Politics

A Calmer America Starts at the Top

Things will start to shift once we have a new commander in chief.

Flowers are placed on a fence, next to an American flag, outside of the Capitol in Washington D.C.
Flowers are placed on a fence, a week after a pro-Trump mob broke into and took over the Capitol, in memory of slain Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick on Thursday. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Because so many of us could use some words of optimism right now, here are mine: Joe Biden will make a difference. Things will be better. And sooner than you may think.

I am sure of this. I am sure of this the way that I am sure that kindness matters, that violence causes pain, that American democracy will prevail, regardless of the hurdles that it must repeatedly surmount. I am sure of this the way that I am sure an object in motion remains in motion, until something interferes to still it. Biden will be that stilling force.

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More than Donald Trump, more than the hate of white supremacy, more than the lies of the far-right media, what drove the attacks on the Capitol on Jan. 6 was a series of romanticized, false, and dangerous archetypes of justice and of manhood—archetypes Trump not only identifies with himself but has used persistently over the past five years to slowly indoctrinate and radicalize his base. “Warriors,” he called them, the thousands who thronged to hear him at rallies across the country, much as radical jihadi recruiters praise their acolytes as “martyrs.” He made clear, from the time he announced his first campaign, his preference for muscled men, men who fought with fists and not with merely words, for what has been described as “an aggressive and pugilistic brand of hypermasculinity,” for—and this is important—men who kept their women in line. It matters that Trump’s ex-wife stated under oath that he had beaten and raped her at least once. It matters that he has been credibly accused of multiple counts of rape. It matters that he boasted, on tape, of committing sexual assault. These acts, as much as they were dismissed and minimized, sent a clear signal about who the president is.

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What also matters, what also is at play: Trump’s pathological narcissism, a trait he shares with dictators, autocrats, and terrorist leaders throughout history. It is a trait that makes his particular brand of hypermasculinity especially toxic. He and those like him (or who identify with him) view themselves as “superior” to the rest; and as superior beings, they cannot be seen to lose to the “others”—those, that is, of a different race, gender, sexuality, political party, or faith.

What’s more, because pathological narcissists are, by nature, incapable of empathy, they pose a particularly destructive, heinous threat. They do not care about the people they harm as they detonate their rage. The narcissistic he-man slams and swaggers his way through the world, demanding, threatening, taking pride in his destruction, oblivious to conscience or consequences.

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That is not the kind of man Joe Biden is. Despite the cool Ray-Bans and the classic red Corvette, Joe Biden is no chest-baring, gun-slinging vaunter. His crowning achievement is not owning a competition of women in bikinis performing before a panel of leering judges—but essentially its opposite: co-authorship of 1994’s Violence Against Women Act, the first legislation to make violence and sexual mistreatment of women a crime.

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In the years since Donald Trump took office, as public violence and white supremacy have intensified, so, too, have violent misogynist groups (incels, for instance). Domestic violence rates soared by 42 percent in the first years of Trump’s presidency. Research has shown that cultures and communities where women are more oppressed, where violence and intimidation of women is high, are more militaristic, more unstable, and more likely to engage in warfare. In the words of what has come to be known as “the Hillary Doctrine” after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

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Women’s equality is not just a moral issue, it’s not just a humanitarian issue, it is not just a fairness issue; it is a security issue. It is a prosperity issue and it is a peace issue. … Give women equal rights, and entire nations are more stable and secure. Deny women equal rights, and the instability of nations is almost certain. The subjugation of women is, therefore, a threat to the common security of our world and to the national security of our country.

The violence and unrest, the hatred and division that have bloodied this country since Donald Trump took office in January 2017, are an inevitable consequence of this man and the infectiousness of his beliefs, which he spread in roars across stadiums and in capital letters on social media. It spread person to person, mouth to mouth, hovering in the air, invisible and deadly.

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To be clear, like all extremists, the thugs who swarmed the Capitol on Jan. 6, and the barbarians with their Tiki torches on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, have their own agency. No one forced them there. But it was Trump who incited them, who urged on their aggressive hypermasculinity to fight for the honor of their leader, their people—just as jihadist leaders like Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki have done. Which is why, as Joe Biden prepares to take the reins of this deeply damaged, divided country, he will have to put this kind of extremism and radicalization at the top of his agenda, just as American lawmakers did in the aftermath of 9/11.

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And there is real work to be done. Massive changes must be made in homeland security, in the way we approach domestic terrorism.  To begin to recover from Trumpism, we also need to change the ways we educate our children, rethink our handling of social media, and above all, work to improve the rates of literacy across the nation, perhaps particularly around our understanding of the news.  And that’s just for starters.

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Nonetheless, I carry a deep belief that Joe Biden, this champion of women’s rights, with America’s first female vice president at his side, is just the man we need for this moment. Biden, after all, is someone whose empathy is legend. That empathy is sure to infuse America’s breath the way Trumps violence did before. It will change the tone we use with one another. It becomes the stilling force.

This is not to say that I believe this will be enough on its own to turn the tide. But if Trump’s narcissistic rage and calls for violence could incite the events of Jan. 6, Biden’s empathy, his justice, his humanity, can lead us out again.

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