No one ever said the campaign trail is paved with gold. Au contraire, this dead-end road should be marked by a sign reading, “Pavement Ends”. Obviously, we can still travel the road, but only with the knowledge that it’s reckless to do so—and the risk will be especially pronounced if we’ve been blessed with peaceful journeys hitherto. Consider what I experienced over the very long Fourth of July weekend: I followed Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign from the southern tip of New Hampshire to the northern and then back, all the while listening as a major party candidate contrasted the carefree promise of the American Dream with its grim manifestation in the modern world. For four days, I embraced a splendid antidote to shameless pseudo-patriotism, and I still felt hale and enthusiastic six days later, when I embarked on a trip to Atkinson, where Joe Biden was holed up in someone’s living room.
Long before I started my car, I knew I would be in for a serious downswing. I knew there wouldn’t be any serious, thoughtful criticism of the Trump Administration; honestly, there couldn’t be, not when so many of Trump’s policies are in accord with Obama’s, and, by extension, Biden’s. Rather than expose himself as one of Trump’s many intellectual precursors, Biden would take some cheap shots at the president, deliver a couple of hypocritical insults, and then congratulate himself on his many meaningless accomplishments as Vice-President of the United States. So, in other words, I was perfectly aware that a rally for Biden would be very, very different from an adult conversation with Gabbard. What I did not appreciate was how badly Gabbard had spoiled me during her time in New Hampshire, though I would presently understand the extent of my pampering.
I arrived in Atkinson almost thirty minutes early. I couldn’t take any chances, especially since I’d never visited this town before. It’s less than six miles away from the Massachusetts border, which might be good to know, should I ever return. Not that I ever see myself returning here, to the home of Kate Delfino, a woman of whom I’d never heard before, but who, evidently, was vanquished in her recent quest to represent Rockingham County in the New Hampshire House. To find her house, you had to zigzag through all of these beautiful backroads. You have to wonder what the property taxes run in a place like this—but then again, being a native of Alton, perhaps I shouldn’t play the part of the noble peasant.
Anyway, the gig was advertised as a “house party”, but in my experience, a house party involves entering the house at some point in the day. For example, we actually entered the house when we went to Tulsi Gabbard’s house party in Windham earlier that week. Unfortunately, we were barred access to the Delfino home, and instead, we stood in their backyard and looked to the porch, where Joe Biden would eventually be speaking. Obviously, I wasn’t offended to be standing outside, but at the same time, a “house party” is an appealing sell because it implies a degree of intimacy with the candidate, a chance to get up close and personal, you know? A chance to pose for pictures, ask a surprise question about Venezuela, etc. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect so much from the former vice-president, who will, of course, enjoy Secret Service shielding for the rest of his natural life, and maybe I’m pettifogging over the description, but still, I have to say: I was kind-of disappointed.
With plenty of time to kill, I waded my way through the crowd and waited for someone to ask me about my hat. Finally, someone did: a woman in her forties, who was being directed by someone in Biden’s staff to move “further northwest”, so as to make room for the other people flooding the backyard. She asked if I was part of the press, to which I replied: “Only if you count something as modest as a blog. What about you? Any affiliations?”
She had nothing to declare, but her friend was ignoring her repeated attempts to talk about politics. Hence she turned to me: the most popular person in the world is the guy who will listen to people as they express their opinions. I asked this woman, whom we will call Megara, which of the twenty candidates she preferred. “Is Biden your favorite, or is there someone else in mind?”
She pursed her lips. “Well, I mean, I like Biden a lot, but I don’t know if he . . . like . . . I mean, I just want to vote for whoever will beat Trump. All we need to worry about is who’s gonna be the best candidate.”
“The best candidate being the one who has the greatest chance to beat Trump?”
“Correct. I will vote for literally anyone but Trump. I would vote for Mitt Romney. I’d vote for John Kasich!”
“And do you believe that Biden has the best chance to beat him?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I would say so.”
“Why would you say so?”
“Well . . . I mean . . . like . . . all of the polls . . . they . . . all of the polls say that he’s got the best chance of beating Trump. So, even though he’s not my first choice, I’ll probably vote for him.”
“But it doesn’t sound like you’re especially enthusiastic about it.”
“Well, he wouldn’t be my first choice.”
“Who would be?”
“Um . . . well, see, I’d love to see a woman in there.”
“But it doesn’t have to be a woman. I mean, I like Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, but not just because they’re women. See, I really like Mayor Pete.”
“What about Bernie Sanders?”
“Uh . . . see, I really liked Bernie back in 2016, but I don’t really like him now. I mean, that whole brand of Democratic Socialism . . . like, I don’t know if healthcare is something that people should just get for free. But all that aside, I don’t think I’d vote for him just because I don’t think that his form of Democratic Socialism . . . I don’t think the country’s ready for that just yet, you know? So, I think I’d probably have to vote for Biden.”
You can mock this woman if you like, but I didn’t transcribe her meandering commentary to get a cheap laugh. On the contrary, I applaud her for articulating (much more successfully than could I) the astonishing absurdity of Biden’s dominance in the polls. There is no coherent explanation for this ubiquitous delusion that Biden has the strongest chance of beating Trump. Where do we base this brazen supposition, one which lacks even the emotional intensity of a superstition? In the first place, let us dispense with the notion, with the lie, that candidates “beat” each other. That doesn’t happen. One group of voters overpowers another. It’s not a matter of a candidate “winning”; it’s a matter of people voting for that candidate.
So, if we’re going to say that Biden has the best chance of beating Trump, then what we are really saying is that more people will vote for Biden than Trump. However, we haven’t discovered why those people will vote for Biden. Because they think Biden will “win”? It’s been a few years since I aced that class in quantitative reasoning, but I believe this is a case of petitio principii, is it not? “The polls”, those monolithic polls, tell us that Biden has the best chance of “beating” Trump, so we vote for Biden. You might not want to think about this too long, or else you’ll start to feel like a fictional character who just discovered the fourth wall.
I mean, seriously: the lack of agency assumed in this process is almost too embarrassing for words. And you could see it reflected in the people who attended this house party; Megara wasn’t the only person to explain that, while she would prefer a sizeable number of candidates to Biden, she will vote for him in obedience to realpolitik. What would Sophocles say about this tragic inevitability? It reminds me of that Louis C.K. skit wherein he talked about how no one likes going to Cinnabon; people go despite an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame. Well, Joe Biden is the Cinnabon of presidential elections: even the people who stand in the sweltering heat of a July afternoon to listen to him speak can’t be bothered to disguise their apathy.
Oh, yeah: Joe Biden made a speech. At least, I think he did. He showed up—I swear to God—with a pair of sunglasses that he refused to remove, demonstrating the kind of interpersonal indifference to which Hillary Clinton can only aspire. It was a pretty ironic look for a man who would proceed to talk about the need to “restore our dignity … We need to restore the soul of this country. Uh, I really mean that.” Perhaps he does, in fact, “really mean that”, but his slipshod approach to public speaking is plainly unacceptable in the Trumpish Age. You can’t just dole out the same threadbare platitudes, punctuate them with claims to sincerity, and expect people to march in the streets for your cause.
What is his cause? Well, like most of the other candidates—he made a couple of jokes during the day about there being “hundreds of other Democrats running”—he is trying to convey a dignified disgust with the Trump Administration. He complains that Trump is “not holding corporations accountable for polluting the environment”, although he makes no mention of the aggressive steps that he took as Vice-President to transition America to a green economy. He bemoans the “sinful” manner in which Trump is treating immigrants, declaring that such conduct “is not who we are.” That assertion is particularly rich, as the Obama Administration separated thousands of children from their parents, and some of those families were never reunited: as Rania Khalek explained in a powerful recent video, some of those abducted children were adopted by Americans, never to see their parents again.
I spent most of this rally, as well as the subsequent rally in Londonderry, struggling to process one terrible fact: I was standing in the presence of a war criminal. This is a man who, in collusion with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and many others besides, oversaw the murder of 40,000 Libyans. He terrorized many other countries during his time in the Oval Office, but for some reason, Libya weighed most heavily on my mind as I looked into his face, or that part of his face that was visible amidst the sunglasses. Here was a man who left so much devastation and destruction in his wake, rambling before an audience of a few hundred, impatiently requesting that they bestow on him the power to ruin even more lives around the world. Ugh, the unimaginable depths of his fantasies of carnage; how bloodthirsty must Joe Biden if his lust is unslaked by so many thousands of corpses?
Oh, and you’ll never believe his explanation for his vote in support of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq: “I voted for that bill because I believed that all it would do is allow nuclear inspectors to go into Iraq.” Yeah, you read that correctly: he’s telling us, all of these years after the fact, that he thought the invasion of Iraq was all about sending in Hans Blix with a magnifying glass. It sounds like a crude joke I conjured up after too many bottles of Sam Adams, but this is the world we live in: Donald Trump is President, Julian Assange is in prison, and Joe Biden is pretending that he thought the invasion of Iraq was all about diplomatic science.
There is a reason why I was able to take such a wide, sweeping shot of the crowd in Atkinson. At the beginning of Biden’s speech, I was standing at the cordoning rope, probably less than twenty feet away from the man himself. I was taking my notes, doing nothing differently from what I do at any event such as this, when one of Biden’s staffers shoved my shoulder and asked: “What are you doing? Are you part of the press?” I told him the same thing I told Megara, to which he replied: “Did you register?” I told him that I already registered twice—once online, once in person—and he told me that, if I was writing for a blog, then I needed to stand in the press box. He sent one of his underlings, a girl who looked like she was still in college, to escort me there. Once inside, penned off from the rest of the audience, I waited for my turn on the end of the platform labelled “Rotating Stills”.
When I finally had my chance to rise and take a shot, another one of Biden’s watchdogs asked me what I was doing. “Are you part of the press?”
At that point, I was rapidly losing patience. “Yes, and you are the third person I’ve had to explain this to. I’m writing for a blog, I’ve registered twice. Do you need anything else from me today?”
“What website do you write for?”
I pointed to the brim of my hat. I was about to ask him why he didn’t say anything when I entered the press box initially, but he turned around, muttering to himself, and found one of his cohorts. I have no idea if they were talking about me, or if they were simply shooting the breeze, but in any case, the watchdog never came back. Not that it mattered, as Biden wrapped things up after just a few questions and then proceeded to walk along the cordoning rope, pausing for just long enough to shake some people’s hands, though never stopping to remove the shades.
After escaping Atkinson, I was off to Londonderry. I stopped for some Chinese food and a couple of Cuba Libres before arriving at Mack’s Apples, an epic orchard hidden just off the highway. The orchard was closed, but a large barn was open, and Biden’s crew was decorating the interior with their candidate’s placards. On my way inside, I had a discussion with a gentleman, maybe five or ten years older than I, who, like Megara, was hoping to vote for the candidate with the best chance of beating Trump. He asked if I had seen any other candidates, so I told him: “Yeah, I’ve seen Sanders, Warren, Yang, Gillibrand, Klobuchar, Delaney, and Gabbard.”
He grimaced. “Eek. Tulsi Gabbard.”
“Why? What’s wrong with her?”
“What, are you kidding me? Everything. The way she sucks up to dictators, the way she hates gay people.”
“She doesn’t hate gay people,” I said. “She wrote against gay marriage fifteen years ago.”
“What? And that’s a good thing?”
I rolled my eyes. “Did you happen to catch the second night of the debates? Biden’s been in office for longer than either of us have been alive. Something tells me his views on gay marriage have changed over the years.”
“Yeah, he changed his mind. He wasn’t spending every waking minute of his political career bashing gay people, saying they were disgusting . . .”
“Neither did Tulsi Gabbard. Where did you read that, anyway?”
“Well, that aside, the stuff she says about dictators. It’s awful.”
“She doesn’t suck up to dictators,” I said. “She just doesn’t think we need to go to war with Russia, Iran, or Turkey.”
Now, he rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well, that shows how much she knows about foreign policy.”
Joe Biden arrived more than twenty minutes late, spoke very briefly, took no questions, descended to walk along the cordoning rope, and proceeded to exit. His speech hardly differed from the one he delivered in Atkinson, so I don’t have a whole lot to tell you about it. I will say, however, that he went after Trump’s supporters, and not just the president himself, towards the end of his speech: “They may vote for him because they hate immigrants, because they hate women, whatever.” His point was that no presidential candidate can claim to have a platform that will truly unite the country, and that there are some people who will simply refuse to accept a better message, irrespective of the abundant superiority of that message. Personally, I couldn’t stop thinking about Mitt Romney’s notorious “47 percent” claim, which may very well have cost him the election in 2012.
The last thing I will say before I wrap up this unpleasant piece is that, roughly halfway into Biden’s speech, a member of his staff moved through the crowd and stood directly in front of me. He kept his arms folded behind his back and applauded with his hands behind him, which was one of the weirdest gestures I have ever seen. I don’t know if he did it on purpose, if he wanted to obstruct my view for some reason, presumably because of what had happened in Atkinson, but at that point, I was too tired to argue. The best I can do is to immortalize the back of his head, for now, and for posterity.