Throughout the election, Democrats have had a pretty tough time figuring out a counter to Donald Trump’s nostalgic nationalism. What, exactly, is the right response to “Make America Great Again?”
At Wednesday’s Democratic National Convention, Vice President Joe Biden showed them the way: Answer nationalism with patriotism.
“He has no clue about what makes America great,” Biden says. “Actually, he has no clue, period.”
Biden’s speech was all about a positive, liberal spin on the American story. Biden’s America is a land of opportunity, but only because people work together to help each other through tough times. Biden’s America is a land of equality, but only because we refuse to give in to fear and hatred. It’s an imperfect country, full of pain, but one that we can and should take pride in.
Trump doesn’t belong in this story.
For Biden, Trump is a perversion of the American dream: a man who got rich by hurting others, a man who got famous by exploiting fear and cruelty. Trump’s vulgar nationalism has no place in the America we want to believe in; saying no to it is a matter of national integrity.
For once, the liberals are the ones casting themselves as the “real Americans.”
Biden’s middle-class patriotism versus selfish Donald
Biden walked up with the Rocky theme playing in the background, immediately setting the tone: This is an American story about a working-class underdog making it.
This was a good chunk of Biden’s speech. He called himself “working-class Joe,” casting himself and Hillary Clinton as the avatars of struggling Americans.
“if you live in the neighborhoods like the ones Jill and I grew up in, if you worry about your job and getting a decent pay, if you worry about your children's education, if you are taking care of an elderly parent, then there is only one person in this election who will help you, only one person in this race who will be there, who has always been there for you,” Biden says. “That is Hillary Clinton's life story.”
Trump, Biden says, is coming from a different place. “Ladies and gentlemen, let's say the obvious — that is not Donald Trump’s story,” he says.
Here’s the really crucial part, where Biden starts to define Trump against his vision for America:
His cynicism and undoubtedly his lack of empathy and compassion can be summed up in that phrase he is most proud of making famous: “You're fired.” I'm not joking. Think about that. Think about that. Think about everything you learned as a child. No matter where you were raised, how can there be pleasure in saying, “You're fired”?
Here Biden is setting Trump against basic American values — “everything you learned as a child.” It’s a subtle way of setting Trump outside of the American consensus, outside of the traditions and values that make America “America.”
Later in the speech, Biden made this subtext text. Talking about Trump’s attacks on Muslims and support for torture, he labeled Trump “a man who seeks to sow division in America for his own gain and disorder around the world.” This, Biden says, “we simply cannot let that happen as Americans.”
So how do we stop the rise of Trump? Biden has a simple message: Believe that America doesn’t need to be made great again.
“Let me tell you what I literally tell everyone leader I've met with, and I met them all. It is never, never, never bet against America,” Biden says. “We had candidates before attempting to get elected by appealing to our fears, but they've never succeeded because we do not scare easily. We never bow, we never break, when confronted with crisis. We endure!”
Overcoming adversity, refusing to let us be defined by our base fears rather than our ambitions — these are the things, Biden argues, that truly make America great.
“I can say, with absolute conviction that I am more optimistic about our chances today than when I was elected as a 29-year-old kid to the Senate,” he says. “The 21st century is going to be the American century. Because we lead not only by example of our power but by the power of our example. That is the history of the journey of Americans.”
This is what liberal patriotism looks like
Is this all a little corny? Yeah, sure. Does it skip over America’s founding sins, like slavery and genocide? Yes, it absolutely does.
But there’s a reason Biden got an audience of liberals to overcome that, and roar with applause. In survey data, the overwhelming majority of Americans say they’re proud to be Americans. Most Americans want to believe the best about their nation at its core, even when things seem rough.
Tonight, Biden found a way to use that pride against Trump. He casts Trump’s criticisms of the current state of American politics as criticisms of the American ideal itself.
He kind of has a point: “Make America Great Again” implies that the country has rotted, that something has gone terribly wrong, that American greatness is entirely over. Given Trump’s overwhelmingly white, heavily male voting base, it’s not exactly a secret as to what they believe has gone wrong in recent years.
Biden, by contrast, sees America’s recent developments as evidence of the continuing strength of the country’s core ideals. Equality, tolerance, diversity, kindness — these are values that America has built on in recent years, in Biden’s telling. And these are the things that make America great.
It’s a similar optimism to his boss’s. President Obama is fond of quoting Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous line: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Obama believes that while America may struggle, and falter, it’s ultimately progressing toward a more just and better society. Biden seems to share this belief.
And he’s harnessed it to a kind of working-class populism, in attempt to expose Trump’s own form of populism to be barren, hateful, and ultimately un-American.
It could be an effective way to dismantle Trump’s slogan.