Tawdry Season in America

Christian Lorentzen

This autumn was always going to be a tawdry season in America. The past couple of weeks have been a jubilee of below-the-belt viral content: a photograph of the former vice-president’s son leaning down apparently to snort powder off a woman’s bare buttock; a still from the new Borat movie of the former New York mayor in a hotel room with a young woman, leaning back on the bed with his hands in his pants; a story of a journalist pleasuring himself during a Zoom conference in the sight of his colleagues (he said he thought he’d turned the camera off). Sleaze and perversion are now the permanent backdrop of US politics. The world turns its eyes away from a hegemon whose henchmen can’t stop pulling their dicks out.

By contrast, the final debate between Trump and Biden was almost decorous. With mute controls on the candidates’ microphones, there was none of the rudeness, interrupting, bullying, and name calling of their last encounter, when unknown to all the president was in the early stages of a Covid-19 infection. In boxing terms, it’s hard not to say the match was a draw. No longer unhinged, Trump seemed, it pains me to say, more competent than usual, though as crude as ever. On the environment: ‘China – look how filthy it is!’ On Obama’s immigration policies: ‘Catch and release is a disaster. A murderer would come in, a rapist would come in, a very bad person would come in – we would take their name, we have to release them into our country.’ On his own policies of deportation and turning away asylum seekers: ‘Less than one per cent of the people come back … Those with the lowest IQ, they might come back.’ Such is the president’s vision of the world, and it’s nothing new. After three and a half years on the job, though, he can now thread his vulgarities through an almost nuanced discussion of policy. Late in the debate he spelled out what must have been his intended campaign strategy before the pandemic killed more than 200,000 people and flushed the economy down the drain:

I will tell you, go back before the plague came in, just before, I was getting calls from people that were not normally people that would call me. They wanted to get together. We had the best Black unemployment numbers in the history of our country, Hispanic, women, Asian, people with diplomas, with no diplomas, MIT graduates, number one in the class – everybody had the best numbers. And you know what? The other side wanted to get together. They wanted to unify. Success is going to bring us together. We are on the road to success.

A soaring economy and a tight labour market have never really figured in the arguments made by Trump’s opponents. If they did, they were leftovers from Obama, and indeed Obama took credit for them at a drive-in rally in Philadelphia this week. On stage on Thursday night, Biden repeated Obama’s signature rhetorical flourish: not red states and blue states but the United States. There was nothing of the senile to Biden’s performance, but beyond ameliorative policy prescriptions he has little to offer except a sentimental liberalism: ‘What is on the ballot here is the character of this country. Decency. Honour. Respect. Treating people with dignity.’

Wave away the platitudes, though, and what’s on the ballot is a choice between Trump’s adversarial nationalism or the restoration of a pursuit of globalisation with America as the dominant partner. That’s why, when Trump talks about China or North Korea, he makes a certain sense: he’s trying to beat them and get what he wants and he’s doing it for you. The system Biden has come to restore is beyond his powers of description. If Biden could really explain it to them, most voters probably wouldn’t like it. Instead here’s some decency, respect, and dignity to tide you over as the economy advances into realms of abstraction you’ll never understand. Trump offers more straightforward transactions, to do with money, which is why Ice Cube announced last week that he was sitting down with the Republicans to discuss his Contract for Black America.

Since Trump’s ‘unity through success’ message is another casualty of Covid-19, he’s reverted to his primary political tactic: delegitimisation. Obama was a foreigner, Clinton a criminal, and now Biden is the head of a crime family. (Whether that makes him a suitable puppet for the radical left, Trump’s other line of attack, is an open question.) Nearly half an hour of every Trump rally is now devoted to Hunter Biden and ‘the laptop from hell’, almost as much time as Trump spends retelling the story of his 2016 victory and asserting that the polls are wrong again. There are several reasons to believe the strategy won’t work this time, not least that Biden doesn’t have a pre-existing reputation for corruption. There’s also the unseemliness of scapegoating his dewy-eyed drug addict son.

Hunter Biden’s business career, such as it is, is another matter. Whether or not there has been a quid pro quo – in Ukraine, China, Russia or anywhere else – there is the appearance of conflict of interest. Hardly any aspect of Hunter Biden’s career has been without it, from his job with a bank headquartered in the state his father represented in the Senate, to his appointment by George W. Bush to the board of AmTrak, to his globetrotting enterprises as an alleged peddler of multimillion dollar ‘introductions’. The business partner who advised him not to sit on the board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma was Chris Heinz, the ketchup heir and John Kerry’s stepson. Are these scions doing anything beyond trading on their family names? Perhaps, but they are certainly doing a bit of that too. If Hunter Biden, as the alleged emails indicate, kicks half his money ‘to Pop’, he’s just being a loyal son. When Hunter’s older brother, Beau, was stricken with cancer and resigned as Delaware attorney general, Joe Biden was reduced to borrowing from his boss. Obama had the money because his political career had brought him millions in book royalties. After his presidency he and his wife have struck book deals with Random House and production deals with Netflix. This, too, is a form of trading off your name. And as for the sons of George H.W. Bush …

It’s what Trump calls ‘the Swamp’, and whether or not it’s legal, it has become the norm. Trump, a famous violator of norms and veteran brand entrepreneur, offers in its place blatant grift: booking foreign dignitaries in his hotels and renting their governments office space they never bother occupying. He is not a politician, he asserts, and doesn’t even draw a salary as president. The politicians of the establishment, Democrat and Republican, are hypocrites. He is shameless. Dignity has never been associated with his name.


  • 25 October 2020 at 12:28am
    Graucho says:
    In any debate there are always a multitude of arguments on both sides with pros and cons. In the end one has to decide which ones are so important that they outweigh the rest. My own view is that compared to the pandemic with climate change hot on its heels all the other issues are trivial. You only have to watch Trump seriously suggesting inserting UV light into people and or injecting bleach, and he clearly wasn't kidding, to conclude that he is simply the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time to deal with the urgent matter in hand. Not only does he have zero grasp of basic science or any respect for it, his habit of surrounding himself with yes men will guarantee that he never will.

  • 25 October 2020 at 6:31am
    Simon Pawley says:
    It seems to me a rather strange line of argument to say that "had there been no pandemic, Biden would have been doing XYZ". Politics is as much about how one reacts to events as it is about anything else. Covid is not going away soon. How a Biden government will react to it remains for now an open question. Perhaps by seeking to stick as closely as possible to conventional policy and the status quo; perhaps with more imagination and ambition: So, I'm not saying there should be no discussion or disagreements among those who oppose Trump. But I'm saying the discussion should focus on the situation at hand, rather than imagining how things might have played out in a world without Covid.

  • 25 October 2020 at 10:51pm
    Seth Edenbaum says:
    "Sleaze and perversion are now the permanent backdrop of US politics....
    It’s what Trump calls ‘the Swamp’, and whether or not it’s legal, it has become the norm."

    It always was, but you had to pay attention. Now it's impossible to ignore. Trump's shamelessness is seen by his fans as honesty.

    • 25 October 2020 at 11:05pm
      Seth Edenbaum says: @ Seth Edenbaum
      There's not argument whether Trump lost the debate. He did. And no reader of the LRB expects much out of Biden. That's not the point.

    • 1 November 2020 at 6:40am
      John Haskell says: @ Seth Edenbaum
      the author of the piece said the debate was a draw, so you respond that there is no debate that Trump lost...?

      Lorentzen is doing the best he can, within the constraints of the LRB's style, to make a horse race out of it.

  • 31 October 2020 at 5:04pm
    Katherine Scott says:
    "The politicians of the establishment, Democrat and Republican, are hypocrites. He is shameless. "

    Oh, please. It is the hypocrisy and goose/gander double-standards syndrome of commentators such as Lorentzen that is shameless and drives not only Trump supporters but others nuts. Reaching to find a reason why one form of corruption is worse than the other and landing on "shameless" is lame.
    Obama's coming up with millions (and I know his vacation spread and its cost well) gets a glancing mention, a pass. What, because Obama is "elegant"? Not "shameless"?
    Hillary Clinton's and the Clinton Foundation's pay-to-play schemes gets a pass because they hid it? So, hiding it more or less effectively means they are not "shameless." Interesting. Lincoln bedroom sojourns . . . not "shameless" enough for Lorentzen.
    The manipulations of the DNC in the last and also in this cycle are not even hidden. Nevertheless they don't earn Lorentzen "shameless" badge. Why not?
    Credit Card Joe also gets a pass for his career-long pandering to the captains of usury in the USA---sub rosa. So, not "shameless."
    And by the way in the process JB has majorly contributed to the crisis of personal debt in the USA.
    "$14.1 trillion:
    Overall, consumer debt in the U.S. has grown 19% since 2009 to its current record high of $14.1 trillion, according to Experian data. " Note the date. But still not "shameless" enough to get the attention of Lorentzen and his ilk.
    I could go on but why bother? The self-righteousness and self-conviction of "shamelessness" arbiters such as Lorentzen is impervious. The irony is that they have learned nothing and do not "get" that this hubristic character trait and the way it plays on the public stage is partly what put Trump in office in the first place.

  • 31 October 2020 at 6:45pm
    RM says:
    The first paragraph is very amusing and the rest rather sobering. The system, the norm, is corrupt. Knowingly or otherwise, Trump has exposed it. The choice this November appears to be between an out of town grifter or the establishment brand of business-as-usual. I voted with a heavy heart. The choice was unappetising.

  • 1 November 2020 at 5:48am
    Alices Restaurant says:
    Trash Trump as we might for his brashness, uncivil demeanor, or lack of empathy for those without ambition, Biden represents a lifetime in Washington with nothing to show for it but plagiarism and hair plugs, a son on crack, a brother who is as much a parasite on the body politic as he is, and crime family deals with China and Ukraine. He is nothing more than what he appears to be, a deep-swamp Mandarin favorite and a Martha's Vineyard hand-puppet in search of an afternoon nap at an assisted-living facility with a comfortable and warm basement.

    What he offers America is further decadence and decline -- i.e., like the UK, and worse the continuation of Lenin's Bay Area oligarchs stomping free speech, Bernie's Grand Collective Big Rock Candy Mountain sucking the public weal dry, AOC's face of Cuba 1959, and a Congress controlled by angry DNC Politburo misfits and malcontents. His Marxist Medusa poser is yet an order of magnitude more dangerous than the hand-puppet, as anyone knows who has watched her political career "blossom" since she began "escorting" Willie about Sacramento and San Francisco.

    • 1 November 2020 at 6:41am
      John Haskell says: @ Alices Restaurant
      It's not good that Hunter Biden might have made some money off of foreign deals. Trump, on the other hand, prefers to be paid directly, without intermediaries.

    • 1 November 2020 at 3:46pm
      Harry Mitchell says: @ Alices Restaurant
      You think Kamala Harris is a Marxist?

    • 2 November 2020 at 5:53am
      Graucho says: @ Alices Restaurant
      Are we allowed to trash Mr. Inject yourself with bleach and stick a UV light up your bum for stupidity?

  • 1 November 2020 at 6:42am
    John Haskell says:
    "Biden was so poor that he had to borrow money from Obama. This shows that Biden is part of the swamp."

    Why aren't these pieces edited before publication?

  • 2 November 2020 at 12:41pm
    garyamdahl says:
    There are a number of problems with the piece. Lorentzen says it pains him to say that Trump was "more competent than usual." The pain comes from being wrong. Trump was less the whining asshole he usually is, but that does not register on the competence meter. The examples immediately following the assertion demonstrate incompetence. It is a confused paragraph.

    Lorentzen writes very well about books, but gets in his own way too often in his political commentary. In the magazine a couple issues back, he wrote that Biden got into politics “for the fuck of it, because he could.” Biden, mind. Not Trump. The other motivators for the seeking of public office were bracing ambition and moral commitment. The ambition of politicians is always seedy and second-rate, and moral commitment is at best a tool and usually a pose.

    Another example: Trump is not “trying to beat China and North Korea for the good of the country.” He says that, and Lorentzen repeats it, but what he’s actually doing is no more than glad-handing in hope of personal favors. He’s kissing their asses for the same reason he wants people to kiss his ass: that’s how you get stuff.

    Another: “what Trump calls the swamp” is not what the swamp actually is. What Trump calls the swamp is the apolitical civil service, people who refuse to sign loyalty oaths or kiss his ass on TV, or who simply disagree with him: the Deep State. The real swamp is another problem altogether. The pork-barreling, revolving door, insider trading, paying to play, ownership of elected officials, fealty only to the 1%, etc. ad nauseum, is not a matter of flawed characters or outright crooks lining their pockets, and not a matter of a particularly corrupt period of time; it’s rather endemic to democratic republics. Corruption is the norm, the constant, the heart-beat of American sociopolitical life. It comes of an addiction to power, no more, no less, and there’s nothing the least bit new about it. Legislation is the best way to make money, and once you start doing it, it's very hard to stop.

    There’s very little difference between the political chatter and crises of 1820 and 1920 and 2020. The broadsides are nearly word-for-word the same. It’s very difficult to govern benignly when a citizen thinks it’s his right (and Christian duty) to make sure he gets the thing the other guy doesn’t get. Corruption is a function of power, not of character, unless you’re living in a cartoon show or coming of age tale set in fairyland. I want to see Elizabeth Warren as Secretary of the Treasury and Bernie Sanders for Labor, and I very much look forward to voting for Ocasio-Cortez for President in 2028, but I am not burdened by illusions of how free of corruption she’ll be by then. Some good will come of it, I am sure, by accident or because the times demand it, and I’ll be on my way out anyway.

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