As the Biden administration settles into the White House, the US is being treated to a presidential aesthetic we have not seen in decades: the boring and bureaucratic solidity of dad taste.
Obama made the White House as close to cool as it has been since the Kennedy administration. Trump made it a place of pointedly vulgar kitsch, a haunted house with blood-red Christmas trees. But Biden’s aesthetic, as ushered in with a Norah Jones-quoting inauguration address and a redecorated Oval Office stuffed with the busts of notables, is one of old-fashioned corniness.
This very corniness, I would like to argue, is the aesthetic that properly belongs to liberal democracy. Its dullness and lack of glamour is democracy’s appropriate response to the brutal drama of fascism, the regimented propaganda of totalitarian communism. It is the aesthetic of a state that devotes itself to people rather than to image control.
It makes me as hopeful as anything that American democracy might be able to heal itself.
The aesthetic of Biden’s young presidency: extremely earnest and extremely on the nose
What, precisely, does it mean to say that the aesthetic taste of the Biden administration is corny?
“It’s trying a little too hard, smiling a little too earnestly, dressing a little too obviously—like Kamala Harris, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama all wearing purple to signal the unity of red and blue, left and right,” wrote Rachel Tashjian at GQ after the inauguration. (Michelle Obama’s stylist, notably, has taken issue with the idea that the former first lady’s outfit was meant to signal any sort of bipartisan aspirations.) “Corniness is quoting Norah Jones in the inaugural address, as President Biden did; corniness is Garth Brooks asking the audience at home to sing along to ‘Amazing Grace’ with him.”
Corniness is, in other words, making all your signifiers a little too on theme, and hammering the point home again and again, past the point of aesthetic pleasure and into a sort of cringey, dad-like earnestness.
That theme continues into Biden’s redecorated Oval Office, which is notable for its many, many significant busts and portraits. The new Oval office features portraits of FDR, to signify leadership in adversity, and Hamilton and Jefferson, to signify the power of competing viewpoints. There’s a portrait of Benjamin Franklin hung next to a moon rock, for science.
There are historic references to different segments of the Democratic base: a bust of Martin Luther King Jr., another of Cesar Chavez, busts of Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks, and a sculpture of Allan Houser of the Chiricahua Apache tribe. This last sculpture was previously owned by Daniel K. Inouye (D-HI), the first Japanese American elected to both houses of Congress, making it a two-for, symbolically speaking.
With the possible exception of the Martin Luther King Jr., bust, most of this art is straightforwardly figurative. It exists not to be art but to be a symbol, and what it is working very hard to symbolize — so hard you can almost see the sweat — is unity, bipartisanship, science-based approaches to the pandemic, and the power of diversity.
Notably, Biden’s Oval Office differs not just from Donald Trump’s Andrew Jackson-referencing decor scheme, but also from Barack Obama’s. Obama, whose aesthetic taste leaned to the highbrow cool, told the Washington Post that he didn’t like to have too many sculptures in the Oval Office. “There are only so many tables where you can put busts — otherwise it starts looking a little cluttered,” he said.
The Biden team does not seem to share those compunctions. They will crowd the Oval Office with as many signifiers of old-fashioned democratic values as they possibly can, and they will not care if it starts to look cluttered or kitschy. That’s the kind of vibe they work with.
It is the same vibe that allows Biden to pepper his speech with folksy formulations like “malarkey,” or for Democrats to discuss a mass donning of aviators at the 2021 inauguration, in a nod to Biden’s signature accessory. Something a little bit embarrassing but basically well-meaning.
It is precisely the inverse of the approach of the Trump administration toward political aesthetics.
Fascism works by giving people aesthetic expression instead of rights. That’s something Trump was very good at.
In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the Frankfurt school philosopher Walter Benjamin argues that “the logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.” Fascism makes politics into a spectacle: rather than dull legislation and bill-signing, politics becomes the police tear-gassing a crowd of peaceful protesters so that a man may be photographed holding a Bible outside of a church that will later denounce him. It becomes a man in ersatz Viking horns climbing onto the speaker’s podium on the floor of the Senate chamber.
Fascism has to render politics an object of aesthetic appreciation, Benjamin argues, because it has no other way to mobilize its base. Fascists depend on the working class for their support, but they have no interest in or intention of doing anything that will actually make the lives of the working class materially better. As Benjamin writes, “Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.” Instead of giving people money or health care, a fascist gives them a photograph that will make them feel something.
There’s a worthwhile academic debate over whether Trump is a fascist or just an authoritarian. But in his time in office, Trump demonstrated the same understanding of the use of the political aesthetic that Benjamin’s fascist does. His power lay not in the material wealth he promised his supporters, but in their sense that the spectacle of Donald Trump in the White House — and specifically spectacles like Donald Trump holding up a Bible outside a church after tear-gassing peaceful protesters to get there — were a victory for their identity group.
“To me it was like, that’s great. Trump is recognizing the Bible, we are one nation under God,” one white evangelical Christian told the New York Times after Trump’s Bible photo op this summer. “He is willing to stand out there and take a picture of it for the country to see.”
He added: “Trump was standing up for Christianity.”
It does not matter to Trump supporters that with this action, Trump was trampling on basic American civil rights. It mattered that he was expressing their emotional and aesthetic wishes through spectacle.
Biden is very bad at giving people aesthetic expression. That could be a good thing.
Joe Biden does not operate using spectacle in the same way Trump did. When Biden reaches for a symbol, he doesn’t tear-gas his way to a church. He consults some advisers and adds another bust to the Oval Office, and the results are generally not aesthetically interesting. They’re kitschy, but not in a particularly fun way. Just kind of in a dull, “Aw, he tried something” way. That’s why he’s peopled his Instagram with the safely conventional content of baby-kissing photos and dad jokes about snowy commutes.
Joe Biden could not create a Trumpian spectacle if he tried. It is very clear that on a fundamental level, he does not know how to do so.
That’s a good thing. Spectacle has a place in the politics of liberal democracy, but only when it is clunky, over-obvious, and focus-grouped within an inch of its life. It is when spectacle subsumes politics and becomes the sole focus of political energy — when the state apparatus stops doing anything to care for the people it is supposed to serve and starts offering them only aesthetically pleasing images — that we are all in trouble.
Instead of offering spectacle, the Biden administration offers the world a soothingly bland and boring aesthetic. And this aesthetic comes with its own dangers. It can be numbing: It offers us a sense of surety and solidity that suggests that nothing truly needs to change, that we have already repaired our damaged social fabric from the Trump era by the simple act of electing Joe Biden. It can obscure the idea that Americans are still suffering — still in the midst of a deadly pandemic, still in the midst of a historic economic crisis — and that the Biden administration will need to enact enormous change to come close to fulfilling its monumental campaign promises.
But in Biden’s failure to summon the spectacle of the Trump presidency, in his embrace of the earnest and the cornball, he offers us something more hopeful. He offers us the possibility of a state that spends its resources on actually making people’s lives better, not just on serving them images that make them feel things.
One way of reading Benjamin’s argument would be to say that a politics so dully practical it has no aesthetic value is a rebuttal to fascism. And if there’s anything I feel comfortable counting on Biden to deliver, it’s that.