Donald Trump has not received enough votes to remain President of the United States. Joseph R. Biden Jr. received enough votes, in the states that matter, to be insulated from recounts and legal challenges. Blessedly, very few major right-wing figures are urging Trump to challenge the result, and at this point it is not clear how he could; thus, despite Trump’s refusal to admit the legitimacy of the election, it appears there will indeed be a peaceful transfer of power. So, on Wednesday, 20 January 2021, Donald Trump will no longer be president; Joe Biden will. And I expect most people reading this, inside and outside the United States, will breathe a sigh of relief.
The 2020 election campaign was a referendum on Trump, with his opponent something of an afterthought. According to polls, about 67% of Biden supporters considered their vote primarily against Trump rather than for Biden; about 71% of Trump supporters considered their vote primarily for Trump rather than against Biden. As for Biden, he had trailed in the Democratic primary field for a long time, behind the more exciting candidacies of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, after he turned in lacklustre debate performances that left no one enthusiastic about him. He trailed, that is, until two moderate candidates suddenly dropped out and endorsed him, because they prioritized beating Trump and thought a moderate like Biden was better equipped to do it than their other rivals were. Then, campaigning against Trump during the COVID pandemic, Biden kept a light schedule and campaigned from home. The election was never about him – and that worked well for him.
Now, though, it is not merely the case that Trump has lost. Biden has also won. And so now it is Biden’s turn in the spotlight, a turn he has earned. That turn began with his acceptance speech, which I watched with my wife last night. The speech made substantive points about the policy and other directions in which Biden intends to take the country. But I also noticed a significant number of what might well be called platitudes.
And I think that’s a good thing.
Consider these words of Biden’s:
You see, I believe in the possibility of this country. We’re always looking ahead…. Ahead to an America that never gives up, never gives in. This is a great nation. And we are a good people. This is the United States of America. And there has never been anything we haven’t been able to do when we’ve done it together.
I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify…. I will work as hard for those who didn’t vote for me – as those who did…. Our nation is shaped by the constant battle between our better angels and our darkest impulses. It is time for our better angels to prevail.
The Oxford Languages definition of “platitude”, which comes up on Google Search, is “a remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful.” This definition seems to characterize these remarks of Biden’s perfectly. Ideas about the optimism and unity of the USA are boring commonplaces that have been repeated throughout Americans’ lives.
Yet they come at a time when the US needs them, because of the impulse of Biden’s predecessor to shatter such commonplaces. George W. Bush (whom I hated) had said after September 11 that “Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect.” That sounded like a platitude: of course the president’s going to say that. But Trump proclaimed, in the face of contrary evidence, that “There were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey, where you have large Arab populations. They were cheering as the World Trade Center came down.” And sure enough, hate crimes against Muslims rose with Trump’s rise in popularity. You would also think it would be a platitude to say that Nazis are bad. But Trump has shown a remarkable reluctance to do it.
Biden’s platitudes, by contrast, are boring — and that is exactly what America needs and voted for. The referendum defeated a man who is the opposite. Trump once destroyed Jeb Bush’s candidacy by portraying him as a “low-energy person”, but the similar label of “Sleepy Joe” never stuck to Biden. At this point, we could use a low-energy person who isn’t very interesting.
Sometimes, then, platitudes are platitudes for a reason. Consider again the definition of “platitude” as “a remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful.” It seems like a condemnation to say that a remark is not interesting or thoughtful because of its commonness – but sometimes being interesting or thoughtful is not the point! Rather, the point is likely to be – the moral content. You’re not saying this to be interesting or thoughtful. You’re saying it to inspire people to be better. (I remember the conservative Canadian writer Christie Blatchford dismissing Jack Layton’s deathbed letter as full of platitudes. She wasn’t wrong, exactly, but was definitely missing the point.)
Platitudes are smarm, against snark. They express optimism and self-improvement. And yes, since they are the preserve of politicians and other institutional leaders, they can often be used cynically for far less ethical goals by those who don’t even believe them. (You can find words of optimism and unity in Trump speeches if you look for them.) So we need snark, we need irony and critical thinking and even cynicism. But we need the smarm too. We need the appeal to our better angels. For we, in the US anyway, have spent too many years seeing what happens without them.