The Brooklyn-reared boxing trainer Charley Goldman, who crafted Rocky Marciano, the undefeated heavyweight champ of the nineteen-fifties, once made a wise statement: “Never play a guy at his own game; nobody makes up a game in order to get beat at it.” He meant that there was no point getting into a slugging match with a slugger or a bob-and-weave match with a bob-and-weaver. Instead, do what you do well. Damon Runyon, another New York character of that same wise vintage, said something similar about a different activity: if someone wants to bet you that, if you open a sealed deck of cards, the jack of spades will come out and squirt cider in your ear, don’t take the bet, however tempting the odds. The deck, you can be sure, is gaffed on the other gambler’s behalf. Never play the other guy’s game: it’s the simple wisdom of the corner gym and the gambling den. The other guy’s game is designed for the other guy to win.
An instinctive understanding of this principle was part of the brilliance of Joe Biden’s Presidential campaign—and that we do not think of it as brilliant, despite his decisive victory against an incumbent, is part of its brilliance. Donald Trump invented a game: of bullying, lying, sociopathic selfishness, treachery, and outright gangsterism, doing and saying things that no democratic politician had ever done or even thought of doing, and he did it all in broad daylight. (A notorious line attributed to Nixon—“We can do that, but it would be wrong”—was about paying hush money. Even Nixon wouldn’t pardon his henchmen. Trump did.) It was a game designed for Trump alone to win, but all too many got drawn into it. It was a game that some credit to a Russian model of disinformation but actually seems rooted in old-fashioned American Barnumism, weaponized with John Gotti-style ethics. It was designed, in plain English, to throw out so much crap that no one could ever deal with it all. Trying to bat the crap away, you just got more of it all over you, and meanwhile you were implicitly endorsing its relevance.
Biden, by contrast, insisted that the way to win was not to play. In the face of the new politics of spectacle, he kept true to old-school coalition politics. He understood that the Black Church mattered more in Democratic primaries than any amount of Twitter snark, and, by keeping a low profile on social media, showed that social-media politics was a mirage. Throughout the dark, dystopian post-election months of Trump’s tantrum—which led to the insurrection on January 6th—many Democrats deplored Biden’s seeming passivity, his reluctance to call a coup a coup and a would-be dictator a would-be dictator. Instead, he and his team were remarkably (to many, it seemed, exasperatingly) focussed on counting the votes, trusting the process, and staffing the government.
It looked at the time dangerously passive; it turned out to be patiently wise, for Biden and his team, widely attacked as pusillanimous centrists with no particular convictions, are in fact ideologues. Their ideology is largely invisible but no less ideological for refusing to present itself out in the open. It is the belief, animating Biden’s whole career, that there is a surprisingly large area of agreement in American life and that, by appealing to that area of agreement, electoral victory and progress can be found. [Continue reading…]