Is it more worrying that President Biden might not be in charge, or that he actually is in charge? Nobody has the power to force a president to undergo the indignities that Biden went through on Thursday night’s CNN town hall. As with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, either someone convinced him to do it or he insisted on doing it. Either way, you could not watch him, clenching his fists as though holding a Zimmer frame while Anderson Cooper spoon-fed him a prompt, without feeling that we are heading nowhere good.
On the same day that Donald Trump evoked the ghosts of Soviet propaganda by launching a social-media app called Truth — the Russian translation is Pravda — Joe Biden attempted a Brezhnev-era theatrical of his own. In the Eighties, we laughed at the Soviet leaders’ transparently crude bumbling before the cameras. Their low-grade production values and rambling, slurred speeches exposed them as a decayed and senile regime. This was the opposite of the intended effect, but the US set the global standard in political imagery, so the Soviets felt they had to keep up. They beat themselves at our game.
The US no longer defines that global standard. The Chinese are the masters of political performance these days, whether it’s allegorical nationalist ballets at sporting events or the other nationalist ballet, the synchronized ovation in the Great Hall of the People. Yet our politicians feel they have to keep up with the old American standard. The result, as it was for the Soviets, is farce. We are now beating ourselves at our own game.
It’s not an election year, so there’s no need for a live “town hall.” The very notion parodies the now-ancient imagery of Norman Rockwell’s civic democracy. And the audience aren’t, as Anderson Cooper called them, “voters” — unless we’re living in a permanent emergency whose symptoms include permanent voting. If we are in a permanent emergency, it is because both Democrats and Republicans want us to think we are, because they are in a permanent state of war over the spoils of government, and because the government functions — or rather, fails to function — with near-Soviet efficiency.
The Soviets wanted their subjects to think they were in Trotsky’s “permanent revolution.” The Russian people knew that in reality they were in the permanent grip of a decaying, incompetent and deceitful bureaucracy, and that party factions and government agencies used the rhetoric of revolution as a weapon in their jockeying for power. But they also knew they and their children would suffer if they said anything.
Twenty-first century America is not in the Soviet Union. I will not be sent to the gulag for writing this article, though I might get shadow-banned on Twitter if I keep saying it. You will not be arrested for sharing it on Facebook, though if you are a member of the professional classes and express similar sentiments at work, your career prospects might take the kind of dent that similar errors of candor produced in the Soviet Union. No: the American way is decaying in the American way.
Twenty-first century America is a shadow of its former self, so its politics have become a shadow play of propaganda. This, really, is merely the political version of advertising, and that was an art that twentieth-century America invented and taught to the world. The CNN town hall was arranged to manage the public’s perfectly accurate perception that this administration cannot tie its own shoelaces. The less convincing the performance of our leaders, the greater their insistence that we must believe — and the more we see that they are false and incompetent, even if we cannot afford the cost of saying it out loud.
We are being bullied into believing in stupidities — or, more corrosively, merely pretending that we believe in them. The Keystone XL pipeline must be closed to save the planet, but last night Biden was reduced to mumbling about gas prices not coming down without help from Saudi Arabia. Overnight, an underachieving health administrator like Rachel Levine becomes a woman, an admiral and what the Soviets called a “pioneer.” She is the nation’s “first openly transgender four-star admiral,” CBS News reports — as if the upper echelons of the US Navy are already staffed by transexuals, only no one noticed until they reached the correct level of progressive consciousness.
The amateurishness of the performance betrays the arrogance of power. We see when Kamala Harris entered what was supposed to be a surprise birthday party and shouted “Surprise!” before the guests did. Harris and the First Husband embraced gingerly and shared a chaste and masked kiss. Later in the day, Harris went maskless at a rally for Terry McAuliffe, who was also maskless, and embraced him too. They must think we’re stupid — or afraid of what might happen if you state the obvious.
When President Biden was filmed walking through a restaurant without a mask on, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, told us not to fixate on “moments in time that don’t reflect overarching policy.” We will be told the same about Biden’s assertion on CNN that the US would fight a war for Taiwan. The audience whooped and cheered when he boasted that he’d fire unvaccinated policemen and women. Last year’s class heroes and heroines are this year’s class enemies.
A policy is a moment in time, but the permanent emergency and the cynical flipping of the truth are the overarching policy. If you noticed the apparatchik with the limousine, the dacha and the smuggled Johnnie Walker, you had to unsee it. If you noticed Biden forgetting the name of Long Beach port and saying “What am I doing here?” or mendaciously describing opposition to tuition-free community college as “Joe Manchin and…one other person” because he can’t remember who Kyrsten Sinema is, you must unsee it.
Here’s another moment in time that doesn’t fit our overarching policy. While our leaders and the media order us to repeat falsities and celebrate inanities, the Chinese are sending hypersonic missiles around the Earth.