In Stephen King’s novel It, Pennywise the Dancing Clown lures children into the sewer with balloons and promises of fun. That might not be the most subtle analogy for the Trump era, but it’s one that’s occurred to me about a hundred times in the last few years. Trump was a reality TV host with a penchant for getting into entertaining feuds. He plowed through the Republican field in 2016 by acting like an insult comic and by playing to both ugly prejudices and legitimate economic fears.
As president, he hasn’t literally eviscerated anyone like Pennywise, but he has separated families at the border, fulfilled his campaign pledge to deal with foreign enemies by “bomb[ing] the shit out of them,” and mismanaged the COVID-19 crisis so horrifically that one study projects that we’ll reach half a million deaths by the end of February. And he’s acted like a clown while he’s done it all.
The Pennywise Presidency
Other presidents have committed worse crimes (though, the COVID-19 disaster is certainly up there). But most of them strained, however unconvincingly, to present themselves as reasonable and compassionate people. Bill Clinton might have declared that the era of big government is over and championed “welfare reform,” but at least he reassured us that he felt our pain. George W. Bush cluster-bombed and invaded multiple countries and surveilled and detained Muslims in America, but he held White House iftar dinners and talked about the importance of religious tolerance and his admiration for Islam as a religion.
Barack Obama expanded and deepened some of Bush’s most disturbing “war on terror” policies. But he was perpetually calm, manifestly intelligent, and consistently exuded a sense of decency on an interpersonal level.
Then there’s Trump. As a candidate for president, he responded to debate moderator Megyn Kelly’s pointed questions by saying that she had “blood coming out of her wherever.” Throughout his term, he’s often had trouble condemning outright fascists and praised QAnon conspiracy theorists.
Next month, Trump will be replaced by a career politician who won’t do any of those things. It’s not hard to understand why so many commentators are jubilant — and why they respond badly when anyone tells them things about the president-elect they don’t want to hear.
Why not just be happy? The evil clown is gone. Everything can return to normal.
What “Back To Normal” Looks Like
So far, Biden’s appointments include a “climate czar” who, as Branko Marcetic writes, “enthusiastically supported the expansion of US fossil fuel exploitation,” an energy secretary “who not just opposes the Green New Deal, but who sits on the board of one of the country’s worst fossil fuel polluters,” and a director of the Office of Management and Budget who floated the idea of stealing Libya’s oil money to pay for the US war to overthrow Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
If going back to “normal” means going back to the way things were before January 20, 2017, Biden’s appointments do represent a return to normal. That anti–Green New Deal appointee for energy secretary is Ernest Moniz, who served in the same position in the Obama White House. Neera Tanden’s deranged idea of forcing Libya to pay for the privilege of being destroyed by the United States didn’t come to pass, but the destruction itself happened in Obama’s first term. The pro-fracking climate czar was his second-term secretary of state.
During the Obama years, no one at the White House referred to Haiti as a “shithole country.” But Obama’s State Department collaborated with contractors for Fruit of the Loom, Hanes, and Levi’s to pressure the Haitian government to drop a plan to raise the minimum wage from 22 cents an hour to the princely sum of 62 cents an hour — which would have worked out to all of $5 a day.
Nobody on Obama’s team called climate change a “Chinese hoax.” But Ernest Moniz was energy secretary, and the administration pursued an “all of the above” energy plan that eighteen environmental groups called “a compromise that future generations cannot afford.”
By the time that letter was written, out-of-control climate change had already created consequences that this generation couldn’t afford. Drying and drought played a significant role in sparking the Syrian civil war, which produced millions of refugees. Extreme weather buffeted cities, towns, and coasts around the world.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration continued to pursue trade policies that ravaged the Rust Belt. It spent years doing very little to curb police violence in places like Ferguson, which exploded in the summer of 2014. And it never came up with a more convincing answer to the plight of unemployed coal miners than to plant some “technology training centers” in Appalachia — essentially, Obama told them to stop complaining and learn how to code.
As hard as this is to remember, Obama himself was welcomed by liberals as a “return to normal” after the disastrous Bush years. But Obama didn’t somehow turn back the clock to the days before neoliberalism or catastrophic climate change. Instead, he helped shore up an economic and political order — particularly in his handling of the foreclosure crisis and the broader economic recession — that helped give us Donald Trump.
Back To Brunch?
Policy specifics aside, many people who pine for Obama and dream of a return to “normalcy” under Biden are pining for the way politics felt in the Obama years. As a notorious sign put it, “If Hillary Was President We’d All Be At Brunch.”
I have nothing against brunch. I, too, like omelets and mimosas and the company of friends. But the idea that everything will go so smoothly during the Biden years that the shadow of politics needn’t disturb the thoughts of anyone trying to enjoy a good brunch is both dangerous and delusional.
It’s dangerous because if we could recreate the conditions that prevailed in the Obama years, those very conditions helped spawn Donald Trump. It’s delusional because the underlying dynamics of our savagely unequal society had already made the kind of politics where nothing seems at stake impossible well before the end of the Obama presidency. Occupy Wall Street exploded during the lead-up to the 2012 election. Black Lives Matter erupted in 2014. And frustrations with the status quo found expression in electoral politics by 2016 in the twin alternatives of the genuinely populist Bernie Sanders campaign and the pseudo-populist demagogue Donald Trump.
In It, Pennywise’s reign of terror in the town of Derry was part of a cycle. For twenty-seven years, the shape-shifting entity that sometimes manifested itself as Pennywise the Dancing Clown would sleep, and then for a year Pennywise — or however “it” was manifesting itself — would feed on the children.
Trump may run for president again in 2024 or 2028. Or the next Trump might be Tom Cotton or Josh Hawley. The GOP has no shortage of evil clowns. But if we “go back to brunch,” trusting in the competence of the reigning neoliberal technocrats instead of building a socialist alternative to them, we won’t get anything like a twenty-seven-year rest before the cycle begins again.