The three-and-a-half-minute video in which Joe Biden announced his candidacy for president in the 2020 election was first-rate propaganda. Mm-mm: a Cinnabon of feel-good moralism designed to hit most Americans’ sweet spot.
But the video was also an elegy — for an obsolete dynamic of white saviorism that’s good and ready to be buried. The republic, though under threat, is not yet finished. But the old guard of white male heroes is, the ones who have long imagined themselves as the chief avatars, protectors and patriarchs of the rest of us.
First, Biden evoked Thomas Jefferson, who he said was from Charlottesville, Va. (Jefferson’s 5,000-acre plantation, with the 600 people he enslaved, was well out of town, but never mind.)
Jefferson, Biden explained, laid out our American ideals: “All men are created equal.” Yes, Biden said “men” without a blink, and OK, we all know what Jefferson meant. (To punctiliously make it “people” would have been very — Hillary.)
So I was with Biden when he cruised (as if in one of his custom Camaros) from Charlottesville 1776 to Charlottesville 2017, where hostile white supremacists clashed with counter-protesters, including the activist Heather Heyer, who was murdered by a neo-Nazi.
With acid bile in his tone, and righteous tears in his eyes, Biden quoted President Trump’s notorious praise for the “very fine people on both sides” in the Charlottesville battle.
Biden dutifully reversed the president, awarding his own praise to even the most radical of the counter-protesters. Sure, he didn’t show Heyer’s face, and didn’t use the term “antifa,” but he left no doubt he found “fine people” on only one side.
The mere evocation of the most aggressive counter-protesters in Virginia seemed daring to me at first, like a Union Army colonel praising not just his fellow soldiers, but Nat Turner, John Brown and other abolitionist insurrectionists.
And Biden was just getting started. Footage of women’s suffrage, D-Day, Iwo Jima, Martin Luther King Jr., and other beloved cliches of American virtue marched across the screen in the video, Biden, in cutaways, always seemed poised to cry at his own rhetoric.
James M. Cox, a Mark Twain scholar who died in 2012, used to tell his students at the University of Virginia (in Charlottesville), where I went to college, that Tom Sawyer was caught in a compulsive self-congratulatory loop, returning to an imagined past. He, and others like him, lived to “set the slaves free all over again,” as Cox put it.
“Setting the slaves free,” Cox said, was a moment when white men in this country were allowed to feel like Moses — adventurous and lethal, but also entirely righteous. Their eyes had seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, while the stupid bigots down South were whistling Dixie.
The elaborate sympathy for black people in bondage that played out in Washington parlors came to be rivaled by the history’s picture of certain men as almost holy.
Something like that same self-regard suffused American soldiers after World War II, who lived up to their Lincoln-esque calling when they “liberated the camps,” and once again set people free.
And again in 1989, when Reagan-era capitalism and American pieties faced off with the Soviet dictatorship and liberated the Russian people, who, we were told, were suffering terribly for want of Levis and Billy Joel.
Thus has persisted a compulsion in American history, among the ruling classes, to set “slaves” free, again and again and again. The material victory plus the surge of moral superiority enjoyed by these elites must be an unbeatable high. Biden’s video gave us a taste of the euphoria.
Relinquishing our long-cherished fantasies about white male saviors — good cops — isn’t easy. Of course, swaths of Americans must always be oppressed to keep giving these guys, and our mythos, a fix of heroism, but still we cling to this national narrative of white knights.
Biden without doubt looks handsome in the old uniform of patriotism in his announcement video. He looks every bit the liberator.
Yes, we know about Biden’s role in the unconscionable bullying of the legal scholar Anita Hill during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991. Although Hill said this week that Biden’s treatment of her wasn’t “disqualifying,” she also said his “I’m sorry,” 28 years later, was “not enough.” Even though we know he’s a law-and-order type who probably won’t be waving a Black Lives Matter sign or joining antifa, it’s hard to shake his face loose from our action-hero fantasies.
Biden has a good grin, gleaming teeth. He’s the picture of old-fashioned American wholesomeness, like Ted Williams or John Glenn. And he’s right when he tells us the ideals that he embodies are in danger from Donald Trump.
But some of Biden’s ideals are obsolete already. His savior complex, in particular, is in danger from the women and people of color who are his rivals for the Democratic nomination. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Julian Castro and Elizabeth Warren no longer need his or anyone’s help to be free. Their liberation is an inalienable right, and they long ago asserted it. Now they are more than ready to lead.