“The Biden blackout.”
“Soft despotism” is upon us.
This article first appeared on The Scrum.
DECEMBER 17—Those who followed events in 2016 with sufficient acuity will have registered events it is now well to recall. In the infra dig response of liberals to Hillary Clinton’s defeat we find a mirror image of what we are in for in consequence of Joe Biden’s victory.
In my reading of what lies out front, in years to come the honest among us will find cause to be grateful, strange as this may at first seem, to Donald Trump. Perversely grateful, maybe—grudgingly grateful, or unexpectedly, or passingly. We will find that Trump did us one not-so-modest favor: In his resistance to the Democrats’ fearsome alliance with the intelligence apparatus, law enforcement, and the media, he deferred for four years the tide of dictatorial liberalism that now rolls toward us.
Remember those months leading up to the election four years ago? The Clinton-led mainstream of the Democratic Party, having subverted Bernie Sanders’ bid for the nomination, saw nothing but blue sky as the political season wore on. Clinton’s triumph was a done thing, merely a matter of waiting for the formal vote tallies. The crates of Champagne were stacked high at the Javits Center in New York, planned venue of the party’s victory celebration. A favored pastime in the party and the press was to carp about how Trump supporters would greet their loss: They would not accept defeat, they would demonstrate in the streets, they would attempt to subvert the new administration.
I began daily to take copious notes at this time, so extraordinary was the liberal bile Trump and all those “deplorables” evoked. Trump was everything awful under the sun—a fascist, a homophobe, a crook, a greedhead, a liar. My list of epithets, culled from the news reports and the “progressive” press, grew to pages. Most of all, I could not but note, Trump was vulgar, tasteless. This was his unforgivable sin: He was not one of us.
We know what happened. In the months and then years after Hillary Clinton snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, American liberals refused to accept defeat, demonstrated in the streets—remember the “Not My President” placards?—and attempted to subvert the new administration in what soon took shape as an attempted coup. There was, of course, that childish phenom called “the Resistance,” complete with a cap “R.”
I gloss these events because in them we read a metanarrative that we must not miss, for it bears upon our present and future. There was a reason for the severe, antidemocratic reaction to Trump’s 2016 stunning electoral triumph. It is far more profound than mere politics.
Clinton’s victory was to be a matter of incalculable moment as the Democrats understood it. It was to mark the righteous ascendance of neoliberal orthodoxy to a position of decisive, unassailable supremacy. History would be made even as history would end. There would be no more politics, indeed, for there would thenceforth be no more challenges from either the left or the right of the Democratic mainstream. Theirs would be the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.
And suddenly there was bitter, wintry defeat. All those people the Democrats hubristically proposed to ignore out of existence had, like trespassers, intruded where they were not supposed to be. The millenarian vision, read straight out of the old New England pulpits, turned out to be a mirage, an embarrassing overinterpretation of the moment. The Champagne crates were sent back, and that glass ceiling at the Javits Center, which Clinton had so earnestly hoped to make use of in her exhibition of significance, remained intact.
Such was the psychological and indeed emotional dimension of that fateful fall four years ago. Clinton and her people suffered not merely a political defeat; it was more profoundly a cognitive, conceptual defeat, an epistemological overturning of the neoliberal cart. The world was not what it had been presumed to be.
Understand this and you begin to understand the significance beyond politics of Biden’s confirmation, as of Monday, as our forty-sixth president. All the presumption Trump made look so… so presumptuous is now to be reified. There will be redemption. The dream shall now be fulfilled. America’s millenarian moment will come to be. The righteous shall declare themselves righteous.
This is why Biden’s administration-in-the-making bears the unmistakable stamp of a restoration. What we will get—what we must endure these next four years—will be no more nor less than what Hillary Clinton would have served. Barack Obama was effectively prologue, from our perspective: Clinton’s presidency was to be the moment of neoliberal consolidation. Biden advertises himself as a transitional president. I am sure he means it: His task is to fix as immutable what crumbled four years ago.
I argued from the earliest days of Trump that he was less a worry than his liberal opposition. Trump was to come and go, and now he has done both. A pervasive, suffocating, difficult-to-budge liberalism with an authoritarian aspect, incipiently dictatorial for many years, will be our lot.
This will not be fun. It will not be pretty. We will not be better off because of it.
We already witness the evaporation of politics in Washington, on Capitol Hill as well as in the executive. One of the articles of faith in the American ideology is that our republic has had it right since the Revolution and need change nothing but at the margins. This is why the Biden administration has swiftly shut out those over its left shoulder—who, for all their shortcomings, live in history as against myth. They stood for substantive change in various spheres. It proves a losing position time and again in American political history.
This is also why there is little discussion or coverage of what Biden’s people actually stand for. That does not matter, for as a matter of course they stand for more of the same. As various independent commentators have pointed out, the incessant stress on the race and gender of Biden’s appointments is mere spectacle—precisely the sort of marginal change that, throughout America’s modern history, is supposed to suffice as we touch up our perfection.
To be honest, I take no interest whatso in the race or gender of any of these people. As Sherrilyn Ifill, a prominent civil-rights attorney, pointed out the other day, this is cosmetic diversity, not substantive diversity. Affirmative action, to be honest once again, has always been a flawed project, a fight-fire-with-fire project while leaving all questions of causality unaddressed. Naming someone to high, influential office simply because she is a woman or he is black or Hispanic without reference to matters of substance or competence, is to court failure.
If the cover of identity politics is transparently cynical, it is nonetheless to be understood as a pernicious mechanism. It is by this means the neoliberal orthodoxy is to be Trojan-horsed to that position of primacy beyond all challenge that the Clinton people strove but failed to achieve.
The damage done—to our institutions, to our capacity to think and discern clearly, to our public discourse, to what remains of our democracy altogether—will be great. If these few weeks since Biden’s election are any guide, we are in for a blackout the totality of which no one now alive has ever lived through. A time of darkness awaits. This is my read.
There has always been a divide in America (and maybe in most other nations) between the sayable and the unsayable. The fight for truth is always a matter of making sayable as much of the unsayable as we can. It is the responsibility of the press to lead this fight.
And it is our press—our corporate-owned newspapers and broadcasters, I mean—that stand to sustain the worst of the damage dictatorial liberalism will wreak. Censorship, and what we can call the surveillance of our discourse and ultimately our minds, will become more common than they already are. Many matters of consequence will go unreported. This is notably but not only so in the foreign policy sphere, such that the true nature of our conduct abroad will be kept from us, and with regard to anything that may reflect poorly on the Biden administration.
We have already had previews in both cases. The stunning, perfectly legible corruption implicating Biden and his sad son Hunter is “not a story.” House Speaker Pelosi’s shocking betrayal of Americans in need by way of her cynical negotiations for a sustaining relief program will never be reported for what they have been—a sacrifice of people in the name of political gain.
This is what I mean by the Biden blackout. Comparisons between The New York Times and Pravda have been made often over the years and have heretofore seemed unproductively exaggerated. We proceed into an era when this will no longer be so certain, for there will be, as there was supposed to be after the 2016 election, one truth.
I have named the phenomenon here described “dictatorial liberalism” and “liberalism with an authoritarian aspect.” There are other terms for it. “Liberal totalitarianism” has been a common descriptive since the mainstream of the Democratic Party threw in with intelligence and the press to force the Russiagate fakery, among much else, upon us. Rob Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative who is nicely attentive to these matters, gives us “soft totalitarianism” in his recently published Live Not by Lies.
We ought to be careful with our terminology, overstatement to be avoided. I find “totalitarian” and its derivative too strong, although this may prove otherwise in years to come. But I am interested in Dreher’s apparent borrowing from de Tocqueville. The prescient French traveler beat us all by 180 years. In the second volume of Democracy in America, published in 1840, five years after Volume I, his term for what he saw during his visits to the young United States was despotisme doux, “soft despotism.” This de Tocqueville considered a danger inherent in the democratic form of government. What he meant bears brief interpretation, for he drew a significant distinction.
De Tocqueville detected the threat of “the tyranny of the majority” in America, the many lording it over the few. But we must take care to understand how he saw the majority exerting its power, for this is not precisely how things worked. Power accrued to those who purported “to know the people’s greatest good.” This produced a minority, a self-declared elite, who ruled in the name of the majority in we-know-best fashion. The thought goes to the famous distinction between popular, Jeffersonian democracy, and elite democracy—the democracy of Hamilton and Adams, the democracy whose remains we find out our windows.
The great Henry Steele Commager put it this way in the small volume called Commager on Tocqueville:
All power inheres in the people, but the people may not exercise all power. The will of the majority must prevail, but only if it is righteous.
That’s Commager: always succinctly and elegantly to the point.
How is the majority’s will to be judged righteous and by whom? This was accomplished by the majority itself as it is manipulated by the elite: “The majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion,” de Tocqueville wrote. This observation begins a famous passage in Chapter XV of Volume I:
Within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them…. He is exposed to continued obloquy and persecution…. Every sort of compensation, even that of celebrity, is refused to him…. Before making public his opinions he thought he had sympathizers; now it seems to him he has none any more since he has revealed himself to everyone; then those who blame him criticize loudly and those who think as he does keep quiet and move away without courage….
There you have our soft despotism, our dictatorial liberalism, the complicity of media essential in marking out the unsayable from what is permitted to be said. It is soft in that its sharp edges are not readily evident, liberal because it dresses nicely and speaks in kindly tones. I fear it more than anything I feared on the morning of Wednesday, November 9, 2016, when I awakened to read the results of the previous day’s election.
Footnote: Even as we went to press, a report arrived describing Instagram’s censorship of a post noting the perfectly demonstrable correlation between the crime bill Biden wrote in 1994 and the rise in the number of black prisoners in the federal penal system. Instragram, a Facebook property, asserted that the post was “false information.” RT.com published the report. It is here. This is the Biden blackout as we will know it.
John Barkley Rosser, Jr.
Professor of Economics
James Madison University