"America is not made," said Senator Robert La Follette. "It's in the making." The words ricochet through my head all the time now, long since when my colleague, Charles P. Pierce, first put them there, and even longer since Fightin' Bob offered them on the Senate floor on August 11, 1924. Maybe it's that lovely turn of phrase. Or maybe it's because this is what I cling to when my hope is nearly lost, when what remains of my faith in the American project hangs by a thread, when all the demons at work in this peculiar nation since its earliest days rear their heads at once and bray the loudest, drowning out the voices of those who still believe that America is an idea worth fighting for, a brave and brilliant experiment of the human race that, despite all its hypocrisies and the crimes committed in its name, still counts for so much more than blood and soil. It is even worth more than money, and in America, that's saying something.
The beauty of this country is that the paint never dries on the canvas. The job will never be done, the goal of living up to our founding values never truly met, and yet the pursuit of this, the process of becoming, is sacred. The tragedy of these last years, these lost years, is that we have gone nowhere, careening through each day on rails laid haphazardly in front of us by a sick and twisted man which, by evening, have inevitably circled back to where we began. Then we crash into the next day to do it all again, with a different set of grotesque exhibits to pass on by. But there has been no tomorrow, really, only the roiling chaos of his permanent present. The pandemic, as with so many other things, has thrown this into sharp relief, imprisoning us in our lives much as we have been trapped under the dome of this president's reverse-Truman Show, in which all the world exists to serve up attention and praise and money for him to shove inside in the frantic hope it might make him feel whole.
There has been no tomorrow, much as there hasn't been for this man's entire life. He has been flying by the seat of his pants for five decades, and now the whole country has been dragged onto the ride. This is at the root of his failures in business, where his spastic impulse has led him to disastrous decisions and, inevitably, to a place where he cannot and will not pay his bills. He does not see a trajectory from what he does today to where things will be in the future. Every day is a gauntlet he must lie and scam his way through. He has openly admitted he does not care about The National Debt, much less the climate, because he will be dead when the bills come due. His campaign could not plan far enough in advance to avoid blowing a billion dollars months early, leaving them cash-strapped in the home stretch. And then there's what he's done in the actual job, and what he doesn't plan to do.
The president has laid out no discernible second-term agenda. There is no plan to address the inequality that has frayed the fabric of our society and threatened to tear it asunder. There is no plan to address the existential threat to human civilization as we know it in the climate crisis. (As with the pandemic, for which there is also no plan, while it might feel like our lives are on pause, we are now four years closer to our own destruction.) There is no plan to curb corporate power, or to give workers a seat at the table where decisions are made. There is no plan, despite the president's early achievement of a modest criminal-justice reform bill, to try to realize the idea of America as a truly multiracial democracy, where all citizens can call upon the rights enumerated to them in practice. In fact, the president has ramped up the Republican Party's racialized assault on voting rights, and embraced the flag of police nationalism at his rallies, even replacing the American flag at times. What, after all, did we expect from the man who has lately mobilized the forces of the paramilitary right, and whose rhetoric has been echoed in the manifestos of white-nationalist terrorists?
No, there has been no future for any of us these last years, only the chance to tread water until today, when we must hope that enough of our fellow citizens believe in this American project to reject him. The election of a new majority in the House of Representatives did little to stop our slide into the abyss, and with the courts packed, there will be little check on him if he can barricade himself in the office for another term. It will be more lies, more disdain for the people he purportedly serves, more ruthless assaults on the institutions of democracy. There was some belief, when "President Donald Trump" was still an idea, that this ruthlessness and the brazen vandalism could be useful—that he'd cut the bullshit and get things done. The disastrous reality of "President Donald Trump" has dispelled that illusion. Turns out it’s all bullshit, folks, and it’s bad for ya. It could, potentially, prove too toxic to permit the survival of the American republic.
It is a funny thing, then, that Joe Biden should be the standard-bearer for the American future. In a vacuum, he's a handy avatar for the American past. He is not just 77 years old, and looking it. (This is not, we can all admit, quite the same man who dismantled Paul Ryan at a vice-presidential debate in 2012. Like any of us would at his age, he has since slowed down.) Biden also represents, in his record, some of the great American crimes against its own citizens—and, in the Iraq war, against the people of the world. One of the few honest things Donald Trump has to say about him is that Biden played a pivotal role in the 1994 crime bill that decimated Black communities in this country. He orchestrated a bankruptcy bill that further entrenched corporate power and shoved more ordinary citizens into the grinding gears of the capitalist debt machine. He was part of the vanguard of Democrats scared silly by the Reagan era, who abandoned the party's duty to make the case that the state, the proximate expression of the public will, should play a role in shaping the economy in this country.
But Joe Biden has made noises to suggest he has grasped the moment. Though some of the cowards who have long pulled the strings in the Democratic Party are lurking around his campaign and transition teams, talking of Budget Deficits and Bipartisan Compromise with a Republican Party that has completely lost its mind, Biden himself has at times talked of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the prospect of a transformative presidency. He has a $2 trillion infrastructure plan, and while it won't be enough to get where we need to go on clean energy, he is promising $15-an-hour union jobs. He has further plans on climate and racial justice. Time will tell whether he will, as FDR once said at Madison Square Garden in 1936, face up to the great powers in American life that stand before him—and, in some cases, are backing him.
We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.
They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.
Will the Democratic Party of Joe Biden face up to the money power, diluting the influence of these powerful interests in our politics while materially improving the lives of working people? There can be only one answer for those who believe in the American project, and they will need to apply the necessary pressure on Biden to see that it happens. There are many more Trumps waiting in the wings, crass Machiavellis who would marshal all the worst instincts in the American psyche to disastrous ends. They are waiting for Joe Biden to falter, to fail in restoring the faith of enough Americans in our system and our institutions that they will reject the next fascist when he comes. Because he will come. A chunk of this country has lost its hold on reality itself now, thrown into the chaotic present of fear and resentment and reaction by a man who does not believe in the concept of objective reality. The truth is whatever you can get enough people to believe. We are in so much danger, now and tomorrow.
What Joe Biden represents is the chance of an American future. Nothing is guaranteed. But whether or not you believe Biden wants to pursue an agenda worthy of FDR, there is room to push him in that direction where there is not with the incumbent. It was the forces of the money power that LaFollette spoke of confronting when he decried the "perils of passive citizenship," and implored us all to believe that this is still a nation in the making. It is all of us who will have to make it by, if necessary, forcing Joe Biden to do the job. His opponent is the most grotesque incarnation of the rank corruption that has infected American life, where the few gobble up more than they could ever possibly need or deserve—in his case, by clearly illegal means. He cannot be reasoned with, and his relentless greed can never be satiated. Every moment he spends in a position of power is a dangerous moment for the world.
The fact of it all is that, despite all that this country has done—in Latin America or the Middle East or Los Angeles—it still constitutes the best hope in this world for true multiracial democracy, where anyone can claim the rights and the beauty of true citizenship. As the climate crisis we so far have failed to combat ramps up, we will see the mass migration of hundreds of millions, and likely billions, across the world, as people of many races and religions seeking survival are thrown together as they long have been here. What hope is there if we cannot make it work? If we reject this American project, and choose the politics of tribal identity in contravention of everything this country says it stands for, who could possibly step into the void? And how much damage will we do in the meantime? No, we must give ourselves the chance to make the America that was promised. It is, always, in the making.
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