Magazine | April 16, 2018, Issue

Make America High School Again

Joe Biden speaks to the International Association of Fire Fighters, July 25, 2012.

On the left, it’s all about fighting President Trump. But who wants to really fight him? Who wants not merely to block his judicial appointees but to pound him into the dirt? Who desires not only to scuttle his immigration policy but to introduce a well-aimed fist to the bridge of the presidential nose? Who, in short, hates Trump the most and can most ably demonstrate it?

Step forward, Joe Biden. “If we were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him,” Biden said at the University of Miami on March 20. Biden paused theatrically to allow the crowd to whoop and applaud at this remark, which was the second time he’d publicly alluded to beating up Trump, and so his later disavowal rang a bit hollow: On a podcast days later, Biden said, “I shouldn’t have said what I said. I shouldn’t have brought it up again because I don’t want to get down in the mosh pit with this guy.” Since mosh pits are for a punk-rock variety of dancing, not beatings, and nobody wants to see Biden dancing with Trump, especially in ripped-up Green Day T-shirts and nose rings, I suggest that, in his next three or four presidential campaigns, Biden avoid attempted hipness as strenuously as the speeches of Neil Kinnock.

Trump, never one to allow the fools’ parade to go by without rushing to the head of it, responded in character, tweeting, “Crazy Joe Biden is trying to act like a tough guy. Actually, he is weak, both mentally and physically, and yet he threatens me, for the second time, with physical assault. He doesn’t know me, but he would go down fast and hard, crying all the way. Don’t threaten people Joe!”

I doubt even actual high-school kids talk this way anymore (more likely, young Dashiell pursues his savage feud with Timothée by posting Instagram pictures of the latter labeled “BASIC BRO”). The Trump–Biden talk is the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from guys wearing leather motorcycle jackets labeled “T-Birds.” Except this felt like Grease as staged by the Grumpy Old Men. Biden is 75 and Trump 71. One wag on Twitter dubbed their prospective bout “the Brawl on Geritol.” Others pointed out that when a notable actual fighting opportunity — the Vietnam War — presented itself, both of these men proved more Poindexter than Patton. Each obtained five draft deferments.

Apart from a bit of clucking by the killjoys (“This is not how leaders are supposed to talk,” said CNN’s Jake Tapper, who probably also thinks a president shouldn’t brag about the size and power of the nuclear button on his desk), America reacted enthusiastically to the proposed Joe-and-Donnybrook. Come on, be honest, wouldn’t you love to see these two blowhards forced to shut up and speak with their fists for once? The single-combat method seems to work for Wakanda. “Biden Supporters Are Thrilled over His Fight with Trump,” ran a headline in The Hill. On ABC’s all-female talk show The View, which is not ordinarily preoccupied with handicapping the fight scene, Joy Behar was aglow with anticipation: “I think Biden would beat him. You know, this guy [Trump] can’t even go to the bathroom without a golf cart.” Her colleague Sunny Hostin added that there was “something chivalrous” about Biden’s eagerness to flatten the president (which was made in the context of disgust with Trump’s uncouth remarks about women). “Trump is such a bully,” she said. “I almost — and I hate to say this. You know, why hasn’t anybody taken him out back and kicked his little butt?” Remember when the Democrats’ motto was “When they go low, we go high”? It didn’t catch on, did it? Now it’s “Trump is crude, unpresidential, inappropriate. If only we could beat him up!”

The rhetoric, it burns. You can bet that the Democrats’ next presidential nominee will be furious rather than mollifying. But is Trump the cause or merely the symptom of our clenched-fist politics? It’s the Jerry Springer question: Did the show create the audience or merely reveal its existence?

Labeling Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s supporters the “brutish” and the “nice,” respectively, the late Peter Augustine Lawler wrote in National Affairs that niceness works well enough for most women and a certain kind of man. Other men — spirited men, who value physical labor and manly discipline — get left behind and sense oozing condescension and pity trickling down from Nice America. “The key objection to niceness amounts to the fact that it’s not really a virtue,” Lawler noted. “A nice person won’t fight for you; a nice person wouldn’t even lie for you, unless there’s something in it for him.” How often have you heard a Trump fan use the phrase “At least he fights”? At times it appears that all he does is fight, an ornery octopus with a boxing glove on each tentacle, whirling blows on everyone from nuclear-armed adversaries to NFL players. Democrats mock and scorn everything he does, but they also seek to emulate him.

Unbecoming though it may be for Biden and Trump to offer each other a platter of knuckle sandwiches, their feud is a reminder of how the realities of constitutional government frustrate grand presidential ambitions. Trump voters realize the Big, Beautiful Wall™ is never going to be built, just as President Obama’s fans knew he wasn’t going to expunge America’s sins. If the president’s primary function is, for most, symbolic, effectively smack-talking the other side is much more gratifying than signing a boring budget bill.

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