Jacobin - December 6, 2020

As hard as this is to remember, Obama himself was welcomed by liberals as a “return to normal” after the disastrous Bush years. But Obama didn’t somehow turn back the clock to the days before neoliberalism or catastrophic climate change. Instead, he helped shore up an economic and political order — particularly in his handling of the foreclosure crisis and the broader economic recession — that helped give us Donald Trump.

In Stephen King’s novel It, Pennywise the Dancing Clown lures children into the sewer with balloons and promises of fun. That might not be the most subtle analogy for the Trump era, but it’s one that’s occurred to me about a hundred times in the last few years. Trump was a reality TV host with a penchant for getting into entertaining feuds. He plowed through the Republican field in 2016 by acting like an insult comic and by playing to both ugly prejudices and legitimate economic fears.

As president, he hasn’t literally eviscerated anyone like Pennywise, but he has separated families at the border, fulfilled his campaign pledge to deal with foreign enemies by “bomb[ing] the shit out of them,” and mismanaged the COVID-19 crisis so horrifically that one study projects that we’ll reach half a million deaths by the end of February. And he’s acted like a clown while he’s done it all.

The Pennywise Presidency

Other presidents have committed worse crimes (though, the COVID-19 disaster is certainly up there). But most of them strained, however unconvincingly, to present themselves as reasonable and compassionate people. Bill Clinton might have declared that the era of big government is over and championed “welfare reform,” but at least he reassured us that he felt our pain. George W. Bush cluster-bombed and invaded multiple countries and surveilled and detained Muslims in America, but he held White House iftar dinners and talked about the importance of religious tolerance and his admiration for Islam as a religion.

Barack Obama expanded and deepened some of Bush’s most disturbing “war on terror” policies. But he was perpetually calm, manifestly intelligent, and consistently exuded a sense of decency on an interpersonal level.

Then there’s Trump. As a candidate for president, he responded to debate moderator Megyn Kelly’s pointed questions by saying that she had “blood coming out of her wherever.” Throughout his term, he’s often had trouble condemning outright fascists and praised QAnon conspiracy theorists.

Next month, Trump will be replaced by a career politician who won’t do any of those things. It’s not hard to understand why so many commentators are jubilant — and why they respond badly when anyone tells them things about the president-elect they don’t want to hear.Why not just be happy? The evil clown is gone. Everything can return to normal.

What “Back To Normal” Looks Like

So far, Biden’s appointments include a “climate czar” who, as Branko Marcetic writes, “enthusiastically supported the expansion of US fossil fuel exploitation,” an energy secretary “who not just opposes the Green New Deal, but who sits on the board of one of the country’s worst fossil fuel polluters,” and a director of the Office of Management and Budget who floated the idea of stealing Libya’s oil money to pay for the US war to overthrow Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. ...
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