In the video announcing his presidential campaign today, Joe Biden said something that struck me. “I believe history will look back on this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time,” Biden said.
Biden’s statement made me think back to morning after the 2016 election. On my drive home from work the day after Donald Trump had won the presidency, I listened to the podcast of former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau and other former Obama staffers. As these bright, 30-something white men analyzed the election, I couldn’t help but think they in over their heads.
Yes, Favreau offered a heartfelt mea-culpa for his arrogance about how Clinton would win, but beyond being clueless about how to proceed (which, to be fair, most liberals including myself were), these men simply didn’t seem to have the vocabulary required to address the severity of what Trump’s election meant; I wanted an analysis and a reckoning that went deeper.
As I reflect on Biden’s statement today that Trump somehow represents an “aberrant moment in time,” I am struck by how the speechwriters’ reactions and Biden’s analysis are connected in a fundamental misreading of American history.
The fact, of course, is that Trump’s presidency and what it represents are anything but an “aberrant moment” in American history. It is easy enough to point out the various ways in which bigotry, misogyny and imperialism have dominated American history. One need only look at the fact that the mansion Trump now inhabits was built by slaves or that because of the Iraq war, it is debatable whether American foreign policy has done more harm than good in my lifetime. As Ta-Nehisi Coates articulated in an essay in the first year of the Trump presidency, Trump brings to the fore the white supremacy of this country that has always been there.
And yet, we let ourselves off the hook too easily if we simply dismiss United States history as a catalogue of oppressions. I think there is, cautiously, a narrative of progress that can be woven through the complicated history of the United States. It is undeniable that the trend is that the number of people who have basic rights in the United States has steadily expanded since the country’s founding. Lincoln’s words in the Gettysburg address speak to me — this country, with all its deep flaws, does have a role to play in world history.
In fact, Barack Obama’s conception of American exceptionalism, if understood correctly, seems to do justice to this complicated dynamic. This is a narrative that says that the story of the United States is deeply problematic, that there has been progress, that there is no guarantee that progress will continue, but that we can build off of this history of progress in our country to build into the future.
This narrative runs into serious problems when it does not take into account the depths of darkness that have enveloped this country for so much of its history, and that continue to hold much of this country today. In addition to making you look silly, glossing over this country’s flaws leaves you unable to cope with the reality of the fight ahead. It leaves you woefully ill-equipped on a podcast on November 9th, 2016, for example. If we want to improve our country, we must understand both the power of collective action, and the depths of our country’s flaws.