A NEW ADJECTIVE IS haunting the shaken citadel of democracy and its name is ‘normal’. There are times when, in nations rattled by the raw force of change, consolation comes from the familiar, and a cliché becomes more reassuring than lofty reminders from history. The normal has a remarkable elasticity about it. It can be adjusted by expediency and circumstances to accommodate anything we once took for granted, anything that was recently abandoned by the usurpers of democracy. The normal, after the shattering experience of reinvention, is a celebration of the pre-existing order. The adjective has regained its home in the presidency of Joe Biden. Even we at Open couldn’t resist it on the cover of this issue.
The new president’s inaugural speech itself was a masterpiece of normalcy: the beauty of banality could not have resonated more across a nation used to the staccato savagery of the angry president and the evangelical cadence of the poetic president during the past 12 years. The speech, delivered with the folksy intimacy of a man who has been through it all, was about Rebuilding America on the ruins of the Trump era. This is democracy’s day, he said, this is America’s day. Let’s start afresh, let’s put truth above lies and he told Americans that he would put his whole soul in the project of unity and justice. He reached no rhetorical summit; he provided no quote for posterity; he was talking to a people in words borrowed from the used books of platitudes. The normal is restoration, even if the words are mostly spent on rebuilding.
In Biden’s case, it’s the restoration of the Obama raj minus his poetry. On Inauguration Day, the television cameras couldn’t get enough of the Obamas, the undisputed stars among the guests, and deservedly so. The Biden agenda, the agenda of MANA (Make America Normal Again), has very little Biden in it. What it has in abundance is an admixture of un-Trumpism and Obamaism. He is defined by the context of his political life—a long-serving member of the establishment—rather than by an individual text. The Obama years provided a necessary contrast, as chosen by Obama himself: he was the safe—and a bit stale—prose against Obama’s lofty poetry (power diminished the poetry a bit, but it’s back now.) The grey beltway veteran provided the solidity the poet in power needed.
Obama shows his affection and admiration for his friend Joe in his memoirs, A Promised Land: “As for Joe, we couldn’t have been more different, at least on paper. He was nineteen years my senior. I was running as the Washington outsider; Joe had spent thirty-five years in the Senate…In contrast to my peripatetic upbringing, Joe had deep roots in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and took pride in his working-class Irish heritage…And if I was seen as temperamentally cool and collected, measured in how I used my words, Joe was all warmth, a man without inhibitions, happy to share whatever popped into his head…Joe’s enthusiasm had its downside. In a town filled with people who liked to hear themselves talk, he had no peer…As I came to know Joe, though, I found his occasional gaffes to be trivial compared to his strengths…Most of all, Joe had heart.”
Biden is here for what Obama had stood for, and the only unanswered question is whether the progressives will succeed in radicalising the vintage Establishmentarian. Which also means: Biden is here for making America un-Trump again. Being not Trump made him the counter-candidate of the campaign: set against Trump’s Twitter storm, his silence was a profound cultural statement. He didn’t even have to campaign much; he just had to remain the oracular wise old man in his Delaware bunker. The ravings of the mad king did the work for him. His normalcy was magnified by the madness of the other. In power, erasing four years of Trump means repairing the badly dented legacy of his former boss, who was far from being a normal candidate when he stormed America in 2008. So was Trump, anything but normal when the outlandish outsider ‘stole’ the show in 2016.
After such historical shifts, Biden exudes the quiet power of the ordinary. Evan Osnos in his Joe Biden: American Dreamer, a book born out of his extensive reportage for The New Yorker, is moved by the man’s empathy with other men who can cry. “Joe Biden’s life,” he writes, “was replete with mistakes and regrets and staggering personal loss. And, if he came to presidency, he was unlikely to supply much of the exalted rhetoric that reaches into a nation’s soul. But, for a people in mourning, he might offer something like solace, a language of healing.” After the exalted and the scatological, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr has brought a very normal American idiom to the politics of healing, which is not metaphorical any longer.