’s housing crisis, which we don’t seem to speak of much anymore these days, more than 9.3 million American households, or roughly 20 million Americans, lost their homes to foreclosure, of which about a third are likely to never own homes again. As we know but haven’t mentioned much of during the 2020 election coverage, the housing crash was the catalyst to the recession that erased a third of the wealth held by the lower 90% of the economy. An economic impact that was perhaps felt the hardest by African Americans, as they were the most likely cohort to store a higher percentage of their wealth in home equity.

As for the response from American leaders to aid those most hurt by the crisis and subsequent recession, it’s difficult to overstate how perversely the Obama administration favored banks and lenders over homeowners. A preferential treatment, we should note, that was not the result of stonewalling by an antagonistic Republican Senate, but rather a choice left largely up to the executive branch and Obama’s cabinet members.

Though Obama promised to spend $100 billion to offset foreclosures, only a fraction of that—$21 billion—made its way to homeowners. His signature crisis-relief measure, the Home Affordable Modification Program, could have been administered directly by federal agencies, but Obama’s team tapped the banks themselves to manage the program. Like wolves sent as shepherds of a flock, the banks were highly incentivized to foreclose rather than modify mortgages, a conflict of interest which led to one-tenth of the eligible homeowners receiving relief, and which perhaps resulted in more total foreclosures had the program never been implemented.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said recently that the city’s homeless camp and its large minority population is a distressing evocation of our nation’s racial inequalities, and a result of “policy failures” going back generations. One could read into Kenney’s comment either a nod to increasingly fashionable political ideas about legacy institutional racism or, less likely, but perhaps more true, a gesture toward the economic policies that before Obama, and all the more so during his administration, favored Wall Street and monopolistic internationals that have profited on the devastation of a middle class that has never fully recovered from the housing crisis.

On the economy, Obama praised Joe Biden’s capacity to “rescue the economy, like Joe helped me do after the Great Recession. I asked him to manage the Recovery Act, which jump-started the longest stretch of job growth in history.” Certainly the employment numbers under Obama were a victory of a kind, but mainly for the big businesses which were able to improve their profit margins by hiring back millions of lower wage workers. As studies of that growth have shown, some 94% of those new jobs were part-time and gig-economy positions, a precarious employment status that has led to surging numbers of depression and anxiety across the working class.

To what extent Biden will carry on the Obama administration’s approach to helping all of the members of a representative democracy remains unknown. But we might have some idea from his surrogates. Ted Kaufman, the senator who succeeded Biden in Delaware and a leader on Biden’s transition team, said earlier this week that bumping up federal spending to strengthen the social safety net was unlikely during Biden’s first year in office. “When we get in, the pantry is going to be bare,” Kaufman said, speaking in tones of austerity. Pointing to the damage done by Trump, he added Biden’s capacity to spend big is “going to be limited.” Of the aid that Biden would distribute, one hopes he doesn’t forget the millions who lost so much the last time he led a national recovery.

CompetenceThe Competence Campaign

As I noted at the start of this blog, modern party conventions are essentially one long informercial for the electorate—a chance for a presidential campaign to mainline a message to Americans on prime-time television. And with three days in the books for the 2020 Democratic National Convention, it’s pretty easy to tell what the theme is this time: competence.

“Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country,” said Michelle Obama on Monday night. “He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is.”

“If he had even tried to govern well and lead us all—he might have proved us wrong,” lamented Hillary Clinton on Wednesday night. “And that would have been a good thing, for America and the world. I wish Donald Trump had been a better president. Because America needs a better president than this.”

“I never expected that my successor would embrace my vision or continue my policies,” said former President Obama. “I did hope, for the sake of our country, that Donald Trump might show some interest in taking the job seriously; that he might come to feel the weight of the office and discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care. But he never did. For close to four years now, he’s shown no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends; no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves. Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t.”

The common thread in all these declarations is that they make the case—more in sorrow than in anger—that Donald Trump is simply not up to the job of president.

It’s a shrewd move. After all, the people who think Trump is a morally unfit racist already aren’t voting for him. If your goal is to persuade the rest, focusing on competence during a time of pandemic and economic collapse is a smart bet. Without asking wavering voters to swallow the entire progressive critique of Trump, this argument merely asks them to consider whether they think he is suited to the task of leadership. And as the president melts down in real time on Twitter in response, it’s not hard to draw the obvious conclusion.

It is what it is.

CircusThe Beloved Community and the Circus of Politics

Someone on PBS on Wednesday night explained that for the Democrats, Wisconsin was “ground zero.” I hope not. Any party that designates one single geographical place “ground zero” is begging for disaster and any politician who believes that there’s only one American “heartland,” and that it’s in the Midwest, is in for a rude awakening.

As the Trump campaign showed in 2016, to win an election for the presidency you have to have the votes of at least 270 electors, which means winning in places as diverse as Arizona, Minnesota, Florida, and Iowa.

The only way the Democrats can win this fall is if they can bring huge numbers of citizens of all ages to the polls, not only on the East Coast and the West Coast, but also along the Gulf of Mexico and the shores of the Great Lakes.

It’s all about voting, which is why on the third night of the convention the mantra was “vote,” the catechism was “vote,” and the slogan was “vote.” Obama emphasized casting a ballot and so did Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi, and Hillary Clinton. Obama sounded like the ex-president he is, and also like a psychiatrist, when he portrayed Trump as a child with an enormous ego, unhealthy ambitions, and a need for constant attention.

Harris depicted her own family tree as healthy and celebrated her nurturing mother and a single parent who empowered Kamala. Harris also talked about actualizing the “beloved community,” and insisted—as though she’d spent “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi in ’64 registering voters—“none of us are free until all of us are free.”

Like Harris, Sen. Warren talked about her life as a single mother and about the need for child care to benefit mothers, children, families and communities.

Obama articulated the challenges for the Democrats as well, if not better than anyone else when he focused on young people who “look around and see the circus of politics.” He might have been talking about one of my nephews, who is a husband, a father, and a college teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. During night 3 of the convention, he sent me a text in which he argued that it didn’t matter who was president because lobbyists would run the show, and inequality would remain the name of the game.

If that sort of cynicism is endemic in his generation—he’s in his 40s—then Trump will likely be reelected and all the talk about red states, blue states, the heartland and ground zero will matter not one iota.

DoomDoom and Gloom

I’m sorry, but this remote convention shtick just isn’t working. This DNC has the emotional intimacy of an ice moon. It’s so informercial-like that there is often an actual crawl with a phone number running at the bottom of the screen. “Is it me,” tweeted the journalist Lisa Tozzi, “or is there a little bit of a funeral home/memorial vibe to this Obama background?” Outlets that are often founts of Obama admiration noted that the former president’s speech was just a wee bit on the negative side. Elizabeth Warren appeared in an empty preschool classroom, which is a classic post-human image, like something out of Children of Men or the Planet of the Apes reboots.

Garishly little attempt was made to disguise the fact that Kamala Harris was speaking to an empty hall. When Joe and Jill Biden appeared onstage after Harris’ address, the presidential and vice presidential nominees did not hug—not for reasons of public health of course (everyone had probably been tested earlier in the evening, or at least should have been), but in order to model correct behavior and the proper spirit of self-sacrifice for the citizens they are endeavoring to rule. Such virtue apparently requires the suppression of anything like normal human emotion, even and maybe especially when those emotions do not present any actual danger to the people around you. In addition to sucking the final ounces of humanity out of the proceedings and reminding everyone that the candidates expect you to share their demoralizing adherence to maximalist plague theater, their 6 feet of distance was an unintentional reminder that the Democratic nominee—like his Republican counterpart—is in by far the most at-risk demographic for the coronavirus. Perhaps Sen. Harris just wanted to get into the prudent long-term habit of simply never going anywhere near her running mate. Seems like wasted effort, though—Biden has no compelling need to hit the campaign trail. The convention and the debates might be the only time between now and the transition, or even between now and inauguration day, that he leaves Rehoboth or Wilmington.

The whole bleak emotional frontier of the DNC, and perhaps even of life in America in 2020, was summed up by the mere fact of Billie Eilish premiering a song during the first hour of prime time. The 18-year-old Eilish is renowned for projecting a diffidence far beyond her years: Her music, lyrics, and melody push against the determination not to feel much of anything. It’s all very sophisticated, or at least capable of seeming that way. Sometimes it even is sophisticated. But it is seldom hopeful—it isn’t fun so much as post-fun or post-the idea of fun, if that makes any sense. “We all have to vote like our lives and our world depend on it, because they do,” said Eilish, drawing on already meager reserves of enthusiasm. Eilish was part of the evening’s veritable Children’s Crusade of bummed-out youngsters, which is itself part of a growing and sometimes very creepy trend of treating kids as society’s absolute paragons of moral seriousness. “Every aspect of our lives ... depends on us taking climate change seriously right now,” including “whether or not we can raise a family,” said one young activist during the first hour of the broadcast. Things may soon get so bad that the creation of future citizens and indeed the propagation of the human race itself won’t be worth the effort, says a person born during Bush’s second term. Vote Biden 2020!

The Democrats had an easy job this week—to remind everyone of how much they like Barack Obama and point out that things should be better than all this, which of course they should be. I guess they’re succeeding, but you would have to be insane to watch this bizarre pageant of MSNBC-variety, liberal fan service and ambient gloom if you weren’t getting paid to do it. It feels so much like a Netflix special or a dull stretch of cable news that it inadvertently reminds you that “Netflix special” and “cable news” are now like a default aesthetic and emotional state across vast swaths of American life. Everyone’s drained; none of the people who appeared Wednesday night—other than Kamala Harris, who spoke movingly about her family background and the larger meaning of her personal journey to the highest levels of American politics—came off as a happy warrior. Nobody’s happy about anything. Everything sucks.

Obviously this week’s weird vibes don’t matter that much if Biden wins, which it’s looking like he will. But this convention has been a record of our times in a way that I’m sure none of its planners consciously intended for it to be.

StandsAboveObama Still Stands Above the Rest

Barack Obama reminded everyone last night that he was without peer in American life as a raw political talent. No figure in either party—with the exception of his own wife—is within striking distance of him as an orator. His speech engaged the emotions and the intellect, was at once a perfervid act of persuasion, enjoining a younger generation turned off by the grotesque circus of politics under the Trump years not to succumb to nihilism and despair, (“Do not let them take away your power,”) and a forthright statement, in finely wrought sentences eschewing the ideological zombie speech infesting the rhetoric of his generational successors, of his own vision of the sweep of American history.

His speech paid tribute to generations past who “knew how far the daily reality of America strayed from the myth,” and yet who never lost the conviction that “We are going to bring those words, in our founding documents, to life.” Where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wielded a reified litany of abstractions—“racial injustice, colonization, misogyny, and homophobia” and “the violence and xenophobia of our past”—Obama spoke of “great-grandparents working in firetraps and sweatshops without rights or representation,” and “Black Americans chained and whipped and hanged.”

Everyone else sounded pedestrian compared to Obama, including the vice presidential nominee, Kamala Harris. Obama’s framing of the Biden-Harris team revealed his acute consciousness of the gap: “What I know about Joe and Kamala is that they actually care about every American,” was Obama’s ultimate encomium on their behalf. “And they care deeply about this democracy.” A low bar that, in the rhetoric of every speaker at the convention, has only become relevant in contrast to the current occupant of the Oval Office, who so manifestly does not. In keeping with the message hammered home with relentless party discipline, Obama insisted that a Biden and Harris victory was a precondition for any other progress in America: “Any chance of success depends entirely on the outcome of this election.”

Biden was the two-time presidential contender who earned the everlasting fealty of the older Black voters who delivered the nomination to him by humbly serving as second fiddle to the younger, stronger, manifestly more capable Black man who headed the ticket in 2008 and 2012. Harris is the manifestly less capable figure (whose campaign tanked so badly she was forced to drop out before a single nominating vote was cast) seeking to ride the armored carapace of Biden’s legacy appeal to the remnant of the deindustrialized working class still amenable to appeals from a party that long ago recast itself as the party of the economically and culturally ascendant classes into office. Obama won by taking on and defeating the Democratic Party establishment seeking to coronate Hillary Clinton—before instantly allying with and embedding himself within the establishment he had just defeated. Harris was selected by Biden as the party’s presumptive next presidential nominee because she ticked off more boxes than anyone else.

Day3Day 3

50secondsThe Entire Election in 50 Seconds

Back in January, before the pandemic and the primaries, something happened that perfectly captured what was unfolding in American politics. It took place in front of many savvy people, who mostly didn’t notice it. Joe Biden visited the New York Times for a meeting with the publication’s editorial board, which was deciding who to endorse in the Democratic primary. Biden didn’t even make the final cut of their deliberations, which ultimately went to Sens. Amy Kloubuchar and Elizabeth Warren. But before he entered the room, the former vice president had a chance encounter—captured by the Times’ video crew—with an African American security guard in the building elevator. “I love you,” she told him with unaffected enthusiasm, and he paused to take a warm photo with her before moving on.

The clip of their encounter got more views than the videos of the Times’ interviews with many of the presidential contenders. The moment was a microcosm of the entire primary campaign: a working class Black woman embracing Joe Biden, even as he is subsequently dismissed by largely white elites. That same dynamic would ultimately propel him to the Democratic nomination with ease.

Fast forward to the second night of the convention, and that same security guard—Jacquelyn Brittany—delivered the most authentic moment of the night with her plain-spoken, 50-second speech nominating Biden to be his party’s standard-bearer. Coming on the heels of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she could have been forgiven for wilting under the spotlight. But instead, she outshone two former presidents and a roster of rising star politicians, simply stating: “I could tell that he truly saw me, that he actually cared, that my life meant something to him. And I knew, even when he went into his important meeting, he’d take my story in there with him. That’s because Joe Biden has room in his heart for more than just himself.”

Just as her encounter with Biden presaged his resounding primary victory, should Biden go on to win the 2020 election with the support of a diverse working-class coalition, we may well look back on this moment as the one that heralded it.

EpidemicThe Forgotten Epidemic

In the scramble to explain Trump’s victory in 2016 many in the media pointed to forgotten, “swept aside” agricultural communities and a lethal opioid epidemic—both evidence of a significant swath of the nation that was hurting in many ways and largely abandoned by the elites that Trump successfully characterized as the villains in the story of the general election.

Since 2016, the opioid crisis never really went away. In 2018, 46,000 Americans died because of opioids, and while deaths from prescription pills trended down, the number of overdoses from synthetic opioids was spiking at the end of 2019. During the pandemic, opioid-related overdoses of all kinds are on the rise again, while some estimate that the opioid manufacturers were responsible for a total of $2.15 trillion in economic damages.

As for the towns and regions that are dependent on agricultural revenue, their struggle has largely gotten worse since 2016. Farm bankruptcies across the nation were up nearly 20% prior to COVID, just as agricultural income continued its own decline. This financial pain was made worse, in part, by Trump’s trade war, but it was also exacerbated by longstanding trends in agricultural policies that favor lenders and agricultural multinationals that continue to absorb market share and exert pressure and pain on small- and medium-size farmers.

Yet after two days of the Democratic convention, almost no airtime has been given to the continually surging opioid epidemic nor the predatory manufacturing executives who made billions of dollars while hundreds of thousands of Americans slid into addiction and financial ruin. Likewise, there’s been minimal attention given to the plight of the rural communities, and farmers in particular, who felt largely marginalized during the Obama administration, which Joe Biden seeks to essentially resume with a victory this November.

Quite obviously a historic, global pandemic and the related economic crisis it has caused are going to be top-line issues at the convention, and require a good deal of attention. But over four hours of programming about what a Democratic White House would look like, the absence of any recognition of major concerns and conditions of the base that helped elect Trump is rather curious.

It was Bill Clinton, who won his first term with the 1980s farm crisis still a recent memory, giving a nod, at least, to the “farmers tired of being collateral damage in trade wars.” During the delegate roll call, a fourth-generation family farmer from Kansas brushed up against agricultural policy when he stood in the field and said, “I worry about the next generation. Many of our young folks end up moving from rural communities to find jobs. Joe Biden has a plan to help new farmers get a good start.”

That plan he’s speaking of is part of Biden’s $2 trillion environmental policy that includes sweeping programs that would transform American agriculture as we know it. With sustainability and climate change mitigation the plan’s ostensible driving factors, the programs will seek to transition row crop farmers into the Civil Climate Corps, a throwback to FDR’s New Deal Civilian Corps, where some will cease farming altogether as they begin planting trees, restoring wetlands, and “retiring” their lands so they can be used to absorb carbon in the fields.

No doubt American farming will undergo dramatic changes over the coming decade as even Republican-backed policies begin to be implemented to transform our agricultural system into an ally in the fight against climate change. But Democrats would do well to practice some of that empathy that’s been so fashionably deployed over the past two days. Of how that other part of the country might feel once again to be swept aside, their continuing epidemic hardly addressed, the future of their livelihoods about to be upended and changed forever, and never mentioned across all the scenes of Amtrak Joe described as a friend to working Americans.

MaskThe Emperor’s New Mask

Some stories are about Donald Trump—how he treats defeats as victories, touts himself as the savior of women and minorities, and attempts to paint the United States’ COVID pandemic response as commendable despite any evidence to the contrary. Yes, some stories are about Trump—many, even—but not this one. This story is about Andrew Cuomo, who engaged in a protracted victory lap on the first night of the Democratic National Convention. Much like the aforementioned president, the New York governor has been working overtime, but not to help his state recover from its negligence and incompetence-fueled pestilence, but rather to reframe said negligence and incompetence as signs of a victory worth emulating. “Just look at that,” says Emperor Cuomo, pointing out the window of his castle to the smoldering rubble of the city consumed by a dragon’s blazing inferno. “See how few houses are still burning? That’s how you put out a fire!” Cuomo waxes fantastic about his Stalingrad-like triumph, sitting on his throne that rests atop a mountain of corpses—corpses which are reduced to an anodyne green hill in the victory lap poster he is currently selling (worry not! The posters are sold at cost. No profits for Honest Andy here!)—gripping his oversized cotton swab scepter, bestowed upon him by his own personal town crier. “Hear ye! Hear ye!” Brother Chris proclaims on CNN. “Thou art in the presence of big-nosed greatness! Have you tried my wife’s coronavirus-curing bleach bath yet?”

The reason this story is about Cuomo and not about Trump is that despite the similarities in conduct, the president is frequently and loudly challenged directly for his assertions whenever the chance presents itself. On both the right and left, journalists have pushed hard against Trump’s handling of COVID, while Cuomo is not only propped up as a hero by fawning media throngs, but also given a pulpit by the Democratic Party to engage in Baghdad Bobish whitewashing of his own personal catastrophe on national television. Not even the news that the emperor has a book on leadership during COVID coming out in October has moved the adulation needles away from the red. Clearly the man works so hard and tirelessly that he has time to write a book (or, more likely, work with a ghostwriter) before the crisis has even passed. Emperor Cuomo himself even said that we are only at halftime. Just make sure you stop by the merch stand for your posters and books, folks!

There’s a saying in Hebrew: The fish stinks from the head. But America has a multilevel authority structure, and New York kingdom’s subjects have a target much closer to home to point justifiable fingers of blame at than The Man in Washington.

And no, Trump should not get a pass for his muddled, confused, and politicized handling of the pandemic, but the truth is that he doesn’t get one, neither here nor abroad (except from some usual suspects). But on that same level, Andrew Cuomo cannot be allowed to ride off into the sunset as the hero who vanquished the dragon. Not when his actions helped that dragon torch more than 30,000 people. Encouragingly, a search of recent articles on Cuomo and coronavirus shows that the claim that only intelligent people can see his laudable leadership is falling on increasingly deaf ears. More and more finally are standing up and saying: The emperor has no mask.

FootnotesCandida and Candidate: Footnotes for the 2020 DNC

Nearly every scholarly book worth its weight and price has footnotes. In fact, more than a few tomes give away all the vital information they have to give in the notes at the back.

The Democratic National Convention has turned now and then to historians like Michael Beschloss for commentary, but no pundit or talking head has offered substantial footnotes for the convention and no one has gone back to the ancient Greeks and the ancient Romans, who invented the form of government we have had in the United States since the adoption of the Constitution at the end of the 18th century.

Arthur Eckstein, a retired professor at the University of Maryland, has devoted much of his academic life to the study of the ancient Greeks and ancient Romans. He’s also the author of Bad Moon Rising, a scholarly book with ample footnotes about the Weather Underground and the FBI. He’s not a fan of either, but he knows a great deal about conspiracies, both real and imagined, and cults and their foes. The title of his book comes from the 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival song with the lines, “Don’t come around tonight/Well it’s bound to take your life/There’s a bad moon on the rise.”

Eckstein now lives in Berkeley, California, where he has been watching the DNC with his wife, Judy Gumbo, a longtime feminist and one of the founders of the Yippies.

“Our founding fathers read the classics,” Eckstein tells me. “They turned to the Greeks, who invented voting in secret, and to the Romans, who didn’t have political parties in the modern sense of the term, but who had factions, large assemblies, debating, and who invented the concept of checks and balances.”

He adds, “a toga candida was a form of dress worn by candidates for public office. It provides the epistemological source for the English word ‘candidate.’”

In Eckstein’s view, republics are superior to authoritarian regimes and dictatorships in part because they provide for smooth transitions from one regime and one administration to another.

“Is Trump a Caesar?” I asked. “Like Donald Trump, Julius Caesar believed in his own superiority over other men, but in Caesar’s case it was true,” Eckstein says. “He was a great writer, a great speaker and a great general. When he was in his early 50s, he had a 20-something girlfriend who was the queen of Egypt. Julius Caesar and Cleopatra were one of the earliest power couples in history. Donald and Melania aren’t in the same league.”

While Eckstein insists that a republic as a form of government is superior to an empire or a dictatorship, he feels that a republic tends to run on mediocrity. “Gerald Ford and Joe Biden,” he says, which makes them perfect leaders for a republic.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the French author of Democracy in America (1835 in an English translation) felt more or less the same way on the subject of mediocrity and democracy.

Two cheers for Democracy!

RestorationThe Great Restoration

A vision of American military power and foreign policy was presented last night in the virtual ceremonies of the convention: restoration. The promise from the Democratic ticket as it presented itself last night was to restore the American-led world order of the Obama years, which is more than a bit ironic since the promise of the Obama presidency was to relieve America of the burden of global leadership.

On social issues, the Biden campaign signaled its commitment to progressive ideas and causes, but in the arena of national security, it promised to turn back the clock and bring the country back to the glory days circa 2010.

Short on details, Biden’s foreign policy pitch consisted mostly in the kind of people who were brought out to stump for him. There were military figures like the retired four-star Army general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, who delivered a short speech, and the Vietnam veteran and Obama defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, who appeared in a video montage that consisted of other former military officials and diplomats denouncing Trump’s lack of leadership and rallying behind Biden as a tough but reliable steward of the military who would not do rash and irresponsible things like withdrawing American troops from Syria. And finally, there was Cindy McCain, the widow of Sen. John McCain, who spent six years in a North Vietnamese prison camp. John McCain was a war hero and believer in the providential mission of American power who, before dying in 2017, saw in Donald Trump the debasement of that power. McCain not only detested Trump he also genuinely liked Joe Biden with whom he had a long friendship in the Senate.

But then again, John McCain, like Colin Powell, was associated with one of the greatest failures in the history of American foreign policy—the Iraq War—for that matter so is Joe Biden who voted for the war as a senator. And so to bring out Powell and Cindy McCain was to elevate a form of political authority, which belongs to the serious and honorable establishment leadership of people like Powell and John McCain, above the obligations to undoing the deeply unpopular policies that they spearheaded. As in other restorations, this one has a trace of aristocratic privilege. We must once again put the right people in charge, no matter how wrong they were the last time they were in charge.

Elect Joe Biden and you can undo the horrible damage done over the last four years by Donald Trump to America’s allies and standing in the world. What damage, exactly? They do not quite say. It’s not clear either whether the average American, and especially the all-important undecided voter, has experienced the Trump years—which they could surely find other grounds to criticize—as a failure in terms of America’s diminished international standing because of Donald Trump’s attempts to withdraw American troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

BeingBidenBiden Being Biden

You ever get one of those texts that says something like the opposite of what you happened to be thinking at the exact moment in which you received it? “Wow, Bill’s looking good,” an otherwise very astute pal of mine messaged in reference to the pale shell of what had once been the 42nd president of the United States. Credit to Bubba for losing a pound or two, but the visage of the for-now-penultimate Democrat elected to America’s highest office felt downright ghostly. Back when I was a kid, Clinton was the embodiment of American optimism and confidence, the face of our happiest times as a country. He trafficked in bullshit with the aptitude of both a skilled carnival huckster and an actual Rhodes scholar, but the economy was rolling and America was the undisputed unipolar lord of all existence, so who could possibly complain? The president’s philandering and sleaze felt cleverly or even classily executed back then, and none of the moral turpitude ever seemed to get in the way of his world-historic pain-feeling abilities. There’s hardly a single virtue of Clinton’s that doesn’t now seem calculated to mask a horrifying character flaw. A cynic might be tempted into a similar observation about America in general, although I have a suspicion such thoughts occurred a lot less frequently back in the innocent and roaring ’90s—back when Clinton still ruled.

I found myself meditating on the old man’s downfall deep into the second hour of prime time on the second night of the convention. Bill has an almost pathological personality type, perfectly adapted to politics at its highest levels, whereby any appearance of honesty or openness might itself be a deceitful construction. Politics-wise, Joe Biden has a Clintonian record of triangulation and compromise, but he has never really given off the sense that there’s some hidden, other self lurking behind the facade—at least not one that Americans need worry about. While Clinton is one of our all-time great Machiavellian freaks, Tuesday night’s proceedings showed that Biden bears a striking, even shocking resemblance to an actual human being. He’s the type of man who takes selfies with elevator operators, to whom he is unfailingly kind. He gaffed when introducing his wife, and then launched into an endearing ad-lib. He celebrated his official nomination in a public school library, with streamers straight out of a bar mitzvah party.

There is almost nothing cool or cutting edge about Biden. He embodies no eras. The mere sight of him doesn’t summon complicated or icky feelings about the state of the American experiment or the legal definition of sex or whatever. Maybe not coincidentally, he is also almost the only thing in this largely prerecorded convention that doesn’t feel icily stage managed.

Stage management, and the elimination of the aural roughness and ambient potential for surprise that give a frisson of spontaneity to even the most artificial live-audience-based events, is perhaps an unavoidable drawback this week. But it’s a serious one. Over the past five months I have developed a strong allergy to anything that is overly insistent in reminding us of the living hell we are currently in. TV ads of the “now, more than ever” or the “come on in; we clean things now!” variety are klaxons of dystopia and thus psychically bothersome. This convention suffers from a similar conceptual error. It is a tour of the kitchens and living rooms of America’s Democratic Party activists. Seldom is there a feeling of an actual polity coming together—I can’t be the only viewer who feels like he’s gazing across a demoralizing landscape of isolation. One certainly didn’t feel a similar despair while watching LeBron James and Damian Lillard duel on the hardwood a few channels over. One of the only major American institutions that still has its dignity intact, the NBA has taken the utter surrealism of its bubble-enclosed postseason and turned it into something life affirming. Perhaps Biden bested a large field of younger and hipper primary opponents and holds a commanding lead over Donald Trump because he can pull off a similar feat through the mere act of being himself.

JargonThe Jargon Jugglers

The rhetoric framing the second night of the convention struck an awkward balance between the superannuated consensus that the Democratic Party has coalesced around anointing Biden as a place-holder candidate and Trump removal device, and the activist jargon making a bid to dominate its future. We got circumspect versions of the latter by those eulogizing Biden and Harris—Tracee Ellis Ross spoke of “good trouble” and “necessary trouble,” deploying the self-flattering euphemisms of the activist left to refer to the protest movements in the streets. She spoke of “ingrained systems of inequity,” but only as something “we chip away at” (rather than dismantle), but when she spoke of the “arc of history,” she described it as something “we bend,” rather than as something, as Barack Obama had it, that would inevitably “bend toward justice” of its own accord.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, nominating Bernie Sanders and speaking on behalf of the future Democratic Party that the primary voters demonstrated that they were far from ready to become, spoke in a more assertive register, urging the party “to recognize and repair the wounds of racial injustice, colonization, misogyny, and homophobia,” and lauded Sanders for building a “mass people’s movement” that will “propose, build, and reimagine systems of immigration and foreign policy that turn away from the violence and xenophobia of our past.”
By contrast, the D.C. consultant-driven slogans in constant circulation in the mouths of one party apparatchik after the next seemed calculated to underscore their own harmless banality: Restore the Soul of a Nation, Access to Affordable Health Care, and the absolutely mind-numbing Build Back Better, continually serving as the anticlimax of meandering speeches. “How do you make a broken family whole?” asked Jill Biden in her South Jersey accent, radiating empathy in the nimbus of her blondness addressing the camera from an elementary school classroom. “The same way you make a nation whole—with love and understanding and with small acts of kindness.” Here was the summa of what Joe Biden proposes to offer the nation. Like everything these days, the message conveyed its meaning through what it declined to say.

WomenBidenThe Women Around Joe

Forget the “Biden” part. Call him “Joe.” Plain Joe. All-American Joe. He has a winning smile, especially when he takes off his mask. Also, he looks great when he stands beside his wife, Jill, who is one of a dozen or so ordinary and extraordinary women at this year’s DNC.

In my view, the sisters have shined more than the brothers, perhaps because they’ve been fired up by Donald Trump’s time in the White House. Patriarchy has never seemed more dangerous and more toxic than right now. Trump says he likes “suburban moms,” but I don’t doubt that he’d like to repeal the 19th Amendment and take the vote away from women, much as he’d like to disenfranchise people of color.

Joe doesn’t strike me as a patriarchal figure. He certainly has the sincere endorsement of a great many resilient women, including Michelle Obama, Meg Whitman, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who, along with Kamala Harris, looks like the future face of the Democratic Party in the United States.

Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter belong to the past. They’re history. It’s only a matter of time before we have a woman president, perhaps as early as 2024.

Unlike Trump, Joe will surround himself with good men and especially with good women. I’m glad he has Jill, Kamala, Michelle, and AOC in his corner. He’ll need all the help that they and their sisters can provide if we’re to turn the ship around and begin to heal the huge wounds Trump and the Trumpets have inflicted on the country.

It took a long time before women won the right to vote. I’m glad the nation, or at least part of it, is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It provides yet another reason to drive Trump from the White House. I know it would be too much, and also undemocratic, to ask that, like the Emperor Napoleon, Trump be banished to a remote island. But the idea has occurred to me.

BeautifulDemocratsThe Democrats Are the Beautiful People Now

Following the second night of the Democratic National Convention, I find myself, with millions of other Americans, pondering the question: “Where are the Democrats with bad haircuts?”

In my childhood in the 1970s, I attended Democratic election night rallies with my family in hotels in downtown Austin, Texas, then a small university town. The rallies were fun. I remember one at the old Driskill Hotel. The crowd was diverse—not just in race and gender, but in shape and size and style. There were African American and Hispanic Democrats. They were also a lot of working-class and lower-middle-class white Democrats. You could see a few people in expensive suits, but they were outnumbered by the people in ill-fitting Sears and J.C. Penney suits. There were Caterpillar caps and cowboy hats. I remember a guy who looked like Willie Nelson. Maybe it was Willie Nelson.

At the time, between the 1960s and the 1990s, the Democrats had lost the old segregationist Dixiecrat voters to the GOP but retained much of the old New Deal farmer-labor constituency, to which Black and Hispanic voters had been added. A multiracial, downscale, culturally moderate coalition supported many Blue Dog Democrats in the South (a New Dealish group less hostile to government and less dependent on Wall Street for donations than more up-to-date New Democrats like Bill Clinton and Al Gore). The Southern Democrats in the ’70s and ’80s were diverse in terms of class among whites, as well as in terms of race.

Across the street at the Sheraton Hotel that night, the Republicans were holding their election rally. The street was full of limousines. Sleek black limos would glide up and sleek white Republicans would glide out. To quote the late Tom Wolfe, they were “starved to thin perfection.” Their hair was immaculate and their suits and dresses were tailored. Their jewelry was real. They didn’t have jowls or belly fat. The Republicans were the Beautiful People.

Now the Democrats are the Beautiful People. They are more diverse in terms of race and ethnicity. But to judge by the Democratic National Convention, they are all skinny.

In Obama’s first term, a British journalist in Washington told me a joke that was making the rounds: “Obama promised that his cabinet would look like America. But the members of his cabinet are all slender.”

Lyndon Johnson with his drooping basset hound jowls would not be allowed on camera in a modern Democratic campaign infomercial. Tip O’Neill? Forget it. Joe Biden is the face-lifted face of today’s Democratic Party.

Today the Democrats, like the Republicans of the 1970s, are the party of the corporate elite, the cultural elite, and the social elite. It shows. In their nipped and tucked faces and their svelte figures. Many have “had some work done” like the Democratic donors in Hollywood, San Jose, and Wall Street.

Each Democratic convention features more corporate-suite Republican keynote speakers than the previous one. In 2016 there was sometime Republican Michael Bloomberg. This year there were Meg Whitman (Quibi, Hewlett Packard, Procter & Gamble), Christine Todd Whitman (United Technologies, Texas Instruments), John Kasich (Lehman Brothers) and Susan Molinari (The Washington Group—a lobbying firm).

These Republicans were invited to persuade other Republicans to vote for Biden. If that doesn’t work, they can offer style tips to their new Democratic friends. Maybe they can recommend some cosmetic surgeons or low-carb diets.

Donald Trump—fat, jowly, shambling in his tent of a suit—looks like an old school Democrat. He talks like an old school Democrat, in crude vernacular. He picks fights like Harry Truman, who as president threatened to punch a journalist who criticized his daughter’s musical recital in the nose. He is vulgar, like an old Democratic ethnic machine boss in a Northern city. Now that they are the Beautiful People, Democrats look at Trump and his followers in the way the Eloi would gaze in disgust and dread on the Morlocks in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

Maybe Biden will win. It looks good for him now. But I think the Democrats during their online convention could have done a better job of looking like America. They could have found some fat white people and African Americans in bad suits and Hispanics with bad haircuts to display on TV. Maybe even somebody who looked like Willie Nelson. Or, for that matter, Willie Nelson.

Day2Day 2

DistractionThe Trump Distraction

I have been worrying that President Trump was going to find some way to divert everyone’s attention from the Democratic convention, perhaps by declaring war on Mexico. But now it occurs to me that, on the contrary, it is the convention that has diverted everyone’s attention from a major bit of news. This is the Senate Intelligence Committee report, Volume 5—a zillion pages, on Russian agents and the Trump campaign of four years ago, which has just been released.

Over the course of the afternoon, I have read fewer than a zillion pages. But I see from the summaries here and there and my own random gleanings that Volume 5 makes two important points. It shows for the umpteenth time how ridiculous are the “Russiagate” theories of a vast Deep State conspiracy against Donald Trump—in this instance, by showing that the FBI had good reason to investigate some of the lesser figures in the affair such as Carter Page, even if the FBI sometimes tracked mud on its own investigation. I don’t know why anyone clings to those theories anymore.

But mostly Volume 5 shows that Trump’s campaign manager in 2016, Paul Manafort, was worse than we have known, actively conspiring with a Russian intelligence officer, who himself may have been connected to the Russian hacking of the DNC. And even now, we know less than everything. It is no small thing to reflect that Manafort deliberately chose to worsen his prison sentence by continuing to withhold information from the Mueller investigation. Presumably he is holding out for a presidential pardon, which he may not need anymore, now that, because of the pandemic, he is serving his term at home, where life is probably not so bad. But what does he know?

No one has time for these questions. The convention has gotten in the way. And even I will set aside Volume 5—surprisingly easy to set it aside—in favor of watching whatever mix of annoying glitzy entertainment and serious oratory the DNC has planned for Day 2.

UniqueFour Reasons 2020 Is Unique

Four entwined threads that connect to health, jobs, global matters, and social protest are unique to the 2020 campaign for the White House and make it different than any other in our history.

First, the United States is not involved in a major war overseas, though American soldiers all over the world continue to battle terrorists, insurgents, and any group the president deems a threat to national security and that he might use to bolster his sagging popularity.

The U.S. military has never been mightier than it is now, and neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump can point to a distant enemy—not to fascists, communists, or terrorists. Neither candidate can urge voters to support them in order to defeat a global power like Russia or China, though Trump tends to demonize the Chinese even as he seems to emulate Putin.

Second, though American planes aren’t bombing another country, the United States is in the thick of unprecedented internal social upheaval and protest not seen since the 1960s, and in particular not since the 1968 election, when American soldiers were battling and losing militarily to the forces of North Vietnam and their allies in the South.

Third, the nation is gripped by the unabated spread of the coronavirus pandemic and the steady rise of deaths, or “casualties,” as one might call them.

Fourth, unemployment has made survival an urgent matter for millions of families.

None of these factors is invisible to the public. All adults and even many children know about the economy, the pandemic, the nationwide protests, mostly peaceful, that followed the death of George Floyd and other Black men and women shot and killed by the police, even as huge numbers of body bags haven’t arrived on our shores as they did from about 1967 to 1973.

The present crisis, which is tearing the nation apart, provides a backdrop to the conventions. As Michelle Obama noted on the opening night of the DNC, Donald Trump, for whatever reasons, is unable and unwilling to address the issues that confront the nation, and, while voters often don’t like to change direction in the midst of a political storm, a majority of Americans eligible to cast ballots seem ready to tell Trump it’s time for him to go, and to put Biden in the White House.

Everything Trump has tried so far, including sending military forces to Portland, Oregon, has backfired. It’s a dangerous game he has been playing and it’s just beginning. As a longtime friend and an American historian pointed out to me, “Despite Biden’s lead in the polls, it’s astonishing that Trump’s approval ratings haven’t changed much lately, or indeed throughout his presidency. People who started out liking him still do. Luckily, no one who did not like him seems to have changed their mind.”

SublimeCuomo’s ‘Sublime’ Way

The first night of the Democratic infomercial was everything it needed to be: The normies (relatively speaking) ranged from Pennsylvania farmers to penitent Trump voters to anti-police brutality activists to Beto O’Rourke. Demigod(esse)s the likes of Eva Longoria and Michelle Obama descended from on high to bless the proceedings. The message was clear: Under “President” Biden, the cool and the uncool alike will be welcome in this great Zoom call known as America.

Then along came Andrew Cuomo. Outside the actions and utterances of the current president, little in plague-year politics has matched the sheer Dadaism of the New York governor—Cuomo tossed off legally salient ruminations on the definition of food and released a deranged and self-congratulatory poster packed with in-jokes about his farsightedness and avuncular good humor in handling an epidemic he may or may not have botched. These sorts of things stopped being cute about 30,000-odd deaths ago. On Monday night, Cuomo wasn’t launching one of his stupefying flights of fancy that so many of us have come to resent, but instead appeared in prime time as the Democratic Party’s serious coronavirus man, the leader who solved the problem no one else could. His speech is almost too rankling to excerpt. “For all the pain and all the tears,” he said, “our way worked. It was beautiful.” I lived two blocks from one of those truck morgues and hope never again to glimpse such beauty. Maybe our governor made the undergraduate mistake of saying “beautiful” when he meant “sublime,” in the semi-archaic sense of “awe inspiring beyond human comprehension, but in a way that is in fact beauty’s antithesis.” Then he’d be closer to being right.

New York during its crisis phase barely has a governor anymore, in the same way that it barely has a mayor or a police force or a city council or a public advocate. The state resembles an archipelago of feuding petty tyrannies—there’s the Duke of Albany, the Duke of Gracie Mansion, the Lord of One Police Plaza. But maybe our governor has transcended all that. Cuomo is no longer battling the virus, and he’s no longer even battling de Blasio. His fight is now with history’s judgment. Based on Cuomo’s prominent billing in the opening night of the convention before a presidential election in which much of the country is convinced the survival of the American project is at stake, I’m sorry to say that he’s probably going to win that one.

BernieLineBernie’s New Line

It is generally a relief to me to hear Bernie Sanders orate, and never more so than last night. It is generally a relief because he has something to say, and he says it, and he does not waste my time. Normally he goes on about the extremes of American poverty, which is always worth saying. Then again, he has typically gone on about the destructive role played by plutocrats in the American political system—and, during the last four years, this particular focus has misdiagnosed the national predicament. Plutocracy did not produce Donald Trump. Probably more plutocrats have opposed Trump than have favored him. Something else has produced Trump—a cultural collapse, I think, combined perhaps with an institutional collapse within the Republican Party.

But last night Bernie changed his line, or, at least, his emphasis. He said: “This election is about preserving our democracy.” The danger that he described is not plutocracy. It is “authoritarianism.” He said, “This is not normal, and we must not treat it like it is.” Michelle Obama made the same point in a different way, and some of the speakers touched on it as well. But nobody was crisper or more succinct than Bernie.

The telethon aesthetics of the convention are pathetic. I wish Bernie were in charge of the aesthetics. An occasional musician, OK. But we are in a crisis, and gravity should be the tone.

PlaybookThe Secret Playbook of the Democrats

If you were wondering about the lineup of speakers on the first night of the Democratic National Commercial, wonder no more. I have read the secret playbook that inspired it.

Actually the playbook is not so secret. It is a chart titled, “Republicans lead on the economy; Democrats have advantage on climate, health, racial issues,” in a Pew Research Poll from Aug. 13, 2020.

Here are the issues on which, according to Pew’s pollsters, Democrats have an advantage, measured by net approval numbers: Climate change (D+31), abortion and contraception policies (D+15), health care (D+14), public health impact of COVID-19 (D+12), issues involving race and ethnicity (D+12), and immigration (D+7).

Did the political consultants and candidates who crafted the Democratic National Commercial in smoke-free Zoom rooms use this particular poll? Maybe not. But other public and internal Democratic Party polls probably show similar patterns.

Clearly the makers of the Commercial decided that Donald Trump is most vulnerable with respect to issues 4 and 5—his handling of the COVID-19 crisis, and race and ethnicity in the year of the Black Lives Matter movement. This explains the two group discussions of these issues on the first night of the Commercial, interspersed in the infomercial with individual testimonials about the product.

In case you’re wondering, here are the issues on which the Republicans lead the Democrats, according to Pew: terrorism (R+9), economy (R+9), gun policy (R+5), law enforcement and criminal justice (R+4), federal budget deficit (R+3), and foreign policy (R+2). We will see if the Republican National Commercial is equally poll-driven.

To be sure, my theory doesn’t explain the prominence on the first night of pro-Biden Republican speakers, including Christine Todd Whitman, Susan Molinari, and John Kasich. As the political analyst Steve Kornacki pointed out on Twitter, 24 years ago, on Aug. 13, 1996, Whitman, Molinari, and Kasich spoke at the Republican Convention in San Diego. This year the trio has bravely chosen to put country club over party. No doubt those who scripted this year’s Democratic National Commercial hoped to rekindle the moderate magic that these three provided for the presidential campaign of Bob Dole, who at the age of 73 was almost as old in 1996 as the 77-year-old Joe Biden in 2020.

ChangedAmericaBernie Changed America

UnitedStatesThe United States of America

Whenever I’ve heard the name “Milwaukee,” I’ve also heard in my head the raucous rock ‘n’ roller Jerry Lee Lewis playing the piano and singing the words “What’s made Milwaukee famous/Has made a fool out of me.”

At the start of the first full day of the DNC, I wondered if by a curious twist of fate, the city on the western shore of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin would make a fool of the candidates and their supporters. But I saw right away that little if anything had been left to chance. Every image and every word had been carefully selected for maximum impact and with no room for ambiguous messages.

During the 270 minutes that I watched the convention on TV, a talking head said that because the virtual 2020 convention didn’t have the usual fanfare, the audience had to listen to language more carefully than at any other major political convention. At times I felt like I was present at a teach-in, rather than witnessing a spectacle.

The words that resonated most of all for me were “grace,” “diversity,” “cohesion,” and especially “united.” Whenever anyone used the phrase “the United States of America,” he or she made sure to emphasize the word “United,” and to insist that the Democrats were the party of unity and the Republicans the party of chaos.

Hour after hour and speaker after speaker, the Democrats represented themselves as the party of all the people, and not a cloistered group of elderly, wealthy white men. Democratic Party stalwarts like Washington state’s Jay Inslee and Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, plus Republicans who have jumped ship like former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, made their cause synonymous with the cause of America itself.

I began to watch the proceedings, not as a loyal Democrat, and certainly not as a supporter of Bernie Sanders, who true to form talked about “greed.” But as the evening gathered steam, I found himself teary-eyed, especially when I saw and heard a video of young Americans from a variety of ethnic groups singing patriotically, and when I listened to the former first lady, Michelle Obama, who harked back to her husband’s presidency, and to a future when Joe Biden would be in the White House. “We are one nation under God,” Michelle Obama said.

I had never heard Democrats claim religion, patriotism, and nationhood as fiercely as they did on the evening of Aug. 17, 2020. Moreover, the spirit of John Lewis and George Floyd seemed to hover above the convention.

I still don’t know much about Joe Biden, though I heard Democrats and Republicans sing his praises. He sounds like a decent fellow. “Decency” was another word that echoed at the virtual convention. But to me Biden remains a cypher.

I wonder why he mostly stays at home, while Trump barnstorms across the country like a “real” candidate, attracts enthusiastic crowds and makes headline news. Is Biden cautious and shy by nature, or has he and his handlers had a secret plan for victory all along?

BeautifulThe Beautiful People

The most painful part of any televised political spectacle is when the beautiful people address the common folk. “You are the we in ‘We the people,’” said Eva Longoria after cursorily empathizing with a curated cross section of suffering America. There was a restaurateur who described his revenues cut by 40% and his workforce cut in half since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a struggling farmer who opened his remarks by sending his condolences to Donald Trump for the death of his brother, a 15-year-old Black woman “literary activist,” and a school nurse. “There must be a lot of other farmers who feel the way you do,” Longoria told the farmer.

“We are better than this, America is better than this,” Longoria went on to say. “And so we choose to act, inspired by the three sacred words that breathed life into this nation: We. The. People.”

Painful in another way are the testimonials of the common folk, touching in their guileless simplicity, to the purported decency and empathy of the national politicians relying on them to catapult them into ultimate power. No beneficiary of any specific policy from Biden’s decades in the Senate appeared onscreen—no one whose life was altered for the better by the crime bill, or by his management of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearing, his lifelong advocacy of Social Security reform, or on behalf of the credit card industry to whom he delivered a long series of wins culminating in the passage of bankruptcy reform. Instead we learn from Amtrak personnel who serviced the commuter route that Biden stopped taking decades ago that “the average guy is important to him.”

The stupefying emptiness of these opening words and the perfunctory patriotic sloganeering that surrounded them was a dog whistle on a day full of messaging meant to speak in wildly different registers to wildly different audiences, as a coalition purporting to represent the interests of the financial and high-tech industries that dominate the American economy as well as the ever-burgeoning coalition of victims who serve as the pretext for ever-greater exertions by (and appropriations to) the federal bureaucracy and NGO-sphere that is a core constituency of the Democratic Party.

Several speakers referred to the “systemic” and “structural” racism without defining that abstruse bit of activist jargon suddenly ubiquitous in the media. (Those terms refer explicitly to systems of advantage operating to reinscribe racial exclusion in the absence of malicious intent.) There would be no lecture on the meaning of the term, which would surely have alienated many. Whether simply using the terms as if millions of viewers could be expected to know their meaning would be less alienating was another question that only time and interpretation of the fuzzy signals contained in exit polling will answer. Others framed today’s racism as a matter of “being afraid to leave the house” for fear of racist violence at the hands of the state, subsuming the latter under the umbrella of the former, in a conflation that is at the heart of today’s party.

NormalcyWhat Will Biden’s Normalcy Look Like?

Beamed in to the Democratic convention’s opening night from her seven-bed, $11 million beachfront Martha’s Vineyard mansion, Michelle Obama expressed concern that the children of this nation are “looking around wondering if we’ve been lying to them this whole time about who we are and what we truly value.”

Indeed, indeed—the children, they sense something’s up, but what, exactly? These veracious consumers of media, hooked-in on high-speed internet, saturated in information, trying to reconcile the known world before COVID and the veracity of the reality of these pixels.

The former first lady is worried about this wobbly world coming through Amazon-built internet pipes and Apple devices, the children “that see an entitlement that says only certain people belong here, that greed is good, and winning is everything because as long as you come out on top, it doesn’t matter what happens to everyone else,” she says, as the Atlantic Ocean waves roll up to the dock of the Obamas’ slice of private island beach, which the Democratic convention producers knew to keep out of view of the camera.

Is it so unfair to chop up the first lady’s remarks? To excise the pugilistic critiques of Donald Trump—her harshest public comments yet but perhaps her most honest lines, the ones on the failed leadership of a reality television presidency—and focus on the stark moments of contradiction, where the language and the context for her speech create the unnatural frisson that so often says something true?

“Enough of you know me by now. You know that I tell you exactly what I’m feeling. You know I hate politics,” she said. Perhaps the former first lady does in fact loathe the political process. The rudimentary games and contortions one must make of their lived experience to present another version in political speech. But it had been politics, of course, that concentrated great power and wealth to not just the Obamas over the eight years of their time in the White House, but to an elite sliver of American society, finance, tech, and media; a furloughed cohort which would very much like a return to the norms that were so good to them, at least.

Michelle Obama mentioned the havoc the lockdowns have had for millions of Americans financially, but it was Bernie Sanders, who spoke before she did, who offered a little more detail about the devastation, the suffering for those who never quite accumulated that wealth and status that made Obama’s words seem odd from her Martha’s Vineyard estate. “Over 30 million people have lost their jobs and many have lost their health insurance. Millions of working families are wondering how they’ll feed their kids and worried that they will be evicted from their homes,” Sanders says. “The American people have caught on that this president and his administration are, to put it bluntly, frauds.”

For Obama and Sanders both, the job was to advocate for Biden’s hand to guide the nation back to safe lands, to say the Biden administration will be filled with the honest brokers who would return us to a course of normalcy. Watching on night 1 there wasn’t much of anything coherent about what that normal would look like, or who would benefit the most upon embarking on that path ahead.

day1Day 1

ModeratesFrom the Archive: Moderates and Progressives in the Democratic Party

Read the full story here.

MightHaveBeenThe Biden That Might Have Been

What version of Joe Biden would emerge during a normal convention? Or rather, how would the public otherwise encounter the Biden campaign if we weren’t in the midst of a global pandemic? It’s difficult to square up the constrained, basement-dwelling, hardly-visible-at-all campaign that Biden has presented to Americans over the past several months with the extroverted, sometimes excessive, occasionally gaffe-prone but never withdrawn Biden of the campaigns that mark the past several decades of his political life.

There was the Biden gunning for the White House in ’88—that bright, young star of the Democratic Party with a decade of Senate experience under his belt and who, for our purposes of comparison, was an overflowing cup of speaking, gesturing, yapping, kibitzing, and elbowing with the people and the press. A senator who got knocked around by his detractors because he had too much style, too much personality, an excess of the very thing that seems so lacking in his current run for the presidency.

“Joe can literally talk fast. It’s like the stutter left it all pent up, and when he starts talking … he goes at a gallop. But the beautiful thing is the way he talks,” Richard Ben Cramer says of the out there in the streets and yapping from any podium Biden in his book about the 1988 election, a thumbnail of a candidate that was not just young and therefore in possession of extra core energies that would degrade with older age. The Biden then was of a kind that would persist in the decades after, a political animal that regardless of his actual politics fed off the conversation, the give and take, the demands of presence and an audience.

We can speculate on the many forces and parties involved who have sought to can Biden up and put him on a shelf and surround him with surrogates and salespeople that make a great show and tell of what that product is for sale. Maybe Biden himself was involved in this decision-making process. Maybe he himself would rather let the theatrics of the sale do the speaking for him. Over the next several days at least we’ll get to hear many others make that sale on Biden’s behalf, and soon decide if Biden’s campaign is the better or worse for it.

NormalNormal Is What’s for Sale

Normal life feels like it dropped off a cliff sometime shortly after the new year and has been hanging there ever since, suspended in midair like Wile E. Coyote. Now we have, finally, the start of something good and normal—a political convention. It won’t solve all our problems, but it’s familiar; a return to routine, to business as usual.

Joe Biden was the candidate of normalcy and with Kamala Harris as his VP pick instead of a radical like Karen Bass or a Machiavellian like Susan Rice, it’s an all normalcy ticket. Silicon Valley loves Harris. No crazy Bernie with his “Democratic Socialism” or Warren with her weird melange of wokeness and populist monopoly busting. The fringes have fallen away. Here comes the center reasserting itself against the depravities of Trumpism and promising reprieve to the American people who place their faith in Joe Biden. Reprieve not only from Trump and his political movement but from the pandemic and the lockdown, the anxieties of constant political warring and economic stagnation, from the specter of Russian takeover and the general state of emergency that has hung over the past four years. But for something so normal, I’m still not quite convinced that the convention is actually happening. There’s no physical event due to COVID so the entire thing is taking place online. It’s the Zoom convention, which is better than the TikTok convention, but maybe not by much.

This year, the obvious phoniness of the convention pageantry may end up being a plus. Sure, there won’t be any real surprises and no one will veer too far off script—though, maybe now instead of wide shots of the cheering crowds at the big applause lines, there’ll be sock puppet accounts online choreographing the virtual crowd with workshopped memes, and retweet cascades for the rousing quotes and scripted digs against the opposition. Those contrivances won’t feel any less tedious than they do on TV, but they could be a way of demonstrating that everything is under control. Normal is what’s for sale this year.

In the cartoon, the coyote hangs in the air for one timeless second suspended in disbelief, then drops to the ground and goes splat. But that’s the routine. The splat isn’t the end of anything. It all starts up again.

GreatMenGreat Men Are Bad Men

PG&E, the California energy giant, shut down electricity for a few hours where I live, just before the start of the virtual DNC. It seemed like an ominous sign, though I’m not big on ominous signs. With my housemate—who is 85, a media junky, and who suffers from short-term memory loss and dementia—I sat in the dark on her seven-acre farm an hour north of San Francisco. She remembers every candidate she voted for in every presidential election going back to 1956, when she cast her ballot for Stevenson, who lost big to Eisenhower. A “yellow dog Democrat,” she has never voted for a Republican, though she tells me, “I would, but the Republicans never have a good candidate.” There’s no doubt who she’ll vote for this year, provided she remembers to vote.

An hour away, the father of my fiancé, a retired lawyer and a Libertarian, says he won’t vote for Trump in November because “he’s made a mess of the country.” It may not matter who he votes for or against. Twenty-somethings tell me they’ll sit out this election. Boo hoo: Their boy, Bernie Sanders, didn’t make the cut.

In November it seems likely some votes won’t be counted in part because of the mess at the USPS. Even if all votes are counted, and Trump loses, he will not likely leave the White House of his own free will.

“So what if Trump wins?” I’ve asked liberal friends, followed by, “will it affect me?” They’re initially shocked that I even ask. Then they add, “It’s good you’re asking.” I can’t help asking questions of nearly everyone I know, including Raphael—an 18-year-old who took a knee after George Floyd’s death, and who tells me, as though he knows it for a fact: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I’m not sure if he’s a realist or a cynic.

Raphael insists that the comment about power belongs to Orwell. Does it matter, I ask him, that the phrase was actually coined by Sir John Dalberg-Acton, who wielded great power and supported the Confederacy during the Civil War? Does it also matter, I asked him in the run-up to the DNC, that Americans suffer from collective amnesia, though they’re not the only ones? Raphael reminds me that many citizens in Minsk who voted for Belarus President Lukashenko, and who have been in the streets protesting, don’t understand or remember why they once supported him. Ditto for Trump and many of his supporters.

“Crowds are mad,” I told Raphael and added that they can also have what Emily Dickinson called “Divinest sense.” No one seems to remember that Dalberg-Acton also said, “Great men are almost always bad men,” a phrase that seems to fit President Trump.

BidenCampaignBiden’s Convention Looks a Lot Like Biden’s Campaign

Though you wouldn’t know it from the perpetual kvetching of liberal partisans on Twitter, the Democratic National Convention is not meant as fan service for people who are already voting for Biden, but as a giant infomercial intended to persuade the people who aren’t. Once the party conventions stopped being places where deals were struck and nominees were actually chosen, they became enormous media spectacles and messaging vehicles to reach the broader electorate instead. It’s the rare moment when major political parties get the nation’s undivided attention on prime-time television to make their pitch. The result is typically a heavily scripted unified message to the voting public—or it was, before Donald Trump blew up the rulebook on the Republican side.

Like Biden’s campaign, Biden’s convention is decidedly traditional. Rather than risk turning off potential swing voters with sharp edges and revolutionary promises, the speaker list hews toward the party’s mainstream, with only the Bidens, Kamala Harris, and the Obamas getting extended time slots. The only other individual with an expanded role is Bernie Sanders, a friend of Biden’s who has been a strong team player since ending his campaign. His prominent appearance reflects Biden’s genuine commitment to party unity. But with an array of former Republican elected officials on the schedule tonight, the convention makes clear that it is pitched squarely at swing voters who are Trump-skeptical but need a permission structure to vote for a Democrat.

Progressive detractors have understandably complained about this strategy, and argued that this or that personal fave ought to have gotten more speaking time. But they’d do well to remember that they’ve been wrong about Biden’s strategy and prospects every step of the way, and perhaps ought to give him a chance to do to Trump what he did so ably in the primary.

BablyonCan Biden Beat Babylon Berlin?

I get sound bites and optics from PBS, BBC, and the New York Times, but I’ve been getting the big picture I want about power, money, sex, caste, and class by watching Babylon Berlin, a riveting series that was made for German TV and that migrated to Netflix. BB takes place during the Weimar Republic in Germany and culminates with the 1929 crash of the New York Stock Exchange.

Teutonic noir on steroids, the series—which I followed religiously for three seasons—offers hundreds of scenes and takes place all across Berlin with characters from every class and caste: aristocrats, lumpen proletarians, and criminals who appear to be cops and cops who behave like criminals. BB traces the decay of a civilization that produced Albrecht Durer, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Thomas Mann. It also explores the implosion of democratic institutions, like the courts and the press, and dramatizes the inexorable rush to fascism.

Viewers who are informed about 20th-century history know precisely what will happen as the plot unwinds. They also recognize that BB uses dozens of Hollywood clichés all the while that it’s packed with surprises and shocks that keep fans off balance.

By contrast, the run-up to the Democratic National Convention has so far seemed predictable, boring, and anticlimactic. It was inevitable that Joe Biden—a political extra if ever there was one—would pick as his sidekick a Black woman, a U.S. senator, and a consummate opportunist who has recently acquired some moral principles. If and when Kamala Harris debates Vice President Mike Pence, she’ll mop the floor with him. Evangelicals will hate her all the more. True to form, Trump called her “nasty.” We’ll see more of his pit-bull style in the days, weeks and months to come, plus more of his habit of projecting onto others his own worst traits.

Nothing, certainly not Trump’s astronomical fundraising, nor Nancy Pelosi’s grandstanding, has surprised me. Not even the latter’s gutsy decision on Sunday, Aug. 16 to call the House back from summer recess to vote on legislation that would block changes to the USPS and that would also likely disenfranchise voters. Unlike Babylon Berlin, which offers no heroes and no happy endings, the mass media will try to cast the “ghost convention”—as a Milwaukee businessman called it—into a riveting national epic with real-life actors like Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders, and uplift viewers with rays of that American religion: hope. In the midst of the pandemic a distracting entertainment is just what the doctor ordered.

russiagateFrom the Archive: Biden and the ‘Russiagate’ Theorists

Joe Biden’s supreme skill as a candidate consists of an ability to avoid getting hated, which may not seem like much, but which, if you think about it, distinguishes him from the dominating figures of the Democratic Party in recent decades. A normal quota of detractors, rivals, and opponents has always surrounded him, and the normal quota has always done its best to incite a popular loathing, and has fanned the embers, and has tried tossing another match. But nothing has worked. What can account for this? An affable flame-resistant personality, obviously. Also, shrewd analysis, acted upon with extreme discipline, concealed under a cloak of maudlin sentimentality. Genius in the service of geniality is ultimately the explanation.

It is a great achievement. To be unhated in the present atmosphere amounts nearly to a political program. To be unhated is a pitiless condemnation of the party in power. It is a call for social reform in the future. To be unhated is also a crafty maneuver within his own party, the Democrats. It is striking—it ought to be legendary—that Bernie Sanders, having had his head handed to him by Biden in March of this year, made a point of expressing a personal fondness, even so. How many years of careful effort on Vice President Biden’s part must have gone into preparing the grounds for Sen. Sanders’ tone of affection! Hillary Clinton said about Bernie, in regard to the Washington scene, “Nobody likes him,” which may be true. But Bernie evidently felt that, even so, Joe likes him.

Read the full story here.

annexationBiden and Annexation

swingFrom the Archive: Jews Could Swing the 2020 Election


In our selfie-defined culture, it’s usually considered a good thing to get attention, the more the better. But it may not be the case for Jews, or for Israel, to be caught in the firestorm that is burning through American politics in ways not seen since the Second World War. “That Israel is becoming a wedge issue in American politics,” notes author Daniel Gordis, “bodes very badly for Israel’s future security.”

Jews have been prominent in U.S. political life for generations but have never previously been considered a “wedge issue” as, for example, African Americans were in the past, or Latinos and Muslim Americans more recently. Yet, both sides of the political divide, along with each party’s Jewish allies, now seek to use the threat of rising anti-Semitism to either keep Jews inside the Democratic Party or pressure them to defect to the Republicans.

Read the full story here.

This article will be updated throughout the Democratic National Convention. Return to the top of Day 2 .

From the editors at Tablet Magazine

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