Greg Weiner is Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Assumption University.
Joe Biden’s call for an end to America’s “uncivil wars” rests on an irony. The foremost task he has chosen as president is to unify the nation. But the best way to do it is to encourage Americans to stop looking to presidents as answers to all political troubles. Biden’s most pertinent asset is simple, authentic normalcy. That, more than policies, is what this moment requires. His best strategy for unity is absence from the nation’s daily life, not presence in it. The more forgettable he is, the more memorable Biden’s presidency will be.
We have seen the opposite. The January 6 insurrection was the culmination of a cult of personality that reflected a remarkably, hauntingly personal connection between citizens and the president. The defense the seditionists are mounting—that Donald Trump called and they answered—is legally ludicrous but also entirely believable.
The defense underscores the fact that in addition to being treacherous and menacing, the insurrectionists are also, strictly speaking, pathetic. These are grown men and women whose lives are apparently so devoid of other sources of meaning that their self-worth depends on who occupies the White House. No one should care about presidential elections so intimately or intensely. If single elections are sincerely perceived to threaten personal identity or civilizational survival, too much is at stake.
There are lessons in these events for how Biden can help repair American political life. If the aspiration is, as leaders of all stripes have said, to “lower the temperature,” we do not need simply calmer politics or different politics. We need less politics.
There is no safe harbor from politics today. From his 2017 inauguration through his ban from Twitter, Trump tweeted 26,237 times, a rate that means he was in citizens’ faces an average of more than 18 times every day. In the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, he placed himself at the center of every news briefing. His regular calls to friendly news programs imported him into living rooms and onto computer screens at every turn. Affinity or antipathy toward the president has become the sun around which virtually every political question orbits.
More ominously, these affinities and antipathies have infiltrated society and culture too. There is no escape. Politics shapes where we live, with whom we associate and what consumer goods we buy. We hear relentless expressions of opinion not just from political figures or pundits but also from sectors of life, such as business, academia and religion, that always touched, and were always touched by, politics but were not typically consumed by it. Politics is not designed to bear this weight, especially when it escalates to the level of personal identity and worth.
In 1969, Daniel Patrick Moynihan delivered a commencement address at the University of Notre Dame. The times paralleled our own: alienation that fed on itself and fueled chaos. Moynihan noted that he had spent a career trying to make government bigger, but that doing so effectively required recognizing what government could not do well. “What is it that government cannot provide?” he asked. “It cannot provide values to persons who have none, or who have lost those they had. It cannot provide a meaning to life. It cannot provide inner peace.”
Trumpism was less a policy agenda than an attempt to supply those things to disaffected people, not by means of government, nor even through the White House, but rather through the personality of its occupant. He validated their lives and rhetorically vanquished their perceived foes. January 6 differs from Shay’s Rebellion of 1786 and 1787 and the Whiskey Rebellion of the early 1790s. Those were indefensible and seditious. They also entailed people’s livelihoods. The insurrection of January 6 pertained to its participants’ apparently precarious self-respect.
If elections are meant to provide our sense of purpose and worth, their results are fated to be explosive. Moreover, if politics is the vehicle for all meaning, we should expect it to infiltrate every aspect of our lives and, in so doing, lose any sense of moderation or perspective. Moynihan’s words on that topic at Notre Dame apply to the Trump right as much as they did, in 1969, to the radical left: “We are not especially well equipped in conceptual terms to ride out the storm ahead, but there are things we know without fully understanding, and one of these is the ultimate value of privacy, and the final ruin when all things have become political.”
Of course, people do need outlets for values. Sources of meaning are important. But we should find them in concrete forms close to home, not abstractions like the personality of or opposition to the president. The insurrection exposed a profound civic pathology whose chief symptom is obsession with politics and whose etiology is the collapse of community. This form of politics replaces the tangible relationships and corresponding bonds of dependence and obligation that constitute authentic communities with shallow, anonymous attachments to politicians.
Cults of personality are seductive, partly because face-to-face relationships, which require us to confront each other in all our irritating imperfection, are difficult. They require real sacrifice and actual work. Hero worship exacts no costs in exchange for the moral exhilaration it provides.
For all the anti-government rhetoric of the Trump movement, it subsisted on the illusion of relationships of personal caretaking between individuals and the president. The conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet explained totalitarianism in terms of this ardent affection for politicians. The human need for community remains when traditional social bonds collapse, he wrote, so people seek it in the superficial realm of the state instead.
The service Biden can most do the nation is to decline heroic status. His low-key campaign, followed by an inauguration characterized by dignity and reserve, are good starts. Maintaining that sense of reserve will not be as easy as it may seem. Even with the Senate under Democratic control, Biden is already under pressure to resort to unilateral executive action to impose progressive priorities.
That is a divisive and anti-constitutional approach that assumes power is merely a weapon to be used rather than a trust. Because we can only have one president at a time, making him or her the vehicle for all policy necessarily excludes roughly half the electorate. That is among the reasons President Obama was polarizing. When Trump made power a source of personal meaning, the dangers became not only exponentially worse but different in kind.
Consequently, Biden should resist—as he so far has—the pressure to use every power available to him, deferring to the deliberate and less engrossing processes of Congress instead. Besides being constitutional, that kind of deference has the added benefit of relieving Americans across the spectrum from the temptation to obsess over the presidency.
Biden has problems he aspires to address, such as the pandemic, climate change and racial inequality. That task is governance. It differs from an agenda to transform American society. Because society is largely the product of a civic space apart from government, and because people disagree about social priorities, transformative visions pursued from the center are intrinsically divisive.
Refraining from pursuing such a vision, and sticking to governance instead, will require Biden—who has buried a wife and two children and understands sacrifice—to give up the historical legacies presidents almost always chase. After a four-year bender, what the nation needs now is a breather—a retreat from the constant presence of politics in our lives. By refusing to be the vessel of anyone’s quest for personal worth, Biden can encourage the renewal of genuine ties of friendship and community—the kind that require real sacrifice and impart real meaning.
Simply confronting issues as he finds them will not earn Biden a place on Mount Rushmore. When presidents are ranked, historians tend to emphasize transformative visions over the needs of the time. The paramount need of this time is a forgettable president. That would be a gift for which Joe Biden would deserve to be remembered.