Joe Biden certainly set the punditocracy abuzz with his neo-totalitarian performance piece at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on Thursday. The significance of that speech can be broken down into three parts, two of which have already received abundant commentary.
The first has to do with the theater of the piece, its optics or stagecraft. As many commentators (myself included) noted, the feel of the event was distinctly, and distinctively, bombastic. The melodramatic red lighting, the presence of armed Marines flanking the president, and Biden’s hectoring, gesticulating delivery made the event seem eerily reminiscent of a speech by Stalin, Mao, or—the closest parallel—that diminutive former house painter who, for a few short years, mesmerized the world with his elaborately staged rallies before pushing ahead with more kinetic activities.
To those who object that I am flirting with Godwin’s Law by invoking old AH, I reply that the flirtation was not mine but the doing of Biden’s producers and puppeteers. The visual similarity between Joe Biden’s event and some nighttime events at Nuremberg are just too striking to be coincidental. Leni Riefenstahl, as someone noted, would have been proud. Those who point out that Biden’s speech took place on September 1, a fraught day on the Polish border anno domini 1939, may be too ingenious for this historically illiterate age, but who knows? Often these things are, as our Marxists friends like to say, no accident. There are wheels within wheels.
Which brings me to the question of the intent behind the theatrics. Was this exercise in garish, totalitarian kitsch a “gaffe,” as some are saying—an aesthetic miscalculation for which that blinking inarticulate muppet who is Biden’s press secretary will have to apologize? Apparently not, since she just said that the speech was “not political.”
The entertainment committee never sleeps.
A year or so back, I might have thought that the theatrics were inadvertent. I have changed my mind. Having watched Biden’s Justice Department morph into an American Stasi with the FBI conducting predawn raids against various Trump supporters, arresting former aides and confiscating the mobile phones and other property of his lawyers, I now think that the tactics of intimidation are part of a larger strategy. The FBI’s raid last month on Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Palm Beach residence, belongs in this category, as of course do the hundreds of indictments and incarcerations of January 6 protestors. Almost all of those unfortunate souls wind up being charged with minor torts like “parading” in or around the Capitol, yet are nonetheless thrown in a special D.C. gulag for months before being found guilty by biased juries and subject to enhanced sentences handed down by Trump-hating judges.
None of this is adventitious. Like the intimidating and slightly unhinged theatrics of Biden’s speech, they are all deliberate scare tactics, warnings to us all of what can happen to those who dissent. The spectacle of 87,000 newly minted IRS agents waiting in the wings is another part of that “shock-and-awe” campaign.
So much for the theatrics of the speech. What about its substance? It was a tooth-and-claw attack on Donald Trump and the MAGA agenda. How sharp were those teeth and claws? Trump and his supporters, said Biden, shaking his fists, represent “an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic.” “The very foundations of our republic,” forsooth! A week earlier, he noted that the problem was “not just Trump, it’s the entire philosophy that underpins the . . . semi-fascism” of the MAGA agenda.
The response to this unprecedented attack by a sitting president against his predecessor—as well as against the tens of millions (more than 74 million we are told) of his predecessor’s supporters—has been so robust that Biden felt it necessary to walk back his remarks, sort of. “I don’t consider any Trump supporter a threat to the country,” he said Friday, after saying just that on prime-time television to the entire nation the night before.
But wait, what is the MAGA (or, to quote the results of the lucubrations of Biden’s focus group, “ultra-MAGA”) agenda that is supposedly so dangerous? It’s worth keeping the meanings of these epithets in mind. When Donald Trump first proposed his “Make America Great Again” formula, he specified several things that it encompassed. At the top of the list were efforts to restore American prosperity, in part by exploiting our enormous energy resources, in part by abolishing mischievous and burdensome regulation, in part by cutting taxes and providing incentives for American business to hire Americans and produce their goods in America.
Also at the top of the list was the integrity of our southern border, stanching the flow of illegal immigration, and rebuilding a military that had been woefully neglected during the Obama years. Elsewhere on the domestic front, Trump battled against political correctness and what has come to be called “identity politics.” He largely remade the federal judiciary, seeing three Supreme Court justices and hundreds of lower court federal judges confirmed, all of whom were nominated because they subscribed to a Antonin Scalia-like judicial philosophy that limited the role of judges to interpreting the law in the light of the Constitution, not making law under the inspiration of their personal policy preferences.
In the sphere of foreign policy, the MAGA agenda meant “putting America first.” He insisted that our NATO allies begin to shoulder their stipulated financial burden, challenged China on trade and military adventurism, and scuttled the disastrous Obama-era nuclear deal (since renewed) with Iran. Trump also stood firmly against the democracy-exporting (or, more accurately, “democracy”-exporting) policies of the Bush era. America would go to war not to promulgate democracy but only to defend its own interests. His Abraham Accords brought peace to the Middle East, a world historical achievement for which Trump deserved the Nobel Peace Prize.
And how did all that work out? Pretty well, I’d say. By the time Trump left office, America was a net exporter of energy; illegal immigration had slowed to a trickle; before the onslaught of COVID, his policies had resulted in the lowest unemployment in decades, the lowest minority unemployment ever. Wages were rising, especially at the lower rungs, and the stock market was booming. All-in-all, MAGA meant American prosperity and success.
It did not, however, bode well for the elite globalist agenda which rested upon endless foreign wars, the neglect of American workers, and a disdain for traditional bourgeois values like hard work, family solidarity, and local initiatives.
Biden’s handlers have attempted to co-opt or usurp the epithet “MAGA” and transform it into something ominous. But what it means is not some existential threat to “the very foundations of our republic.” On the contrary, it is an affirmation of the principles of limited government and individual liberty that undergird the foundations of the American republic.
The Goal Is Control
Which brings me to the third current of significance in Biden’s performance. There was a theatrical aspect, a substantive aspect—the attack on Trump, his supporters, and all things MAGA—and there is the long strategic game implied not just in Biden’s speech but in the extraordinary, overweening activity of his administration.
In “Joe Biden and the Sovietization of America,” a column that will be published in the October edition of Spectator World (available online mid-September), I mention in passing the practice of Gleichschaltung, the attempt to bring all aspects of life into alignment with the governing philosophy of the state. The term was popularized in Germany in the late 1930s, but it describes a process that is common to all totalitarian societies (indeed, it describes the effort that puts the “total” in “totalitarian”). Among other things, it involves the politicization of all aspects of life, the surrender of individuality to ideology. George Orwell sketched the process in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Lenin and Stalin brought that fiction to real life in their iron-fisted control of life in the Soviet Union. Xi Jinping continues that legacy today in China. What we call “political correctness” hints at the program, for really to be politically correct is to suffuse every element of one’s life with the dogmas that the ruling consensus has defined as the correct orthodoxy. The fascistic formula “the personal is the political” gives one expression to this idea, since, taken seriously, it denies the legitimacy of the personal altogether.
The Biden regime is making great strides in this direction. As Josh Hammer observes in a penetrating column, Biden apparatchiks are moving on multiple fronts to abolish the distinction between the public sector and the private sector. Late last month, the world was treated to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg confessing on Joe Rogan’s podcast that, yes, the FBI did in fact put pressure on the social media giant to bury news about Hunter Biden’s “laptop from hell”—news that very likely would have changed the results of the 2020 election had it been allowed to circulate. Entities like Facebook and Twitter, Hammer points out, “no longer qualify as meaningfully ‘private’ and have instead simply become appendages of the state.” They are simply part of the propaganda machine of the ruling party. Citing Missouri Attorney General (and U.S. Senate candidate) Eric Schmitt, Hammer describes the “vast censorship enterprise” promulgated by the state. Former U.S. Representative Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) described aspects of this enterprise in his book Countdown to Socialism.
But the goal of total control involves more than censorship. It also involves the insinuation of the state into the most intimate areas of our private lives. One example is the Biden regime’s new weaponization of Title IX legislation. This brief statute, which, in just a couple of lines, says that institutions that receive federal funds may not discriminate on the basis of sex, has been enlisted in the campaign to abolish natural sexual identity and replace it with a polymorphous, “gender fluid” model. Among other things, this radical new interpretation of Title IX gives teachers priority over parents on matters of sex and gender, requiring, for example, that “K-12 schools support socially transitioning children to a different gender without requiring notice to parents, the involvement of medical professionals, or legal documentation.”
The late Andrew Breitbart liked to point out that politics is downstream from culture. Indeed it is. It saddens me to report, though, that the Left seems to have a livelier appreciation of this fact than the Right. Barack Obama came to office promising to “fundamentally transform the United States of America.” Obama laid the groundwork for that transformation. Now his bumbling, senescent protégé, aided by an army of Obama-era lieutenants, a compliant media, and a corrupt deep-state bureaucracy, is completing the job.
There is, I know, a point of no return, a point beyond which a society beset by totalitarian impulses must either rebel or succumb utterly. Are we there yet? I do not know. I do sense, however, that we have come perilously close to the edge. I pray that it is not too late.