When Joe Biden assumes the presidency on Wednesday, most Americans will let out a massive sigh of relief, simply glad to be rid of a would-be tyrant whose refusal to accept his loss at the ballot box led him to incite a deadly mob to storm the Capitol.
But the challenge facing Biden, and the nation he will lead, is more fundamental than solving these two crises. Biden also has to address a narrative crisis, by which I mean the corrosive effects of having lived in the thrall of a corrupt storyteller for the past four years, one who never stopped inflaming his supporters and demoralizing the rest of us.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former consigliere, put it most succinctly: “The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with s***.”
A creature of the tabloids, Trump flooded the zone with a firehose of falsehoods, accusations, incitements. The more vilified he became, the more he could play victim to his base.
The president can’t just be a commander-in-chief, or a national healer. He needs to be the narrator-in-chief.
Biden should unequivocally repudiate this playbook, in terms of policy. But he should also recognize the dark potency of Bannon’s approach. The president can’t just be a commander-in-chief, or a national healer. He needs to be the narrator-in-chief.
Simply put: Biden needs to flood the zone with hope.
From the moment he assumes office, Biden should be relentless in action and rhetoric.
He shouldn’t just reverse the cruelest and most racist Trump policies, such as the ban on travelers from Muslim-majority countries and the family separation at the U.S. Mexico border. He should go before the cameras and explain why these sadistic policies don’t actually make Americans safer.
He shouldn’t just push for a massive stimulus plan or pledge to distribute 100 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine. He should explain how the Trump regime screwed up the pandemic response by ignoring science and playing politics with our lives.
Biden should reverse Trump’s obscene corporate tax cut and announce—right out loud—that the era of catering to corporate greed is over, that it’s no longer okay for CEOs rake in billions while American children go to bed hungry.
Biden shouldn’t just reverse Trump’s despicable environmental measures. He should make a full-throated argument for abandoning fossil fuels and investing aggressively in a green economy that will create jobs and mitigate the coming horrors of climate change.
If Biden wants to undo the massive damage done over the past four years, he needs to learn from Barack Obama’s mistakes, as well.
Obama inherited an economy in economic freefall, owing to the greed of Wall Street wizards who enriched themselves by gambling on mortgage debt. Obama should have explained to the American people precisely who caused the financial meltdown, and made sure they were punished. He should have bailed out the dispossessed, not the big banks. And he should have recognized that GOP leaders were never going to work with him — on anything. The only language Republicans understand at this point is brute power. Look no further than the armed insurrection for proof.
[Biden] needs to offer Americans of good faith more than just an end to the nihilism of the Trump era.
For more than four years, Trump ruled by petty tweet and paranoid incitement. The result was that he occupied an outsized role in our collective imagination. His departure from the White House leaves a vacuum that Biden must fill.
If he fails to do so, I can tell you precisely what will happen: Trump and the same demagogues who incited the capitol mob will race to fill the void, running their standard grift, which is to retail hate and profit off division. Biden has to be bold enough to offer an alternative narrative, one that is as loud and righteous as Trump’s was shameless and unholy.
I’m heartened to hear that Biden has an ambitious agenda for his first 100 days. But he needs to offer Americans of good faith more than just an end to the nihilism of the Trump era. He needs to offer us a vision of our national story that is fueled by faith, the chance to believe in government as a force for good again.
He can’t just offer us a few sips of hope. He has to flood the zone.