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The Electrifying Reinvention of Joe Biden, the Rematch & the Election, Plus Regaining America’s Lost Future

The Electrifying Reinvention of Joe Biden, the Rematch & the Election, Plus Regaining America’s Lost Future

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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  1. Biden calls for broad new social programs, higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy (WaP0)
  2. Why working-class voters still don’t trust Democrats (WaPo)
  3. Democrats Need to Stop Playing Nice (NYT)
  4. Forecaster Peter Turchin: ‘The US is in a much more perilous state than Russia’ (FT)
  5. The West Is Still Oblivious to Russia’s Information War (FP)
  6. Fake news is an epidemic that’s out of control—and we all need to be inoculated (Prospect Mag)
  7. There are growing fears of an alarming shift in Antarctic sea ice (New Scientist)
  8. There’s a New Financial Crisis Brewing in Uninsurable US Homes (Bloomberg)

There’s a New Candidate for President: This Joe Biden.

The dreaded Trump-Biden rematch is here. Only it’s not just one. It’s turbo-Trump, frenzied dictator, against this Joe Biden, who’s equal parts Dark Brandon, as the internet says, Biden’s alter-ego, and a wizened, mature statesman, now openly carrying the torch of Presidents before him, who tried to reinvent America. We’ll come to that part.

There’s a new candidate for President of the USA: Joe Biden. Not that one—a whole new figure, it appears. Reinvigorated, razor-sharp, take-no-prisoners, angry, taut, funny, visionary. That was the message of the State of the Union—the real message—and it was followed up, today, by a new agenda. I’ll get to that shortly, but first: the question on a lot of minds: so, can this Joe Biden win against Trump?

The State of the Union was an electrifying affair. It set things alight. Pundits were so taken aback that poor old Ezra Klein, who just a couple of weeks ago called for Biden to step aside, had to eat his words. The hard right, meanwhile, proceeded to freak out in a whimpering mess, because they had no idea how to respond to Joe Biden. This Joe Biden.

So can he win? Nobody can say that for sure. But a few things stick out as central themes.

—This Joe Biden has a much better chance of winning against Donald Trump than that Joe Biden

—This Joe Biden’s already connecting with people much better, across constituencies, and we’ll come to why

—This Joe Biden needs to be the Joe Biden. Dark Brandon, in other words, works.

That means that, for example, watching the State of the Union, you might have wondered: where have they been hiding this guy? Where has he been? Have you given speeches to large numbers of people, crowded rooms, let alone…whole countries…or a world? It’s not easy, to understate it. Every word matters, and every inflection counts. Biden—this one—stunned everyone, right down to the very columnists and pundits calling for him to step aside, precisely because he gave a masterclass in that incredibly difficult art.

If anyone can beat Trump—and that won’t be easy—it’s this Joe Biden. Dark Brandon, as the internet says, and we’ll come back to who that persona really is, and why he works, in just a moment.

Why the Demagogues Win, or the Basics of Trump-Biden Rematch

I was speaking recently to a Very Large Corporation. They asked me, frustrated: “we spent all this time and money and energy on this new vision, strategy, approach. And we told people about it! But nobody’s getting it. Not our employees, not our customers, nobody. What are we doing wrong?”

How did you tell them, I asked? And how many times did you try? Well, we wrote some stuff, and posted about it, and even made a video or two. That’s…it? I asked. Sure, they nodded, frowning.

The first rule of communications goes like this. However long you think it’s going to take a message to sink in, an impression to be made, no matter how proud and excited you are…double it. Then double it again. Then double it again. Then you have a beginning.

Communication is hard. Everyone, and I mean everyone, underestimates just how it works. You can’t say a thing once, and hope for it to sink in, which is what many think. So…five times? Nope. Ten? Barely. Fifty? Maybe. A hundred? Now we’re getting somewhere.

That figure gets bigger, more complicated, when you have to do the job of repairing a reputation or brand or message. 

Why do I bring all that up? Because there are those who are going to think that Biden’s work is already done. Great speech! So where’s everybody cheering and applauding? Biden’s approval ratings did rise, at least as he gave that speech…but that’s not really how this works. It’s a longer, harder game.

Think about Trump for a moment. What does he never do? He never shuts…up. He’ll repeat the same message, line, phrase, idea…not just twice, or thrice, but a hundred times. Five hundred times. Not just over years, either. But rapid-fire. In days, through tweets or posts or in speeches or what have you. He’s notorious for “rambling,” but part of the secret, and the magic he wields over his flock is that he just repeats his messages, until they sink in…and crowed everything else out.

Communications is like that. Unfortunately, a large part of it is just a numbers game. That rubs those of us who want the world to be a more intelligent place the wrong way. Why won’t people just listen the first time around?! We wonder. But this is human nature. The first three,  five, even ten times you hear something—especially if it’s something that doesn’t accord with your priors, your pre-existing beliefs, you just…tune it out. And maybe one day, finally, you open your clogged ears, and listen.

This is Biden’s challenge. Sure, he gave a great speech. Now he has to give it not just a dozen times, but a hundred. Over and over again. Until it starts to really sink in. And that’s only the first half of the challenge.

Have you noticed how the media loves to talk down Biden? I’m not, and I’ll say this over and over again, a die-hard Biden fan. Far from it. I disagree with him on many things, from Gaza to debt and beyond. But credit where it’s due, he’s a good President, and the media will repeat the attack lines of the far right, gullibly, while never really focusing on Biden’s accomplishments.

This Biden has a bigger job to do, in other words, than merely making the message “sink in.” Part of the job is now what’s called in the business “reputational repair.” Sadly, Biden—I think he was hidden away by the Democratic machine, afraid to really let him speak his mind, until just now, when things got really dire, the possibility of a Trump landslide growing. So the impression has already sunk in that he’s old or frail or weak or what have you. Of course, if you watched the State of the Union, it’s hard to believe that anymore—but undoing a bad impression is much harder than making a good one.

So how do you do that? That brings me to why this Biden connected with people, turning expectations on their head, electrifying voters.

Leadership and Demagoguery in an Age of Collapse

It’s a funny thing. How does Trump do it? Why does he manage to connect with not just “people,” but the very people who are going to be undone by the stuff he’ll do as President? How does he manage to connect with them to the point that they’ll believe his Big Lies and bluster and guff? 

Trump does something that few politicians do, but gifted…grifters…know how to, instinctively. He understand the emotional tenor of his audience, and plays off it. He begins from where they are, emotionally. And that is the key to connecting with people, always.

What do people feel these days? Mostly, and we know this without a shadow of a doubt, they feel angry. Hopeless. Afraid. Pessimistic. Those are powerful emotions, which cloud the rational mind. So if you talk to people armed with the greatest arsenal of “facts,” it doesn’t just make “no difference”—in fact, they’ll often resist more, the harder you try, and end up less persuaded. Why is that? Because you are now acknowledging their emotions—in fact, you appear to be invalidating their experience, and saying, “look here now, this fact proves that your anger, despair, and hopelessness aren’t even real!” And that, in turn, is a way of saying to someone: why, you don’t matter at all. And that’s how Trumpists—even most of us—feel to begin with.

This is why these “arguments” go nowhere. In the contests of facts and feelings, feelings win. That’s unfortunate for those of who understand the power of knowledge, reason, and truth, but it’s human nature—and it’s not to say that facts can never win, but just that you have to start from a place of human emotion, understanding it, mirroring it, empathizing with it, first.

That brings me back to why this Biden did something that Biden couldn’t. For months, that Biden couldn’t connect with people. But this one? He did it—snap, crackle, lightning bolt—just like that. Why?

He finally began from that place of emotion. This Biden wasn’t just mild-mannered, sunny, and inoffensive. He was angry. He wasn’t taking it anymore. He was angry about the state of democracy, the wrecked state of people’s lives, the incompetence of the opposition, the lack of progress that the nation and the world are making. It wasn’t the malicious, poisonous, egomaniacal rage of a Trump—it was more a kind of righteous anger. 

And that immediately connected with people, because, like I said, right about now, everybody’s angry. This is the one thing that unites us, left and right, in fact. And by starting from where people are, emotionally, Biden was free, finally, to begin to make his case. He finessed with anger with humor, poking fun at the GOP—but again, not in a wimpy, inoffensive way: he roasted them, where it counts, with the humor that comes from anger, which carries a real punch within it. That made people sit up and take notice, too.

When it came to the optimistic part of the message, it wasn’t a kind of naive, sunny idealism anymore: things are fine! What are you people worried about? Rather, it was struck through with a silver vein of realism, a kind of grim tinge of metal. No, things aren’t great. Democracy’s at stake, society’s tearing itself apart, the world needs leadership. But that metal gives such a message strength. It’s the steel people were looking for, not the soft goo of…plain old BS.

And so Biden connected with people in droves, en masse, like I said, electrifying them. Because he mirrored their emotions, began from the place they are. That’s not BS in itself, by the way. It’s a fact, too, that people feel like this—angry, afraid, alone, hopeless. When we say “facts matter,” we should bear in mind that the way people feel is the primary fact of all human affairs, and any effective politics begins there. 

The World Needs Democracy on the Offensive—Not Just the Defensive 

Biden did more than he knew that night. In Portugal, the far right just surged into power. That’s a country that was a dictatorship until the 1970s—and since then, the center and left have traded power, people traumatized and marred by the memory of tyranny. Until now.

You see, democracy’s on the brink around the globe, and you know that—but the part that nobody knows, really, is how to fight it well. How do we, the democratic side, wrest back from the far right, all that’s being lost? Biden taught us something that night. Beginning from where people are emotionally matters.

We should be angry about the state of the world, and our countries. The center left has adopted this pose and message for far too long—things are fine, nothing to see here, don’t worry be happy! But it’s not working. The “don’t worry be happy” message of the contemporary center left has been an utter disaster. Driving people into the waiting arms of the lunatics and fanatics of the farther and farther right, because of course, things aren’t going well for nearly anyone these days, and certainly not for the average person. Anger isn’t just some kind of morally justified philosophical point of debate—it’s just how people feel.

And ignoring it is less than useless. It just make you look a) out of touch b) spineless c) by implication, useless. What good is a leader, after all, who doesn’t understand how you feel? Can they really get the job done? What job is there to be done if the only message is “don’t worry be happy”? 

Biden shattered all that, and showed us all, I think, the beginnings of a way forward. Even those of us who’ve been encouraging the righteous anger of a Bernie or Liz—historical shades of an FDR, Truman, or Kennedy—were perhaps surprised, still, at just how startlingly effective it was. And in that demonstration, Biden taught the world, perhaps, a little bit, about how to respond to demagoguery. What was the lesson there?

Go on the offensive, not just the defensive. For far too long, democracy’s been on the defensive. But it’s not working. It’s not working just to sit back, point out how bad the bad guys are. It’s like trying to put out a house on fire by aiming water pistols at it. The defensive approach is not working for democracy at all—because it doesn’t work in times like this.

What do I mean by that? These are profoundly perilous times. They’re times like those for a reason. The old models have failed. The old models of the economy are on their last legs, in America, China, Europe. The old models of what a social contract is are breaking even in mature social democracies, like Europe’s. And as they go, the old models of what politics are are melting down right alongside them.

In times like those—like these—when everything’s crumbling, slipping away, breaking down, the defensive approach doesn’t work because it can’t. There’s no sense in having a burglar alarm when your house is on fire, really. Aiming a few water pistols at it isn’t going to do the job, either. What is there left to “defend” these days? Democracy, you might say, but that’s not a static thing: it must move, grow, expand, mature, too, and that is the best defense of all.

So going on the offensive, for democracy’s side, means reimagining what can be. Growing it, evolving it, pushing its boundaries forward. Not just trying in vain to defend it, which is inherently a losing game, in a time of ruin.

Reinventing America’s Lost Future

And that brings me to the most exciting development of all, really. How has Biden followed up the State of the Union? With a budget that’s…dramatic. Transformative. Visionary. 

In the speech, Biden spoke of “building a future of American possibilities” in what some in Congress called the most sweeping social agenda since President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society.”

“Imagine what that could do for America,” Biden said in the address. “Imagine a future with affordable child care. Millions of families can get — they need to go to work to help grow the economy. Imagine a future with paid leave because no one should have to choose between working and taking care of a sick family member. Imagine a future of home care and elder care and peoples living with disabilities so they can stay in their homes and family caregivers can finally get the pay they deserve.”

Read all that carefully. This is already too long—way too long—and we’re going to discuss this more. But for now, let me give you a little thought. Johnson’s Great Society was the evolution of FDR’s vision for a modern society. And unfortunately, it got derailed. The price of the Cold War was precisely America’s Great Society—and in Johnson’s terms, it meant something like what we think of today as European or Canadian style social contracts, ie, people having the basic stuff of a good life.

For Biden to pick that thread up? It’s perhaps the best thing that could have happened in American politics. I know that sounds unusually…exuberant…coming from me (smiley face.) But I mean it. I often wondered, a little morosely, if that lost thread would be ever be held in another President’s hands.

Here it is. This is the moment. A dramatic confrontation then, lies before us. On the one side, Trump, openly promising fascism and dictatorship. On the other, Biden, promising the renewed America that should have been, decades ago, the grand tradition of its great visionaries and reformers.

That, my friends, is history in the making. 

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