Peter Wehner: Biden may be just the person America needs
It turns out, however, that Biden is a man very much in tune with this historical moment—despite, or perhaps because of, his age and experience.
Biden’s competitors in the primaries thought that they could clinch the Democratic nomination by parroting an extremely pessimistic discourse about this country and its prospects. His rival in the general election thought that he could hold on to power by appealing to America’s basest instincts. Biden alone managed to eschew the zero-sum terms of the culture war that has consumed our political class: Neither woke nor anti-woke, he eked out a rare victory against an incumbent by being, simply, decent.
If, in 2016, Americans rewarded anger and extremism, in 2020 they handed victory to a man of moderation, one who stands up for progressive ideals without looking down on conservatives, and who believes that it is possible both to be honest about the country’s flaws and to take pride in its strengths. Biden won because he recognized that most Americans have far less appetite for political extremism than the country’s cable-news hosts and social-media celebrities seem to think.
Trump’s defeat suggests that the first draft of history—written by pundits, politicians, and political scientists over the past four years—was unduly pessimistic.
When Trump won one primary after another, and beat Hillary Clinton in an upset, pundits and political scientists attributed his ascent to racism, positing that a large number of Americans craved the racist messaging that was central to his first campaign. The inevitable implication, in some circles, was that America itself is irredeemably racist.
From the June 2019 issue: An oral history of Trump’s bigotry
An academic study by the political scientist Diana Mutz helped cement this view, arguing that the 2016 election “was an effort by members of already dominant groups to assure their continued dominance.” But the true findings of the study were much more ambivalent than the summaries that made it into the mainstream media. Most Americans who voted for Trump, Mutz acknowledged, did so because they had long supported the Republican Party. And though most Americans who switched from supporting Obama in 2012 to supporting Trump in 2016 felt that their social status was under threat, their motivation was not primarily racial in nature.
To gauge respondents’ status anxiety, Mutz asked them questions about “support for international trade, support for immigration, and whether the US relationship with China is a threat or an opportunity.” In other words, at least two of the three indicators actually pointed more to economic problems.
Racism probably does explain how Trump was able to attract the fervent support of a part of the Republican base and win a crowded primary four years ago. And many other Americans were shamefully willing to look past his bigoted statements when they backed him in 2016. But the best evidence now suggests that Trump’s racism has harmed (not helped) his standing among the general American public, and motivated a significant number of his former supporters to vote against him in 2020.