Can Biden be a major meaning maker?

There’s a story Joe Biden isn’t telling. This is the most important point.

Writer and activist Heather McGee recently told us something that initially surprised us, but on reflection perfectly embodies our understanding of the communication gap between Biden and the American people — a gap that New poll shows president trailing former president in five key stateseven as Democrats lead in corresponding Senate races.

What McGee discovered has to do with something fundamental about Donald Trump: He tells a story that—whether you disagree with it or not—helps his voters make sense of their lives. He plays within culture, which helps people organize their identities around him. We’ve talked a lot at The Ink this year about why and how the Republican Party can meet the deep emotional needs of Americans in crisis, and McGee’s analysis reveals the mechanisms. In a world that needs star power, Trump delivers. He told a story and asked people to tell their own stories in sequence.


Frankly, Biden won’t do that, or even try to do that. He can talk about infrastructure. He can tell you about removing lead pipes. He can talk about the truly historic investments and progress his policies represent (and they do — whereas Trump has little to offer on that front).But no matter the appeal dark brandon Perhaps Biden himself is not a star or an idol. He does not belong to anyone’s deep-rooted sense of identity, no matter how committed a Democratic voter that person may be. This is a huge missed opportunity. This is something that can change today.

Biden has the responsibility to be the primary meaning maker. If he can’t, the risks are obvious.

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[H]Leaders helping people manage change first require a relationship between leaders and people that does not currently exist outside of Trumpism.

wait. You mean only Donald Trump has this relationship?

Yes. I think Trump is the best example of a leader who creates meaning in people’s lives.

I couldn’t agree more with this, but it’s also crazy to say out loud.

I know right? I know. I know.

But it’s very important. It’s very important that you say that, because who would have thought that this person would do this? But it’s true. Can you unpack that a little bit, because I want people to really understand this?

So Biden simply doesn’t exist in our daily and cultural life, which is actually, I think, worse than him being portrayed as an old man. He is not the incarnation of anything we are or want to be. It is not a brand. He is not a style. He is not a storyteller. He is not a cultural icon or logic, weaving the different things we experience every day into a story.

Donald Trump actually does all of these things for his people. Frankly, Donald Trump would probably do these things for us too, just in opposition. We are a celebrity culture. In our culture, individuals use cultural icons to fill gaps in their lives and knit together a sense of identity, and Obama did that for us.

You’re going to wear Obama gear, and you’re going to show people who you are, who you’re with, and what you see America as, and it makes you feel better. You go to a rally, it’s a religious experience, it’s just a basic level of comparing different presidential candidates.

Of course, there is a deeper meaning to Trump and Trumpism, and that is that he is more than just a presidential candidate. Because he has been a character on reality TV — another important institution we have in this country — he really provides a way for those who identify with him to understand who they belong to, who is the other, and who is against them , who supports them, and what news or any personal phenomenon in their lives — whether it’s factory closings, war in the Middle East or Taylor Swift — means something to them.

Of course, it’s not just Donald Trump. This is the right-wing media ecosystem that both created Donald Trump and is shaped by his missteps, but it’s real. It is religious, it is prosperous, it is inspiring. I don’t think you can say, “Oh, our leaders should help people manage change,” because it sounds weird to even think that Joe Biden can help us manage anxieties about relationships and families.

But Michelle Obama did. She did, right? She does give us advice in a less performer-like way than Trump does because she just actually says the words and takes on an Oprah-like place in many people’s lives. But she offers advice, and she and her marriage and family provide a desirable example. I think we have to understand that to lead effectively you have to be truly involved in people’s lives and help them derive meaning from their daily lives.


I like this very much. Looking beyond this year and these two candidates, I’m wondering if what you’re saying means that, in the future, who’s going to be the Democratic candidate who’s going to be a convincing alternative to American fascism might start to look at Looks like a different profile. If the skills you’re talking about are focused, then he might start to look like a different type of person.

I think they have to be. We are in an attention economy. So in order to be able to capture people’s attention, capture their imagination, capture their attention, and thereby gain their loyalty – and I say this with great sadness as a policy expert – I don’t think it’s just A policy agenda. It’s a personality. What is needed is personality. It’s necessary to understand demand because of how much change is happening, because of how many messages are coming through our phones every minute, and because of how fragmented our media landscape is.

Leaders need to understand how to be the framework through which people filter the world and how to be the cultural home where people feel safe and protected. I understand this because Trump, Modi, and others are more effective than anyone else right now, and because there is something scary about the idea of ​​such a cult that progressives might feel uncomfortable with. But that’s why I mention Obama, and I also mention Bernie and others, whose breakthroughs mean not just a policy agenda but an identity and an aspirational identity. We can access it.

As you speak, I’m drawing a diagram in my head. It’s almost like there are two different models. One of them is an example of people, voters, figuring out what’s going on in the world here and then voting for a leader and pulling the levers of the leader over there.

What you’re suggesting might be a newer, more modern phenomenon for a world without Walter Cronkite, where the divide between these two things has actually disappeared, even if people haven’t realized it yet to this point. In this case, the leader is both how you evaluate what’s going on in the world and who you document your preferences with.

Donald Trump understands his responsibilities on both fronts. He’s a guy asking you to vote, but he’s also telling you how to understand what’s going on. People like Joe Biden have almost no interest in the realm of second things. That’s not necessarily how he sees his job.

I think this is right.


Read our full interview, Heather McGee’s comprehensive analysis of the crisis in democratic politics, and what this country could look like if we could face up to historical wrongs and invest in the future of all Americans.

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Photograph: Madeline Gray for The Washington Post via Getty Images

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