It’s easy to think you’re above this sort of thing. Yet the messianic fervor with which many left-leaning voters embraced Obama, or Bernie Sanders, was no more grounded in reality. It has become customary, especially on social media, to turn elections into fandom wars, to treat preferred candidates like sports teams or pop stars (the #KHive, Kamala Harris’ dedicated fan base, is explicitly modeled on Beyoncé’s #Beyhive) and descend upon unbelievers with stannish fervor. This has made the electoral discourse a site of more or less constant harassment and abuse; though the atmosphere of apocalyptic conflict led to high turnout in the Trump years, over time, undecided voters are likely to tune out of the conversation if staying in it means getting death threats. A democracy doesn’t function when people don’t feel safe making their choice. For those who have gotten sucked in—and, again, I include myself—the atmosphere instills a kind of combat-based tunnel vision: We can be so determined to protect “our” candidates from bad-faith criticism that we dismiss even legitimate concerns.
At least during my lifetime, when Democrats have run tolerable but unexciting white guys — your Al Gores, your John Kerrys — those guys lost. The same has held true for Republicans, though not to the same extent. George H.W. Bush inherited Reagan’s seat, in part because of Reagan’s popularity and in part because he ran against an even less charismatic white guy, Michael Dukakis; his son would have the similar advantage of competing against Gore. But just look at Mitt Romney. Biden broke the pattern because he ran against the most unpopular and disastrous president of the modern age. Most Americans felt that anything would be better than a second Trump term, and Biden was the “anything” on offer. Thus, for the first time since at least 2008, we wind up with a president who has so little star quality that even his defenders are reduced to backhanded compliments: “There’s nothing wrong with Biden’s performance,” enthused Ezra Klein at Vox. Peter Wehner, at The Atlantic, called him an “average political talent,” noting that “what stood out about him was his longevity more than his achievements,” and this is in an article about how much he likes the guy. And seemingly nobody considered him a first choice. Even Obama, Biden’s former boss, advised him not to run. Twice.
It was a ticketed affair. Performers made money, fans got entertained, there was social distancing, and you had instant-made tourism. Folks gotta eat, piss, shit, and sleep, right? Right. Win. Win. Wrong. Some local folks started complaining. Maybe they saw one Black person too many. Maybe they got a little scared. Who knows. What we do know is their complaints made their way to the Zoning Inspector, Richard Zopf, who claimed he was never notified about the shows, that Chappelle was using agricultural land for commercial use. Yeah.
There have been attempts to polish Biden’s persona. There was the “cool Uncle Joe” Onion caricature during the Obama years, though that was mostly a reflection of the shimmer coming off Obama himself. More recently, he’s been painted as a font of tender sentiment: the mourner-in-chief, endowed with “beautiful” empathy, someone whose “superpower [is] his ability to comfort and listen and connect with people,” the nurturing daddy we always needed, etc. This is all standard campaign stuff, intended to forge emotional connection with the brand. It is also all bullshit; someone with superhuman empathy would not believe abortion to be wrong, would not have railroaded Anita Hill, and would not sneak up behind a female colleague at a work event and kiss her without permission, as Joe Biden is said to have done.
Framing candidates as perfect or superhuman might help them win elections, but it hurts them in the long run. In the case of Barack Obama, many of his supporters turned on him the moment it became clear he could not reverse decades of political polarization or centuries of American racism just by getting elected. The virulent anger Obama currently inspires on some parts of the left is, yes, grounded in policy — drone wars, deportations — but it’s also grounded in the expectation that he could single-handedly fix every problem caused by George W. Bush’s disastrous presidency or force a Republican Congress to pass single-payer health care by sheer force of will. We built Obama up to be Superman, then yelled at him for not being able to fly.
Look, if Kirsten Gillibrand or Elizabeth Warren had won the nomination, I’d be peppering my social media feeds with praise and photos and trivia about their dogs. If and when AOC runs, I expect to be insufferable on her behalf. Yet there’s something deeply toxic about turning every presidency into a cult of personality. Donald Trump was a personality cult and almost nothing but; he was elevated to a position he clearly wasn’t fit for simply because he was a celebrity, and for his supporters, his loud, bullying bigotry felt like vicarious release. Even as the country collapsed into a flaming, disease-ridden heap around him, Trump kept throwing rallies, relishing the chance to perform for his audience. And his audience kept showing up.
Attempts to make Joe Biden into some kind of national father figure or likable pal are misguided and completely beside the point. The single biggest benefit of the Biden presidency is that voters aren’t expected to care about the guy. He isn’t a savior or an imaginary friend or a father figure; he’s just someone we elected to do a job.
Presidents, more than most politicians, run on mystique and emotional connection. There are plenty of dull and competent senators out there — Joe Biden was one of them for decades — but when you become the focus for an entire nation, that nation typically demands to be entertained. In my lifetime—which, to be fair, began in an era presided over by literal movie star Ronald Reagan—most presidents have been brands as much as people, embraced not just for themselves but for what the choice says about their supporters. Presidential candidates tend to cultivate mythic auras and marketable personalities: Bernie Sanders, the wild-haired revolutionary, or Hillary Clinton, the crest of the feminist second wave, or Barack Obama, simultaneously the cooler-than-thou college friend and clarion prophet of hope. Even Bill Clinton’s saxophone thing, I’m told, seemed cool at the time.
Black folk know — we find a way around borders and barriers, white folk change the rules, make new borders, and move them damn barriers back. Dave Chappelle and nem jumped over all them middlemen and gatekeepers and got permission from the Governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, a Yellow Springs native.
So back in June, Dave Chappelle tried something different. Utilizing the maximum amount of space around him in Yellow Springs, Ohio, he decided to hold a pop-up comedy series entitled Dave Chappelle
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