April 27, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Biden Doesn’t Need a Message to Win
Compared to Trump's occultism, he just needs to make sense.
The conventional wisdom holds that Joe Biden must have a message about what he stands for, and why, in order to persuade a majority of Americans to vote for him in November. This now seems more assertion than fact. The incumbent keeps talking himself into trouble. In comparison, the former vice president might coast by doing the minimum—e.g., combing his hair, brushing his teeth, and standing up straight.
Donald Trump is now into his fourth day in a grudge-match against the White House press corps over whether he suggested that injecting disinfectants, and exposing the inside of one’s body to “light and heat,” might cure COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, which has killed nearly fifty-five and a half thousand Americans. Trump’s face-off with the press has turned into a vicious cycle. The more he says, no, I really didn’t say that, the more reporters say, yes, you really did, and the more they say that, the more the president compares them to the “Invisible Enemy” (i.e., the virus).
Those who don’t want the world to make sense, or who want it to make sense only to them, practice the politics of the occult.
If it’s true that Joe Biden must have a message to win a majority of voters, what might that message be in a context of a four-day-old conflict over whether the president really did say what he really said? “Don’t drink bleach” or “I believe in science” or “Trump isn’t worth poisoning yourself”? Or more generally: “I will defend and protect the health and well-being of all Americans” or “I will honor my oath of office”? This would sound like parody if the reality of our current moment weren’t so absurd.
Making is more absurd, of course, is the press corps’ habit of taking everything this president says deadly seriously. He doesn’t mean most of the things he says, yet reporters dutifully record each word as if he did. A consequence is the separation of intent from effect so Trump can claim credit for the latter but no responsibility for the former. Half of what he says doesn’t make sense, because it wasn’t suppose to make sense. Indeed, half of what he says is hostile toward sense-making. Its true purpose is communicating to celebrants of the politics of the occult. All a Democratic opponent must do is point to it and ask voters: Is this what you want from your president?
I introduced on Friday the concept of the politics of the occult. It’s another way of characterizing what others have called “epistemic closure” among Republicans during the George W. Bush years. It’s another way of describing what others have called the “cult of Donald Trump.” But it’s better, I think, in that it “occult” connotes something hidden, something that must be kept secret, because once it’s exposed—once it’s named—it ceases to exert power. The magic spell, you might say, is broken. Half of what the president says doesn’t make sense, because it isn’t supposed to make sense to people who privilege making sense of the world. Those who don’t want the world to make sense, or who want it to make sense only to them, practice the politics of the occult.
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The politics of the occult lends itself, I think, to discourse on conspiracy theory, the psychology of political paranoids, the golden-calf idolatry of white evangelical Christians, militia movements and other rightwing organizing, white nationalism, and so on. All share in common not only a hiddenness from the mainstream of American society, but a desire to remain secret even as they work to take over the mainstream. None of these hopes to persuade a majority of their rightness. All of them hope to replace the majority’s view with theirs, to replace facts with “alternative facts.” The means of replacement isn’t reason or democracy. It’s demagoguery and violence.
If a president says things that not only don’t make sense (how about we look into injecting disinfectants!) but also denies that he ever said anything that doesn’t make sense (like saying how about we look into injecting disinfectants!), it’s safe to say his intent, whatever the effect, was always already malign. If he doesn’t mean what he says, he doesn’t care, and not caring is, at the very least, a violation of his oath. Such a president doesn’t persuade “the enemy of the people” (i.e., the press corps) that he is right and they are wrong. He goes to war. He lies and lies, and he lies, until they decide that checking his “facts” and holding him to account are useless before giving up.
Compared to Trump’s politics of the occult, Joe Biden doesn’t need a message. All he needs is to make sense. “I will not break the law.” “I will not undermine the US Constitution.” “I will not commit treason.” “I will not encourage people to eat poison, then deny saying it, making isolated Americans feel crazier than they already feel amid a pandemic whose death and destruction are partly my fault.” Sounds like a winner!
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.