Joe Biden is hardly the most outrageous US president of all time. In fact, the main complaint against him from the Democratic primary electorate was that he was too normal: establishment to the core, known for his relative centrism, and open to compromise with people whom many on the left consider beyond the pale.
That he pulled millions of votes ahead of Donald Trump in November misses the point, they say; the ascent of Biden represents a missed opportunity to radically rewire a system that just doesn’t work.
And yet, 14 days in, his opponents on the right are utterly outraged by his actions, specifically at the supposedly “dictatorial” way he has conducted himself during his short time on the job.
What they are referring to is almost 40 executive orders and executive actions Biden has signed, as is his prerogative as commander-in-chief. Yes, it’s a relatively high number for an early presidency, but he‘s got some way to go before catching up with Franklin D Roosevelt’s 3,728.
Many of Biden’s orders specifically repeal ones issued by his predecessor, among them the travel ban that brazenly targeted Muslim countries – imposed by executive order a week into Trump’s presidency – and the 45th president’s wild moves to enforce deregulation and order the building of the wall on the Mexican border.
Among those furious at Biden’s straight-out-the-gate signing spree is none other than Josh Hawley, the Missouri Senator who continued to formally object to Biden’s election even after the Capitol was attacked by Trump supporters.
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Hawley — who these days is shouting as loud as he can to anyone who’ll listen that he is “being silenced” — vented his outrage earlier this week to millions of viewers on the right’s go-to morning grievance platform, Fox and Friends. Perhaps he’s worried that the reported Fox News ratings slump will become so bad that there literally won’t be any viewers left.
“It’s just an attempt to basically govern the country by executive fiat,” Hawley moaned. “It’s breathtaking that he's trying to do it without any democratic debate or legislation. And I think it really shows you this is somebody who's got a pretty far-left agenda and it's somebody who is intent on imposing it on the country.”
What Hawley and others of his ilk mean by “far-left” can probably be summarized thus: Some measure of toleration to undocumented immigrants (read: a national security concession that indulges foreign thugs); support for trans people in athletics and the military (virtue-signalling identity politics that warps children’s minds); and a pivot away from fossil fuels (job-killing, ideologically motivated environmental extremism).
Of course, anyone who can bear to think back through the last four years to January 2017 will remember that Trump made his own extreme moves without any Congressional debate, much less legislation. He too began signing away before he had so much as warmed the Oval Office desk chair – but unlike Biden, he used his pen to separate families and ban people from the US based on their country of origin.
In both relative and absolute terms, what Biden is doing is hardly extreme. Anything but: His order-by-order repeal of Trump’s unilateral crusade against compassion and sense is a triumph over aberration, the same “return to normalcy” that the notoriously ineffectual Warren G Harding promised America exactly 100 years ago.
Yes, Biden is governing in abnormal times. But based on his campaign, his inaugural address and his first steps, his instinct is to pull America back to the center – which he genuinely believes can hold.
So why the outrage? Sour grapes after November to be sure, and in some cases earnest and genuine worries about jobs lost with the Keystone XL pipeline. Normal as can be. But something darker and more troubling is at work here too.
For the privileged, equity feels like oppression – and for the people fully integrated into the Trump ecosystem, a return to normal feels like losing a war. More than a few of them use exactly that language, and as they proved at the Capitol, they mean it literally.
In the world conjured up by the Trumpist and far-right media, there is no such thing as normality; we live in a time of war, and have no choice but to mobilise or surrender. Where some on the left view Biden as a doddering apologist for the inadequate status quo, the likes of Fox News, OANN and Newsmax frame him as Saladin to Trump’s Lionheart, machinating and marauding against the only righteous cause.
In their binary world, everything is structured around victory and defeat, winners and losers, loyalists and enemies; the masculine and domineering (authority and punishment) contends with the feminine and submissive (consensus and tolerance). And most fundamental of all, no battle is ever truly won – the enemy just shifts shape for its next assault on freedom, capitalism, the cultural order, and of course, your children.
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This is why Sean Hannity, the bluntest tool in Fox News’s opinionator box, cannot describe Biden as anything but an autocrat, cannot cast his moves as anything but a campaign to dominate and destroy – invoking as ever the physical human body to make the point.
“He's not trying to get to Congress to get his agenda passed,” Hannity ranted this week, “he's ramming it down our throat with a stroke of a pen, altering people's lives in ways that are so damaging. According to the White House press secretary, propagandist Jen Psaki, Joe just loves bipartisanship. These are words — this is not true.”
Of course words can be false; Hannity of all people would know, what with having had Trump regularly phone in live on air for the last four years. But more to the point, it simply cannot be believed that a Democratic president who would roll back a Republican’s unilateral actions could be doing so out of anything but the will to power.
Tucker Carlson, a rather sharper tool designed for only the grimmest of tasks, has a more nuanced analysis. As he told Axios, the Trump base to whom he caters feel like “the combined forces of global power have turned on them and are cracking down hard – hilariously, in the name of democracy”.
He’s hit on something there: without power, all the Trumpists have are their feelings. And whether those correspond to the real world isn’t the point.