Adam Gopnik at the New Yorker argues that Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by not playing Trump's game as Hillary Clinton did and lost, but by showing people the alternative that the game didn't need to be played.
The Brooklyn-reared boxing trainer Charley Goldman, who crafted Rocky Marciano, the undefeated heavyweight champ of the nineteen-fifties, once made a wise statement: “Never play a guy at his own game; nobody makes up a game in order to get beat at it.” He meant that there was no point getting into a slugging match with a slugger or a bob-and-weave match with a bob-and-weaver. Instead, do what you do well. Damon Runyon, another New York character of that same wise vintage, said something similar about a different activity: if someone wants to bet you that, if you open a sealed deck of cards, the jack of spades will come out and squirt cider in your ear, don’t take the bet, however tempting the odds. The deck, you can be sure, is gaffed on the other gambler’s behalf. Never play the other guy’s game: it’s the simple wisdom of the corner gym and the gambling den. The other guy’s game is designed for the other guy to win.
An instinctive understanding of this principle was part of the brilliance of Joe Biden’s Presidential campaign—and that we do not think of it as brilliant, despite his decisive victory against an incumbent, is part of its brilliance. Donald Trump invented a game: of bullying, lying, sociopathic selfishness, treachery, and outright gangsterism, doing and saying things that no democratic politician had ever done or even thought of doing, and he did it all in broad daylight. (A notorious line attributed to Nixon—“We can do that, but it would be wrong”—was about paying hush money. Even Nixon wouldn’t pardon his henchmen. Trump did.) It was a game designed for Trump alone to win, but all too many got drawn into it. It was a game that some credit to a Russian model of disinformation but actually seems rooted in old-fashioned American Barnumism, weaponized with John Gotti-style ethics. It was designed, in plain English, to throw out so much crap that no one could ever deal with it all. Trying to bat the crap away, you just got more of it all over you, and meanwhile you were implicitly endorsing its relevance.
Biden, by contrast, insisted that the way to win was not to play. In the face of the new politics of spectacle, he kept true to old-school coalition politics. He understood that the Black Church mattered more in Democratic primaries than any amount of Twitter snark, and, by keeping a low profile on social media, showed that social-media politics was a mirage. Throughout the dark, dystopian post-election months of Trump’s tantrum—which led to the insurrection on January 6th—many Democrats deplored Biden’s seeming passivity, his reluctance to call a coup a coup and a would-be dictator a would-be dictator. Instead, he and his team were remarkably (to many, it seemed, exasperatingly) focussed on counting the votes, trusting the process, and staffing the government.
It looked at the time dangerously passive; it turned out to be patiently wise, for Biden and his team, widely attacked as pusillanimous centrists with no particular convictions, are in fact ideologues. Their ideology is largely invisible but no less ideological for refusing to present itself out in the open. It is the belief, animating Biden’s whole career, that there is a surprisingly large area of agreement in American life and that, by appealing to that area of agreement, electoral victory and progress can be found. (As a recent Populace survey stated, Biden and Trump voters hold “collective illusions” about each other, and “what is often mistaken for breadth of political disagreement is actually narrow — if extremely intense — disagreement on a limited number of partisan issues.”) Biden’s ideology is, in fact, the old ideology of pragmatic progressive pluralism—the ideology of F.D.R. and L.B.J. Beneath the strut and show and hysteria of politics, there is often a remarkably resilient consensus in the country. Outside the white Deep South, there was a broad consensus against segregation in 1964; outside the most paranoid registers of Wall Street, there was a similar consensus for social guarantees in 1934. Right now, post-pandemic, polls show a robust consensus for a public option to the Affordable Care Act, modernized infrastructure, even for tax hikes on the very rich and big corporations. The more you devote yourself to theatrical gestures and public spectacle, the less likely you are to succeed at making these improvements—and turning Trumpism around. Successful pluralist politicians reach out to the other side, not in a meek show of bipartisanship, but in order to steal their voters.
I happen to think Gopnik has a solid point, because it is how Biden won.
It is absolutely not how Biden and the Democrats can stay in power, however. Obama was reelected, but House and Senate Dems were wiped out at the local and state level, and frankly, we've not made very much improvement on preventing another catastrophe in 2022.
Therein lies the lesson.